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Thursday, 26 January 2012

“A Texas Tale of Love and Mystery: Or: Book Review: The Herbalist’s Apprentice by Rosa Morgan Lockwood:

Last year, for the first time, I decided to record a list of all the books I had read over the course of 2011. I have typed up the list below, and as you may observe, I do not waiver much from the Victorian stuff; all of it is either written by Victorians or set in Victorian England, and specifically the hub of the Empire; London.

  • Hard Times (Dickens)
  • A London Child of the 1870’s (M.V Hughes)
  • The Mesmerists Apprentice (Lee Jackson)
  • Dickens (Peter Ackroyd)
  • Paved With Gold (Augustus Mayhew)
  • True History of a Little Ragamuffin (James Greenwood)
  • To London Town (Arthur Morrison)
  • Diary of a Murder (Lee Jackson)
  • The Invention of Murder (Judith Flanders)
  • Death at the Priory (James Ruddick)
  • In the Year of the Jubilee (George Gissing)
  • The Newgate Jig (Ann Featherstone)
  • The Herbalists Apprentice (Rosa Morgan Lockwood)
  • Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde (Re-Read) (Stevenson)
  • The Body Snatcher (Stevenson)
  • Diary of a Nobody (George & Weedon Grossmith)
  • The World for a Shilling (Michael Leapman)

Then, in June last year I wrote a blog post about the Statue of Liberty, the famous landmark that stands in New York, having been given to the USA to celebrate their centennial by France. In the post I wrote that I always struggled to come to terms with America in the nineteenth century. I don’t know why, but I could never think of the USA in that era without thinking immediately of cowboys and Indians and towns full of saloons and pale riders. In a quest to correct me, Rosa – an author and blogger from America – contacted me and told me she had just finished writing a novel set in Texas in 1850, and would I like to read it to try and broaden my nineteenth century American horizon. I said I would very much like to read it, having never read anything set in ‘Victorian’ America before. I also agreed to write a review after I finished – something else I have never done before, and I doubt the nation’s entertainment critics will be fearing for their livelihoods just yet…

The book was ‘The Herbalist’s Apprentice’ and I was reliably informed that ‘Herbalist’ carried a silent ‘H’.
Within a week I received my signed copy, and looked at it with a kind of strange foreboding. What was I hoping for? I was hoping for a book with a good story, first and foremost, and secondly, I was hoping to ‘experience’ 1850’s America as best I could. So, having finished the book I was currently reading, I picked it up and began.

Predictably, I felt like I was in a foreign place, and for the first five or six pages was overcome with a strange feeling of homesickness. (Bizarrely, in my mind I was wondering how preparations were going in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Probably, I thought, to try and get the era into context, since the usual clues, such as slang or familiar buildings or streets were not present.) Speaking of slang, another strangeness that fueled my homesickness was the accents of the characters, some of whom, of course, in my mind spoke with a Texan twang. At first, these kept slipping, but after a chapter or so, my inner reading monologue was set firmly to ‘Texan’ for the characters that required it, and it came a little easier.

Onto the actual book then, and I best shed a little light on the story, here is the description from the back of the book:

At seventeen, Mia is bursting with questions about love and life, but none are more pressing than the lavender scented memories concerning her mother's mysterious death. Against her father's wishes, she secretly visits Mosswood, the palatial home of the nefarious Captain Biggs, where she becomes entangled in a web of deception.
Should Mia trust the captain's dashing son, Daniel, whose sincere and refined manners win her heart?

Or should she trust the rugged Frenchman, Henri, a Galveston Customs Officer, who is investigating the Biggs family, and whose seductive ways sweep her off her feet.

Desperate for help and guidance, Mia turns to the one person she can trust; Miss Emily, a freed mulatto slave who dispenses pearls of wisdom as adroitly as her herbal tinctures. Apprenticed to her in the art of healing, Mia begs her for the truth behind all the secrets.

When the past and it's mysteries are finally revealed, what dangerous steps will this impetuous young woman take to find justice?

I enjoyed the story, and the questions posed above are answered with great satisfaction in the final chapters as the story builds and comes to a head. The thing that came across to me most was the sense of sultry, dusty Texan heat, but this feeling was conveyed not by a flurry of adjectives, but concealed within paragraphs that subtly suggested that it was hot and dry and dusty. The atmosphere created was impressive, and certainly helped to set the sense of place for a luddite like me, who needed all the help he could get to be hoisted out of his nineteenth century London rut.

The novel covers an impressively wide range of topics, despite coming in at only 300 pages. Notable topics are racism, war, slavery, forbidden love, loss, class, history, industry, English upper-class pretentiousness and colonialism.

Reading ‘The Herbalists Apprentice’ was a new experience for me, but it’s not simply for that reason that I would recommend giving it a read, but because its an effectively atmospheric and immersive story, which sweeps its skirts gently along the warm and dusty roads of 1850’s Texas, until, before you know it, you find yourself in the centre of an intriguing mystery.

Rosa Morgan Lockwood blogs at and can be found on Twitter @VictorianTime 


  1. Dear, dear, sweet, Amateur Casual, I am ever so grateful that I piqued your curiosity in American Victorianism and that it led you to read my novel. Your wonderful and generous review stirred within me massive heart palpitations and intermittent swooning,which requires the use of my fainting couch and vinaigrette. I warrant my hoop skirt and slippered feet shall not touch these dusty Texas roads for some time to come.
    Forever in your debt...

  2. Thanks Rosa, glad to have written the review, I hope it, and the other great reviews I've seen on Amazon tempt other readers to find a copy for themselves.

    Good work!