This is an amazing book. Not only does it have Heyer’s trademark range of eccentric characters and humour, but it has an emotional resonance unusual for this style of book. The root problem is one that’s bothered me, too, as I write my own Regency romances – what would a marriage of convenience really be like? Modern folk are so accustomed to the idea of romantic love matches that we can’t quite get to grips with the reality of a pragmatic, loveless marriage of near-strangers. It would have been easier for the wealthy, with their separate bedrooms and almost separate lives for men and women, and the formality of Regency manners would have helped, but even so, most modern Regencies gloss over the difficulties. The hero and heroine have a few dust-ups before deciding that, actually, they’re in love after all, so cue the violins. But I wonder just how likely that would be.
Here’s the premise: Adam Deveril is summoned home from his soldiering on the continent when his father dies. He discovers to his horror that the estate is virtually bankrupt. His mother’s portion is secure, but there’s no money for a season for his sister, or a dowry, and even the treasured family home will have to be sold. There’s just one way out – to marry a wealthy heiress, selling his viscountcy to the daughter of some upstart city merchant. And here Heyer adds the cruel twist that gives the book so much of its emotional depth – such a marriage, while it saves Adam and his estate, would destroy for ever his chance of marrying the love of his life, the beautiful, if highly-strung Julia Oversley.
Through Julia’s father, Adam is introduced to the plain and shy Jenny Chawleigh, and even her name is dowdy (her given name is the much prettier Jane, but everyone calls her Jenny). She’s been well educated, so her manners are good, but her style of dress is of the ‘more is more’ type, with lace and flounces and jewels dripping everywhere. And here is one of the most interesting elements of the book – the culture clash between Jenny’s wealthy but uncultured upbringing and Adam’s far more refined background in the upper echelons of society.
The epitome of this culture clash, of course, is the character who towers over the book, dominating every scene he is in – Jonathan Chawleigh, the extremely wealthy ‘cit’ (a banker, industrialist or merchant from the city of London), Jenny’s rough and ready father. Mr Chawleigh knows perfectly well that he won’t fit in with Adam’s upper class friends, and assures him he will keep out of the way. That doesn’t stop him from stepping in to splash his money about on his behalf. When Adam decides to sell the family’s town house, Chawleigh secretly buys it and has it refurbished to his own vulgar taste while the newly weds are on honeymoon. Such episodes are a sore trial of Adam’s good manners.
All of this is delicious, and very funny, but the real heart of the book is the slowly developing relationship between Adam and Jenny, and the parallel choices of his cast-off love, the melodramatic Julia. Many readers find Adam and Jenny’s story a sad one, the surrendering of intense romantic love for the quieter affection of shared interests and a comfortably placid life. I think it’s a beautiful realisation of the joy of a real marriage, one that’s fuelled by genuine affection rather than the fireworks of instant attraction. Love, rather than infatuation. A wonderful and thought-provoking read. Five stars.