This has such an intriguing premise: a man is too shy to court the woman he loves openly, so he writes to her to declare himself, but forgets to sign his name. Thus begins a correspondence where both parties can explore their real natures free of the constraints of public society. So much potential, but the execution was sadly lacking.
Let’s get the logistics out of the way first. The lady is able to reply to her anonymous lover because he uses an anonymous post office box to receive his mail. This is set in a time two hundred years ago, when a decent mail service was only just getting going properly. Mail coaches had been operating for a mere twenty years. There was no regular doorstep delivery for most people, you collected your mail yourself (or sent your footman to collect it) from the nearest post office, which might be just a back room in a shop. Same for sending letters – no post boxes to pop them into yet. Most houses didn’t have numbers or even names, street names were very ad hoc, and very often the only information available for addressing letters was the recipient’s name and a town or village. You could direct a letter to John Smith of Anytown, and it would reach him because so few people were literate that the local post office would know every John Smith personally. Where do anonymous letters sent to post office boxes fit in? They don’t. I can’t find a definitive answer, but I’d be prepared to bet that post office boxes were a twentieth century invention, or late Victorian at the earliest.
OK, so moving on. The characters are nicely done. The heroine, Julia, is feisty and smart and witty. The hero, James, is a thoroughly nice man. They have been friends for years, get along well and… really, the only obstacle is his reluctance to declare himself. So the letters strategy is a neat device, and leaving off his name makes an ingenious puzzle for her and allows both of them to talk freely. So freely, in fact, that she falls in love with her mysterious suitor and is disappointed to find out that it’s really boring old James.
And that’s basically the whole plot. There’s a rival suitor and some pressure from her parents, but nothing that really affects the straightforward flow of the story towards a HEA. So why did it take so long to get there? Because both characters angsted about every last little nuance to the umpteenth degree. Every word in every letter was analysed over and over, and it got very tedious. With some decent editing, this story could have been told in half the time, and would have been much better for it.
Apart from the post office box (and I freely admit I have nothing but gut feel to suggest that it’s an anachronism), there were only a couple of glaring errors. James is heir to a ‘count’ who owns a ‘county’, which made me laugh out loud. No counts in the British peerage, and nobody owns a whole county (well, maybe the Duke of Rutland owns the tiny county of Rutland, who knows, but generally nobles don’t actually own the whole of the place they’re named after). And the rival suitor, a Mr Carson, was the heir to a marquis (he’d have had a courtesy title of earl, and his sister would be Lady Something Carson, not Miss Carson). It is insulting when authors profess to write about a specific time and place, and then don’t make the least effort even to get the basics right.
This could have been a great story. The premise is terrific — original and with lots of potential. The characters were solid, too, and thank goodness for no cardboard-cutout villain. But the annoying errors and the endless tedious angsting keep it to three stars.