Savannah Purchase (by Jane Aiken Hodge)

'Savannah Purchase' is probably the first book I ever read by Jane Aiken Hodge. I enjoyed it as a teenager, I enjoyed it it ten years later... and I've just read it for the third time, twenty years on again. It was excellent, and I could hardly bear to put it down once I'd started. I had forgotten quite how good it is.

The story is set in the historical period when Napoleon was imprisoned on St Helena's, and is mostly set in the USA. The plot is unlikely, and potentially clich├ęd since it features two almost identical cousins (the daughters of idential twins) who switch places. A favourite device with many authors. Yet it works so well that I can't fault the novel.

For one thing, the cousins are very unlike in character. Josephine, the elder by three years, is impetuous, easily angered, rather selfish at times, and utterly devoted to the Napoleonic cause. She wants to use her fortune to buy a ship, and attempt to free the great emperor. But if she vanishes, her husband Hyde (in a marriage of convenience) would find her. So she persuades her much nicer - and poverty-stricken - cousin Juliet to take her place, just for a short period.

Juliet is very reluctant, but a good actress, and soon fits in her new role, aided only by Anne, the one servant who is in the secret. Her tastes are quite different from her cousin's despite such similar looks, but she adapts and all would be well, except that - of course! - she starts to fall in love with Hyde.

I had entirely forgotten almost all the details of the book, although about half-way through I had a vague memory of the event that would trigger the final conclusion. Knowing this rather added to my enjoyment rather than the reverse, as I was able to spot the clues sprinkled by the author which prepared the way for the revelation to come. Even if I had remembered everything in the book, I think I would have enjoyed it, so I hope I'll get around to re-reading it for the fourth time before another twenty years has gone by.

It's light historical fiction - a little more depth than Georgette Heyer's, perhaps, though without the irony and humour. Great characters, exciting sub-plots, and satisfying ending. Highly recommended, if you can find it: no longer in print, but often available second-hand.

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