Review: The Road to Rushbury by Martha Keyes

Posted July 24, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A new Martha Keyes book is always a thrill, and this one was another excellent read, a gentle, straightforward romance set away from the usual Regency settings of London, Bath and great country houses in a very small village in Yorkshire. It has one of the best opening lines I’ve come across in the genre: ‘Ten thousand. That was the number of pins Georgiana Paige estimated she’d had stuck in her hair since her coming out eight years ago.’ And there in a nutshell is the premise for the story. After eight seasons in the marriage mart of London, Georgiana is firmly on the shelf. When an opportunity arises, she accepts her spinsterhood, abandons the London season to her younger sister and decamps to become a companion to her aunt in Yorkshire.

The setting is very different from anything she’s experienced before, and initially she encounters suspicion and outright hostility from the villagers, but she rises to the challenge and, having criticised the state of the roads in the neighbourhood, volunteers to become the local Surveyor of Roads, and see about putting them right. Her guide in this endeavour is the local vicar, Samuel Derrick, who is one of the most overtly hostile of the villagers, having developed a great dislike of selfish gentry after a bad experience, but he is gradually won over by her determination and complete lack of the arrogance he’d expected.

The romance between them is (in my view) the best kind, where they slowly get to know each other and learn to appreciate the other’s good qualities, and this element of the book is stellar. The road-building and the interactions with the mostly wholesome and apple-cheeked villagers, particularly the hard-pressed weaver family, the Reeds, I found slow going.

I also wondered a little about the seeming glamorisation of hand-crafting, when the Reeds didn’t seem to be doing too well on it, and the demonising of the industrialisation of the industry, a process which was certainly disadvantageous to many workers, but also reduced the price of cottons and woollen fabrics, and benefited many. I would have liked to see a little more discussion of the two sides of the story (and there are always two sides; industrialisation wasn’t just about profit). But instead Georgiana instantly accepts that change is a bad thing, and the local land-owners are turned into villains for wanting to develop the village a bit.

After the halfway point, things speed up considerably, and after taking several days over the early chapters, the latter ones kept me up until the small hours, just to see how the ingenious Georgiana would resolve the difficulty and get her man, because it all seemed to be impossible for a while. The ending is a bit ‘with one bound they were free’, but it didn’t matter by that point, and the romantic denouement was delightful, with a nice twist to it.

If I have a complaint at all, it’s that the two main characters were a bit too perfect. Samuel had his prejudices, but otherwise he seemed to spend his life helping the poor and preaching well-received sermons, while Georgiana seemed to have no visible flaws at all, winning over all the villagers (with the possible exception of Lady Whatsit at the big house!). She was just a thoroughly nice person, and I would have liked to see a bit more fire from her. It would have been nice to see more of the aunt, too, who seemed to be merely a convenient plot device to draw Georgiana to Rushbury and then be more or less ignored. I do think she could have done more to intervene when the crisis hit and Georgiana was obviously very unhappy.

As always with Martha Keyes, this is a beautifully written tale. My favourite line was this, of clouds: ‘inching along at the leisurely pace of clouds that had nowhere to go.’ The research was excellent (I never knew there was such a post as Surveyor of Roads), and the romance is lovely. Not the most dramatic read ever, but very enjoyable nevertheless (it reminds me a bit of Lark Rise to Candleford, where nothing much happens very slowly, but in the most pleasant way). Four stars.

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