Savage Lands begins promisingly, with Elizabeth Savaret, an intelligent young woman, travelling from France to the colony of Louisiana in 1704. Penniless and orphaned, she is one of twenty-three girls who might otherwise never be wed. Before the year is up, she must be married to one of the hundred men wanting a wife. Her grudging aunt can’t wait to see the last of her, but her godfather gives her a soft, warm green quilt and three volumes of Montaigne to take with her into the colony. These two gifts become poles between which Elizabeth’s character oscillates, for both sensuality and the gifts of the intellect offer different temptations in her future life.
Clark writes vivid, vigorous prose and her descriptions of the voyage out and the ‘savage lands’ of the title are very well done. Elizabeth is pleasingly contrary, and the only one of her boring, conventionally minded companions not to idealise either the terrain or their future husbands. Ironically,