Here’s the premise: Charlotte Willoughby has been forced into marriage with a much older man so that her father can be relieved of some financial difficulties. Being a dutiful daughter, Charlotte marries the Earl of Cranleigh, and finds, to her surprise, that he’s a gentlemanly sort of man, and marriage to him isn’t nearly so unpleasant as she’d feared. Unfortunately, after just six weeks of marriage, her husband has a riding accident and she finds herself a widow. The story picks up just as she emerges from her mourning period, as she and her younger, unmarried sister and a spinster cousin prepare to embark on the London season.
I have to confess that I got off on the wrong foot with this one. Since the earl had no son, his heir turns out to be a cousin of some sort – who happens to be a duke. My pedantic soul was immediately intrigued by this. How could an earldom be inherited by a duke? I promptly whiled away an inordinate amount of time trying to devise family trees where this could happen, although I’m still not convinced that it’s actually possible (unless the dukedom was a very recent creation, which seems implausible, somehow). But never mind.
Charlotte, her sister Harriet and cousin Esther begin to enjoy the delights of the season. Harriet is immediately drawn to a possible suitor, and Charlotte finds herself the focus of two different suitors. One is a kindly man she regards as a friend, and in fact they are soon on first name terms (surely a breach of protocol?). When he proposes, she is astonished, but makes him a gentle refusal.
The other is a man, Lord Roxborough, with whom she feels uneasy but without quite knowing why. We are several times told that he behaves impeccably but still, he feels slightly off to her. There are several meetings where he behaves with perfect correctness, as the author is at pains to point out, and Charlotte knows nothing to his detriment, yet when he proposes to her, she is downright rude to him.
In the middle of all this is the duke who inherited Charlotte’s husband’s estate, the Duke of Gresham. Charlotte finds him high-handed and aloof, and is often at odds with him, even though he takes the three women under his wing and is (to my mind) nothing but kind to them. Yet she is aware that they are, in may ways, on the same wavelength, and as time goes by, they get on better. It is obvious to the reader that Gresham is the hero, yet there is never any point where I felt he was seriously in love with her. Attracted, yes, and latterly it was clear that he was putting himself out for her, but there was no passion there at all.
And this is perhaps my biggest criticism of the book, that I never really felt the characters’ emotions. Everything was flat, somehow, and despite bouncing around in the heads of multiple characters, their feelings were told rather than shown. Not to mention that everyone was a paragon of virtue (except the one villain). The characters were likable, but a little bit saccharine for my taste. Since the plot ran on very familiar rails, it was all a little bit dull.
Despite all this, there was much that I liked. The author has a real feel for the Regency, and I only spotted one historical glitch – the mention of wedding rings (plural) during the ceremony (men wearing a wedding ring didn’t become commonplace in England until roughly the 1960s). As I mentioned at the start, the writing is beautifully literate, and I cannot tell you what a joy it is to see such an abundance of properly constructed sentences. The characters bounced around the country rather, but at least I always knew where they were, with the counties made explicit, in the Jane Austen tradition.
It was disappointing that the hero was a duke. Lord, I am so tired of dukes! It would have made far more sense to me if he had simply inherited the Earl of Cranleigh’s title and estates. I wasn’t quite sure why Charlotte got to keep the earl’s town house in London, but I presume it was part of her widow’s jointure. I would have liked some more explicit details of the time of year, because I got confused over it. Being told that the season was in full swing when it seemed to be autumn had me scratching my head (the Little Season, possibly?). Traditionally the season is in spring, Easter to June or July.
The blurb says that this book is ‘For fans of Georgette Heyer, Mary Balogh, Jane Aiken Hodge and Jane Austen.’ Sadly, it doesn’t have the sparkling dialogue and lively plot of Heyer, nor the incisive wit of Austen, nor the intensity of Balogh, but then few authors rise to those heights. It is, however, a very readable traditional Regency which I enjoyed despite some wobbles. I’m torn between three and four stars, but I always allow some leeway to debut books and the writing is so elegant that I’ll go with four stars.