Robert Develyn married badly and went off adventuring in foreign parts when his wife ran off with someone else. Now she’s dead and at the age of forty, he’s returned to England to settle into rural retirement and raise his young daughter. He’s been left an estate in Kent, but he hasn’t seen it or its previous owner for donkey’s years and he finds that a few things have changed.
For one thing, there’s a new house just inside the gates, inhabited by the household of one Miss Francesca Thornish, past the age of looking for a suitor and eccentric enough to enjoy dressing up in men’s clothes when she feels like it. She is thus when Robert first encounters her. He thinks she’s an idle gatekeeper, and she thinks he’s excessively rude, and so they get off on quite the wrong foot.
But the rest of the book chronicles their slow progress towards grudging respect, tolerance, liking and eventually love. This is, to my mind, quite the best kind of romance, and there’s no silliness, no misunderstandings, just two sensible people, set in their ways, slowly coming to realise that their lives have utterly changed.
Both characters are interesting, but Francesca is fascinating. She’s something I thought was impossible – a Regency heroine who has all the independence of spirit of a modern woman yet is completely true to her era. When she does put on a pretty gown and become the lady of society, the effect is heightened by knowing what she’s like the rest of the time. She’s a pattern-card of respectability only when and if she chooses to be, and nobody forces her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. And while we’re on the subject of characters, a round of applause for the deceased Earl of Finmore, the previous owner of Robert’s new estate and Francesca’s protector, who (despite being dead) is one of the liveliest characters in the book.
The end is complicated by some contrived business with the horse and a not very plausible villain, but by this point it didn’t matter. This is a lovely, old-fashioned Regency that I highly recommend. Five stars.