Review: The Bar Sinister by Sheila Simonson (1986) [Trad]

Posted September 4, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

This is the first book in the series, but it was written after the second book (Lady Elizabeth’s Comet) as a sort of prequel, and to be honest, I’m glad I read Lady Elizabeth’s Comet first. If I’d come across this one first, I might never have read any further.

Here’s the premise: Captain Richard Falk needs a safe home for his two motherless children while he fights Napoleon. Widowed Emily Foster wants to take in children as company for her own son. She’s not impressed by Captain Falk, who’s brusque to the point of surliness, but she loves the children, and so they strike their bargain. Over the next two years, she finds herself enchanted by the absent soldier, who writes long, intricate stories for the children in his letters, but when he briefly returns for a visit, she’s again hard-pressed to find any civility in his manner. But then trouble arrives, in the well-meaning shape of Richard’s sister, Lady Sarah Ffouke, to see the children. Because it turns out that Richard is the son of the Duchess of Newsham (although not of the duke), and was brought up as Lord Richard Ffouke for the first twelve years of his life.

And here at once we have the biggest stumbling block in the book, for me. Buckle up, folks, this is going to be ranty. All the way through, Richard is described as a bastard, as illegitimate, as base-born… even the title, Bar Sinister, refers to his illegitimacy. Lady Sarah is always called his half-sister. Yet Richard is completely legitimate – in law, at any rate. In the Regency era, any child born within wedlock is presumed to be legitimate, unless the father repudiates the child, either before birth or shortly after. There’s a very narrow window within which to do this, and if it isn’t done, or if the father acknowledges the child in any way, then it’s perfectly legitimate.

In this case, the supposed father (the duke) didn’t repudiate Richard, and accepted him into his household for twelve years. Even though everyone knew that the duchess had had an affair and Richard was her lover’s child, he was legally a legitimate son of the duke and stood in line to inherit, if his two older brothers died or failed to produce heirs. And no, a sworn statement by the duchess of his true parentage wouldn’t have been enough to convince the House of Lords to set Richard aside, if he should ever claim the dukedom. It would take far stronger evidence than that, and for good reason. If every father could suddenly decide to disinherit a son who displeased him for whatever reason, the peerage would be in chaos. Apart from that very brief window, there is no getting rid of children, ever, where there are inherited titles and entailed estates at stake. Just can’t be done. Frankly, the duke was bonkers to accept Richard in the first place, knowing the likely consequences, but to turn round later and try to get rid of the inconvenient cuckoo in the nest is ridiculous.

A large part of the book concerns the efforts of the duke and later, his sons, to dispose of Richard, although whether they were more concerned with hushing up the old family scandal of his birth or taking him right out of the line of inheritance isn’t entirely clear. Some of their actions seemed designed to kill him, but most were just to persuade him to go away, on the principle of out of sight, out of mind. None of which makes a ha’p’orth of difference to the inheritance of the title. All of it is unbelievable, and I find it impossible to believe in a duke who is so dishonourable as to give his word and then break it, and so downright coarse in his behaviour towards his brother.

My other quibble is a relatively minor one. The author uses a number of words with old-fashioned spellings – sopha, gothick, publick and so on. These may be historically accurate (I wouldn’t know), but they grated rather, and my personal pet peeve was writ as the past tense of write. So Emily writ Richard, Richard writ the children, Tom Conway writ Richard and on and on, until I was grinding my teeth in frustration. Does it matter? Not much, but it was so, so annoying.

But having got all that off my chest, you will be astonished to hear that I actually enjoyed the book rather a lot. Nowhere near as much as Lady Elizabeth’s Comet, but well enough. I didn’t much like the morose and uncivil Richard, and couldn’t quite see what Emily saw in him, but Emily herself, dreaming away in her Hampshire backwater, was a delight, the children were lovely, the military-minded Aunt Fan was gloriously eccentric, and Emily’s papa, Sir Henry Mayne, Bt, was a big softy under that gruff exterior. I even loved McGrath and Mrs McGrath. And I absolutely adored Dona Inez and Dona Barbara and their adventures, although we only got little hints of them, but it was all deliciously funny. I laughed out loud a great deal, and I always approve of a book that makes me laugh.

Two characters of special note were the aforementioned Tom Conway and Lord Bevis, who are main characters in Lady Elizabeth’s Comet, but reduced to walk-on parts in this book. Bevis gets no opportunity to shine here, and is in fact rather an antagonist, but Tom Conway is lovely. He and Emily have some delightfully flirty exchanges which are perhaps the best part of the book, and if I’d been Emily I’d have abandoned surly Richard like a shot to have a go at the charming Tom. But sadly that wasn’t how it went.

I won’t bang on about the shenanigans with the ducal family, because the whole thing was pretty silly and unbelievable (see rant above). The duke and his brother were, not surprisingly, impossible to like. The duchess, Lady Sarah and her long-suffering husband Wilson were nicely drawn and very nuanced, even if I’m not sure I’d want to make friends with any of them. The romance is kind of weird, because the main couple spend very little time together. Emily falls in love with Richard-the-letter-writer and basically decides she’s going to marry him. And that’s it.

This isn’t the smoothest book ever written. There’s a lot of jumping about to places and people I didn’t much care about, where Emily and the children are somewhat forgotten, so the book feels rather lumpy. The plot, as I’ve already pointed out multiple times, has credibility issues. But the writing is elegant and witty, and the characters are (Richard excepted) lovely. If I could give it 3.5 stars I would, but since I can’t I’ll round up to four stars in deference to the sheer brilliance of Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. Which, sadly, is a much more interesting book than this one.

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2 responses to “Review: The Bar Sinister by Sheila Simonson (1986) [Trad]

  1. Colette

    Hi there, I’m an enthusiastic enjoyer of your books and also very much appreciate and look forward to all your reviews. I stumbled across your website a fair bit ago after finding your books on Amazon. The blog posts keep me coming back to see what you have found for us. I have found some new authors and rediscovered some old ones thanks to you and just wanted to encourage you to keep them coming! Have a lovely day:D

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