As a child, Sarah Murphy was found wondering in the moors and was taken in to be raised by the Murphys who treated her more as servant than daughter. She is now twenty-one and living by herself. She credits her survival as a child to the “white beast’ which she later discovers to be a unicorn. She has a gift with animals, and folk in the area seek her out for help. Unbeknownst to others, Sarah can actually communicate with animals.
The discovery of an emerald ring in a shop has led to Sarah. The ring had belonged to a duchess who had perished in a carriage mishap along with, it was believed, her four-year-old daughter. The Duke of Argyll decides she must be his lost child and takes her, along with her pet fox, back to his ducal seat in Inverary.
Sarah does not want to leave her familiar life. She agrees to accompany the duke to discover if she can fit into the life as a pampered daughter of the aristocracy, but she’s really hoping to return soon to her old life as a healer. When she learns from animals on the ducal estate that the unicorn is ill and is coming to her, she knows she must remain to help him.
Colin Murray, Earl of Cawdor, has been living the life of the profligate nobleman in London for ten years. When he was a child, his neglectful parents had left him with his relative, the Duke of Argyll, and he had come to love the land. The duke had neglected his property in the aftermath of the death of his duchess and daughter, and Colin’s efforts had rescued it from descent into bankruptcy. But when the duke recommended that Colin get some town bronze, Colin readily adopted a hedonistic lifestyle and abandoned his affection for bucolic pursuits.
Now the duke writes him asking that he return to Inverary to help prepare his new-found daughter for her proper place in society. Colin realizes how much he had counted on eventually succeeding to the title of duke, but if Sarah is indeed the duke’s missing daughter according to Scottish law she can succeed her father. He decides that the providential discovery of the purported daughter is simply too unlikely; she must be a fraud. He swiftly makes arrangements to depart London leaving behind his thoroughly disappointed, not-quite-yet mistress Lady Helmsgate.
Colin is surprised to find Sarah very different from he expected. She is petite and lovely although common in her manner. When she first arrives at Inverary, he observes the remarkable effect she seems to have on animals, both wild and domestic. Still he is opposed to the idea of her being the duchess over the vast Argyll holdings. Perhaps he should marry her. The duke is against the idea because he knows Colin would marry her for the wrong reasons - her title and fortune - and he wants Sarah to have a loving marriage as he did.
Soon Sarah and Colin fall in love. But how can they marry with the duke so opposed to the match? And with the vicious Lady Helmsgate causing conflict and misunderstanding? And there’s still the problem of the sick unicorn.
This regency-era historical is another one of those lost-heir stories (how careless of the aristocracy to mislay their children so regularly) mixed up with some paranormal elements. While it mostly held my interest and I had no difficulty finishing it, there were a number of aspects that didn’t work for me, and I cannot recommend it.
The plot weaves three threads together: Sarah’s introduction to the ways of the aristocracy, Colin’s rediscovery of the productive life, and the unicorn’s mysterious illness. They don’t always fit together smoothly. The story might have benefited from some judicious editing. It occasionally seems to lack direction as it pursues first one thread then another with sometimes awkward transitions.
The characters seldom really come alive. They seem more clichéd caricatures than fully developed individuals. Colin is the debauched hero who needs love to redeem him. Sarah is the innocent child of nature untouched by the tawdry passions of society. Lady Helmsgate is the Wicked Other Woman who is out to leave misery in her wake. The duke is particularly one-dimensional - considering his supposed joy in the recovery of his daughter, he brings her to Inverary then mostly abandons her to others. Similarly, Sarah seems to have little interest in becoming involved in her new-found father’s life and interests.
But what bothers me the most about Sarah is her apparent personality change when she becomes attracted - and later attached - to Colin. This sweet, innocent child of nature has a brazen side to her as well as a surprisingly vulgar vocabulary. This sudden about-face is unsettling and seems totally out of character with her earlier portrayal.
The paranormal aspect of the story leads to what may be the most memorable scene in the book where Colin witnesses Sarah communicating with wild animals on the ducal estate, but it’s presented from Colin’s point of view so there’s a certain distance in the narrative. Yes, it’s a charming vignette, but it seems static and other-worldly rather than vivid and dynamic.
The most convincing part of the book is the romance between Sarah and Colin. The impression that they are in love as well as in lust is convincing. When Sarah falls for Lady Helmsgate’s nasty tricks, it seems false that she isn’t more trusting of the man she’s come to know and her instincts about him. Fortunately she later comes to recognize her error in not trusting him.
I want to add a word of caution on one final point. After devoting the reading time necessary to finish 368 pages, I expect all the assorted fictional threads to be tied up neatly in a final bow, but there’s some ambiguity in this book’s ending which left me unsatisfied. Perhaps there are plans for a sequel where the uncertainties will be resolved, but it didn’t make for a comfortable finale in this instance.
With its occasionally meandering plot, stock characters, and somewhat unsatisfactory ending, To Tame a Wild Heart has too many flaws to rise above the acceptable level.