A Debt from the Past

Written by Beryl Matthews
Review by Nanette Donohue

Elizabeth Langton and Helen Denton are close childhood friends, now grown up. When Helen’s father commits suicide because of mounting gambling debts, Elizabeth invites Helen to live with her. Helen, too proud to accept charity, agrees to serve as Elizabeth’s paid companion. All seems to be in order, then Elizabeth gets some tragic news of her own—her guardian, Lord Edward Sharland, has died unexpectedly. As Elizabeth is not yet of age, a new guardian has been appointed—Lord Sharland’s cocky young son, James, who seems intent on upending Elizabeth’s peaceful life. Elizabeth’s choices for escaping this guardianship are limited: she can marry, or she can tolerate James’s presence in her life for one year, until she is twenty-one.

There’s more to James Sharland than Elizabeth expected, and the duo’s stubborn clashes cause tension on the family estate. Then Sharland’s friend Daniel Edgemont appears, and the situation becomes even more muddled. Soon, Elizabeth finds herself drawn to Daniel, and Helen’s attraction to James becomes impossible to hide. As the couples grow closer, a dark family secret arises that could destroy their happiness.

Though set in 1850, there’s no distinct historical context to this novel—if some of the superficial details were changed, it could just as easily be set in 1780 or 1910. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and each of them comes with their own melodramatic backstory. The ending is tidy but rushed, and relies too much on coincidence. By the time the plot finally gets moving, the book is finished.