Here’s the premise: the very eligible Earl of Rule is about to offer for the eldest Winwood sister, a pragmatic match based on suitability which will also rescue the Winwoods from the doom of heavy gambling debts and impoverishment. But Miss Winwood is in love with a soldier, and the middle sister is determined not to sacrifice herself on the altar of matrimony, so the youngest Winwood sister, Horatia (Horry) puts herself forward as the wife for Rule. She’s seventeen, he’s thirty-five, so it will be a marriage of convenience – won’t it?
For anyone who’s read Heyer’s later work, April Lady, this is essentially the same plot, except that Horry and Rule aren’t nearly as silly as Nell and Cardross. Rule, being older and wiser, understands that his young wife has to find her place in society before she can engage with him as his equal, and Horry is resourceful and (moderately) sensible. This is still one of those stories that would be a great deal shorter if the protagonists simply sat down and talked things over, but at least the final catastrophe is not one of Horry’s making. And it has to be said that her brother and his friends are very, very funny in their efforts to rescue her from said catastrophe and keep her from being cast off in disgrace by Rule.
The tone is a little strange. There’s a duel which feels very, very serious, and I did wonder whether the villain was actually going to be allowed to die at one point. There’s also the whole question of ravishment, or rape, as we would call it these days, which fortunately Horry evades (I believe I mentioned before that she’s a resourceful lady). And there’s the strange matter of Horry not knowing that her husband is actually besotted with her, and wouldn’t dream of divorcing her, or believing trumped-up stories about her (he’s far wiser than Cardross in April Lady, who actually believes the worst of his wife; Rule is a much, much more likable character). Horry even seems at one point to be afraid of him, although that’s not uncommon for a Heyer heroine. It also felt very odd to me that husband and wife could lead such wildly separate lives, although that was very much true to the era.
But most of the book is light-hearted, not to say frivolous, and while I’d have preferred a bit more of the romance, that’s my standard complaint with Heyer so it’s hardly worth mentioning. Enjoyable, on the whole, even if hero and heroine aren’t an obviously made-for-each-other pairing. Four stars.