The Vanished Days


Susanna Kearsley


Historical Fiction


Date Reviewed:

November 26, 2021

had heard of Susanna Kearsley, and I knew she was hugely popular, but had never read any of her works. When I saw The Vanished Days on the New In Paperback shelf at our library, I decided to check it out and see if I like her writing. Would it be a dull romance, or would it be an enthralling historical? Happily for me, it is a historical novel, and I enjoyed the book. I will now look for other books by her, it looks the The Vanished Days is actually a prequel to a previously published book called The Firebird, so I should look for that next.

The Vanished Days is set in Scotland at the beginning of the 18th century. A commission asks Sergeant Adam Williamson and investigator Gilroy to investigate the claim of Lily Aitchesin that she was married to James Graeme. James Graeme perished on the expedition to Darian, and now the government is handing out funds to the families of those who died on that ill-fated voyage. Lily Aitchesin says that she was secretly married to James Graeme, but can produce no witnesses, though she does have a marriage certificate. But marriage certificates can be forged. Gilroy is skeptical of Lily's claim, but Sergeant Williamson finds himself attracted to Lily, and perhaps his judgement is skewed by her charms?

Gilroy and Williamson interview people who knew Lily at various points in her lifetime. It is from these interviews that the reader gets Lily's entire life story, from childhood until now. I found it an interesting story. Kearsley describes life in Scotland in astonishing detail. The book reads as if Kearsley herself lived in those times. I am not saying that the book is burdened with boring details; rather, the descriptions include details that sound so authenticate that the whole story seems more believable. Kearsley will mention a place, describe some mannerism, or some way of speaking that rings true. It makes Scotland of four hundred years ago come alive. I already wanted to visit Scotland some day, this novel just makes such a trip more enticing.

At the end of the edition that I read, Kearsley gives an overview of the research that went into writing the book. It is extensive! The thorough research makes her depiction of Scotland easy for the reader to imagine - for example, when the characters walk along a beach, Kearsley will say that the beach is where the horse races are held - a detail that may not occur to someone just inventing a beach scene of their head, but I have no doubt that there really were horse races on that beach. In the novel, shady characters meet at the tomb of Regent Murray, and I am sure that such a monument exists and that it was indeed a location for secretive dealings. The Cross Keys tavern, where members of Parliament gather to drink and politic after sessions, also sounds authentic. Through the course of Lily's life, we see the class system, the religious intolerance, the harsh treatment of unwed mothers, working children and the selling of people into servitude for ten years of harsh labor in the Caribbean - the entire 18th century Scottish culture comes alive.

The central mystery of whether or not Lily's claim is true carries the novel forward, but there are numerous characters introduced and a lot of subplots. Lily's claim is just fifteen pounds, hardly a significant sum, and yet the case seems to have drawn the attention of powerful Scottish aristocrats - why?

One thing that puzzled me was the religious antagonism between the various churches. I am familiar with the centuries-long strife between Protestants and Catholics, but in Scotland, the religious conflict seems to be between the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians. I thought that Lily's family was Catholics, so naturally Protestant Scottish citizens hated them. There also seems to be a sect called the Jacobites, which Lily and her friends are sympathetic with, so it must be Catholic. The politics of this book would be clearer if I knew some Scottish history. The king seems to be William of Orange, from the Netherlands, but there always seems to be an invasion imminent from France that never occurs. But even without understanding all the historical background, I enjoyed this story of Lily and Sergeant Williamson. I hope to read more of Kearsley's books.