Here’s the premise: the Merriville family descends on London so that beautiful Charis can make her come-out. To ensure this, older sister Frederica calls upon a distant relation, the Marquis of Alverstoke, to help launch Charis into society. Alverstoke is a bored, over-indulged and selfish rake-about-town who is unaccustomed to lifting a finger, even for much closer relations, but the chance to infuriate his own sisters spurs him to agree to hold a ball for Charis, and his sisters’ daughters.
So far, so meh. Alverstoke is, at this point, an unappealing character, entirely self-centred, and Frederica isn’t much better, being an overly managing and verbose spinster, completely caught up in the affairs of her family to the exclusion of any other consideration. But luckily Frederica has three brothers, and the younger two, sixteen-year-old Jessamy and twelve-year-old Felix, are the glorious, and very funny, heart of the book. Felix is obsessed with mechanical devices of all kinds and is charming enough to succeed in dragging a very reluctant Alverstoke on a trip to examine a foundry, amongst other delights. Jessamy is trying to study to be a worthy clergyman, in time, but would really rather be out on horseback. And both of them have a great propensity to get into deep trouble, whereupon they promptly turn to Alverstoke for help.
And so, by very gradual degrees, Alverstoke learns to care for someone other than himself, and Frederica learns to depend on someone other than herself, and by even more gradual degrees they fall in love. We see this more clearly in Alverstoke, and I loved the careful way he protected Frederica from gossip by not paying her too much attention, and being very casual when he’s with her, so that she isn’t seen as merely the latest flirt of a confirmed rake. With the downside, of course, that she never quite realises his intentions and he never quite finds himself in a position to raise the issue.
This aspect of the book is faultless, but of course it wouldn’t be a Heyer without at least one silly ingenue. Here, it’s Charis who fulfils the role, aided and abetted by the handsome but equally empty-headed Endymion, Alverstoke’s heir. They manage to create the usual end-of-book crisis, which is fortunately resolved rather quickly here. An honourable mention at this point to Alverstoke’s secretary, Mr Charles Trevor, who creatively solves every dilemma, and a dishonourable mention for Lufra, the Baluchistan hound, who sadly turned out to be a mere plot device, for he was barely mentioned after his magnificent performance in Green Park. A good four stars.