Secrets To Keep
Secrets to Keep, Sheila Holland, 1980Secrets To Keep was published in 1980 by Playboy Press under Charlotte Lamb's real name of Sheila Holland. This was yet another annus mirabilis for my mother, in which she published about 12 books all told, as I recall, an almost unbelievable feat of stamina and creativity. This particular novel, a 100,000 word Victorian romantic saga, follows the story of Sophia, wealthy heiress, and the two men embroiled in a deadly rivalry for her affections - Stonor and Wolfe.
Stonor is a man of business, cold and practical, but determined to cement their relationship in a marriage that will guarantee the survival of his inheritance, Queen's Stonor, one of the great houses of England, elegant but decaying. Wolfe is his illegitimate brother, charming but always involved in some disreputable scheme, furious that he will not inherit Queen's Stonor himself. The two young men have always loathed each other and Sophia's entrance into their world provides them with an excuse for their silent enmity to break into open hostility.
Sophia herself falls head over heels in love with Wolfe, but she knows the relationship is doomed; her father wishes her to marry Stonor and she will not hurt him by refusing. But this being one of my mother's books, the story does not end there but escalates into a passionate epic of love, jealousy and revenge.
Extracts from Secrets To Keep (Playboy Press 1980)
'She stood beside the bed, washing her hot face with water from the ivy-patterned basin which stood on a marble washstand, trying to restore herself to some semblance of calm. Drying her hands and face, she blew out her candle and slid into bed.
Out in the park, an owl hooted, a slow, melancholy sound which sent a shiver down her back. Wolfe was out there, waiting for her. She heard the distant row of feathered wings, the tiny shriek of a mouse or vole caught in the inexorable talons, and her heart closed with dread. When Stonor looked at her, she felt like that - a helpless creature trapped and waiting for him to consume her.
Wolfe did not see the slender figure flit from patch to patch of shadow. On the smooth turf her feet made no sound. She halted a foot away in the darkness, and Wolfe, suddenly sensing her presence, swung around. She walked slowly forward, dignity in her slender body. The wind blew back her cloak, showing him the white nightgown underneath.
Her dark hair streamed loose, blowing softly in the wind. She stood in front of him like a child awaiting punishment, submissive and resigned.
Wolfe slowly lifted his hands and pushed the silken hair from her face. His long fingers trailed down the side of her face to lift her chin. He looked at her for a moment. 'You came.' It was all he could think of to say, all he needed to say.
'Wolfe!' She said his name as if it explained everything, as if his very existence were enough to make heaven and earth solid realities for her, and if he were removed the world would become a shadow for the rest of her life.
This saga-romance is quite a hot read by today's standards, in spite of the fact that the historical backdrop to the story is the Victorian era; repressed sexuality and its accompanying passions and jealousies were clearly fertile material for my mother's imagination. She wrote it under her married name of Sheila Holland, of course, so along with the other 'longer' books written under that name, the sex between hero and heroine - or heroes and heroine, in this story! - is highly passionate and makes compelling reading even when it isn't as explicit as it was to become in some of her later Charlotte Lamb novels.
My mother was also to develop this idea of the heroine's apparent helplessness in the face of sexual attraction in her later novels, though her contemporary treatment of this theme was always careful to explore the very real tensions a modern woman feels when, in control of her own career and destiny, she finds herself uncontrollably attracted by a man who epitomises everything she dislikes about male authority. Indeed, this particular issue may turn out to be, par excellence, the theme of the modern short romance.
Fascinatingly, the list of 'other books by this author' at the front of Secrets To Keep includes these titles: Maiden Castle, Dancing Hill, Shadows at Dawn, and The Notorious Gentleman. This last is completely unknown to me, and sounds almost like a Regency romance. If anyone out there happens to own this book, The Notorious Gentleman, please do get in touch!
Please note, 'Secrets to Keep' is not only out of print but almost impossible to find at online stores. So if you ever come across a copy, treasure it as an extremely rare Holland/Lamb title indeed. However, if you enjoyed what you've read here about Charlotte Lamb's work, there are still nearly 150 of her books available to buy secondhand, online or in bookstores around the world.