This was the first book I’ve read by this author, and there’s a lot to like about it. For those looking for the traditional elements of a Regency – the season, balls, Almack’s, rides in the park – this ticks all the boxes. There’s an unexpected inheritance, an ineptly inarticulate hero, a sensible heroine and a bit of spying in the background – what’s not to like?
Here’s the premise: Eleanor Daventry has a fairly rocky family history, what with a mother who eloped to the continent and a dodgy episode helping a friend at school. However, the 4th Earl of Worthing made her his ward, and when he dies, he bequeathes her a valuable piece of land – with the proviso that she won’t get it until she marries. Sometimes it seems as if the Regency era was chock full of eccentric gentlemen dreaming up ever more inventive constraints to impose on the beneficiaries of their wills, but still, this is a relatively mild example.
Our hero is Stratford Tunstall, the newly ennobled 5th Earl, who’s just returned from the war to his unexpected inheritance, still smarting from being jilted three years ago, and he’s not happy to find that an uninteresting spinster has been left a sizable portion of his estate. The only way to get his hands on it is to marry the woman and this is so unappealing a prospect that he gets roaring drunk. A chance meeting while he is still drunk leads to the regrettable proposal of the title, which Eleanor deals with as any self-respecting heroine would. Not a propitious start.
However, both hero and heroine move on to London for the season where they inevitably cross paths very frequently. He discovers that she’s not at all the uninteresting spinster he’d first thought and she discovers that although he’s still pretty inept at polite conversation and puts his foot in it more often than not, he makes a nice apology. Also, the drunkenness was a one-off.
Of course, while they’re lurching towards their happy-ever-after with two steps forward and one back, there’s a lot going on in the background. Eleanor finds herself very sought-after now that she has an inheritance and has to make some difficult decisions of the type that must have afflicted real Regency women – whether to accept today’s OK-ish offer and settle for comfort and not much affection, or whether to hold out for the possibly better offer that might come tomorrow from the man you love. Stratford’s role is to get jealous and come to the conclusion (rather belatedly, for he’s a bit slow on the uptake where women are concerned) that he really does want to marry Eleanor and not just for her inheritance.
Besides all that, there’s Stratford’s former squeeze stirring things up, plus a vindictive old school friend of Eleanor’s, and a really rather superfluous spy subplot that intersects with our romantic pair hardly at all. I could have done without much of this but it does make for some dramatic moments towards the end. For those who like to have the hero chasing to the heroine’s rescue, you’ll really love the last few chapters – pretty exciting stuff!
My over-sensitive pedantometer was barely troubled. There were a lot of dance cards deployed, which (according to my understanding, which might well be wrong) were not used until the Victorian era when dances got shorter and there were too many to remember to whom a lady was promised. In the Regency, dances were in pairs and much longer, so you only got a few partners per evening. Then there was mention of a coronet ball, which is not an expression I or Google’s Ngrams have ever come across. One other oddity – the heroine’s piece of land is said to be worth three thousand pounds a year. At the time, the average rent for an acre of agricultural land was a little above a pound, so that’s a hefty chunk of land, or else it’s got a coal mine or two on it. But these are absolutely trivial quibbles, which didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book in the slightest. This is a very well-written book, and had some moments of subtle humour. I loved this line in particular: ‘Mr Amesbury, who had decided [the heroine] lacked looks, address and a portion, did not put himself out to please, but performed his part punctiliously. When all other subjects had been exhausted, he forged ahead with the battle-weary pluck of a hardened conversationalist.’ I would have liked a lot more in this style!
This is a well-written Regency, well grounded in the era, and traditional enough to please Heyer fans. I loved the hero and heroine, and the believably slow development of the romance. I was less enamoured of the spying subplot, but this was still a very good four stars for me.