This was a difficult book for me to judge. Were it by an author unknown to me, I’d probably have gone with 2*, but with Balogh I’m prepared to see it as an aberration, a brave stab at something that ultimately failed. It ranks, however, as by far the most boring Balogh book I’ve ever read.
Here’s the premise: Lady Rachel Palmer is a social butterfly, the beautiful and vivacious star of the London season, charming even the most unlikely confirmed bachelors to her side. David Gower is the precise opposite, a serious, pious clergyman who may be the younger son of an earl, but isn’t going to let that stand in the way of him devoting his life to his parishioners and good works, living a life of relative poverty. Two people less likely to hit it off could hardly be imagined, yet they have the misfortune to fall in love with each other at first sight. It’s impossible, of course. Except that Rachel doesn’t accept that it’s impossible…
And that, in a nutshell, is the entire book. They spend endless chapters agonising over a dilemma that wouldn’t even exist if either of them had two brain cells to rub together. Here’s the thing: there actually is no obstacle whatsoever to them marrying. He’s of suitable rank, she has a dowry sufficient to support them in reasonable comfort even if he gives away every penny of his income, there’s no reason why she can’t satisfy whatever social cravings she suffers from by visiting her relations, or beetling up to London now and then. A little compromising would have done the job nicely. But no, he has to be noble and self-sacrificing because he’s convinced that she can’t hack it as a clergyman’s wife, and it takes him the entire book to realise that actually, she can make that decision for herself, thank you very much.
She, meanwhile, is proving that she’s too flighty for words by dithering about between David, an old friend and a marquess before finally going off the rails completely and walking out in the middle of a ball with a thunderstorm going on. I get that the author wanted to show her finally breaking free of the stifling constraints of society (aka politeness), but that’s just stupid. And what happens afterwards is even more stupid and melodramatic, and seemed to my mind completely out of alignment with the introspective nature of most of the book.
That, I think, was what made it so unspeakably boring, for me. The two principals go round and round the same things (in their heads) with occasional forays into Serious Conversations, liberally larded with religious stuff. Yes, folks, this a deeply Christian book. I’m not qualified to judge that element of the story, and it wasn’t what made it boring (in my opinion, Regency authors should introduce far more religion into the genre, given that it was an integral part of normal life for virtually the entire population). But if you DO introduce it, and portray one of the characters, at least, as a man of deeply felt faith, then you should really not have him inflicting passionate kissing and much pawing on the heroine. Mixed signals there.
No, what really drove me nuts was the constant and repetitive angsting, and the hero disrespecting the heroine by repeatedly stating that she doesn’t know her own mind and he can’t marry her for her own good. Ugh. And I really don’t get why Christian service can only be demonstrated in abject poverty. It’s all very well to give away virtually all your money, but what happens when your eight or ten children all need to be fed and shod and educated in a manner befitting the grandchildren of noblemen, and you’ve given away every last penny of your wealth? You’ll be going to your more sensible relations for handouts, that’s what. I would have loved to see some mite of commonsense penetrate the skulls of these two dipwits, but no, they were determined to be self-sacrificing.
I had to laugh, though, at the heroine going about the parish distributing cakes to the poor, or reading to them, which is very nice and all, but I’m sure they would rather have had a leg of mutton! I was amused, too, at the lord of the manor grumbling about David doing his good works about the parish and distributing largesse everywhere. “That’s my job,” the lord says. Which is absolutely true. The church was there for spiritual welfare, and the aristocracy were supposed to take care of the more material needs of the poor.
I think this was a brave attempt to write a properly Christian book, and although it failed on pretty much every level for me, it’s still a beautifully written failure. There were a few historical errors, but the only one that really grated was that the clergyman was addressed as Reverend Gower, or even Vicar Gower, which was not common practice then. He would have been plain Mr Gower. And his income comes not from his patron paying him a salary, but from the tithes of the parishioners. A clergyman couldn’t just decide to retire, either. He held the living for life, although he could put a curate in if he wanted to retire from active work in the parish.
To be honest, I don’t recommend this except to Balogh completists. It’s an interesting attempt at portraying two people with deep philosophical differences, who prove ultimately to be more complex than originally suspected. I like what she tried to do in theory, I just didn’t enjoy the result very much. Three stars.