I’ve loved everything Jenny Hambly has written and this is no exception, but I have to admit this one fell a little bit flat and meandered into the weeds at the end. Even so, with two likable protagonists, a fascinating array of side characters and a genuine dilemma for the heroine, this is still a cracking read.
Here’s the premise: Captain Charles Bassington survives the carnage of Waterloo, only to fall ill with an inflammation of the lungs. While he recuperates in rural France, with communications difficult, his neighbour and friend Lady Selena is so mad with worry for him that she sends his friend Lord Carteret to find him and bring him home.
At this point, Selena’s heart is painfully obvious to everyone. She’s been in love with Charles for years, and her worry for him is too great for her to dissemble. But there’s a wrinkle. Charles has been writing to her from France (a bit naughty when they’re not betrothed), and he’s suggested that Lord Carteret would make her a good husband. She’s had an unsuccessful season in London, partly through shyness and partly because she just doesn’t want anyone but Charles, but now she has to face up to reality. She’s twenty years old, Charles is not going to marry her and it’s time she left her childish dreams behind and started looking seriously for a husband.
Almost at once, two suitors pop up. One is the same Lord Carteret recommended by Charles. The other is an older man (all of 37! Mr Knightley territory), Lord Ormsley. Both of them are eligible, gentlemanly and attentive. And here is the dilemma of all sensible Regency women – should she settle for one or other of the two, or should she hold out for the man she really wants, with the risk that she might never marry? It was a serious problem at the time, and waiting for love to happen along wasn’t a good idea outside the pages of a novel.
While Selena is weighing up her suitors and Charles is recovering from his illness, there’s a bit of a mystery thrown into the mix, with the discovery of a body and a necklace in the local lough (lake). The necklace belonged to a local girl who disappeared a few years ago after suffering an unrequited love affair, so it seems an open and shut case, but is it?
In the background are a whole array of minor characters. I loved that both our main characters enjoyed warm, loving families. Not without the odd irritation, of course, but generally they’re normal folks, and not the evil, overbearing relations so often encountered in a Regency romance. In fact, Selena’s stepmother epitomises the deftness with which the characters are drawn. Lord Sheringham has only recently remarried, just nine months after the death of his wife (Selena’s mother). We first encounter the new Lady Sheringham in London with Selena as she tries her best to find her a husband, and there’s a certain tension between the two. It looks as if Lady S is going to fall neatly into the trope of wicked (or at least deeply unpleasant) stepmother, especially as she has a daughter of her own to marry off.
But back home in the north, she is gradually revealed as being rather an insecure person, unused to being part of a loyal and affectionate family and unsure of how far to unbend in her dealings with the tenants. She slowly relaxes her stance towards Selena and is revealed as a much more nuanced and frankly interesting character. I very much enjoyed this miniature character development going on alongside the main story.
Some grumbles (because what would a review be without a few grumbles?). Firstly, the characters. There are a huge array on display here, and I never got them straight in my mind. Selena’s family confused me. How old was Gregory, her brother? Or Eddy, another brother? He was never seen, owing to some illness from India (malaria, possibly?). I never even knew what the family name was. If any of these details were mentioned, I missed them. There were a bunch of local families that I never quite sorted out, including Cedric, who turned out to be quite important to Selena’s history. He was mentioned once or twice in passing, but I never got the impression that it was a big deal, and Selena always seemed so composed that it was hard to believe she’d had a traumatic experience. She was supposed to be shy in company, but that didn’t come across to me particularly well. And Lady Sheringham’s horrible parents appeared out of the blue, with no warning of anything untoward in her history. Maybe I read too quickly to spot the clues, or maybe they were just too subtle for my brain.
The mystery of the body in the lough was resolved in the most unexciting way imaginable. I liked the idea of it, and it felt very plausible, but it seemed like too much of a coincidence, the way it happened. It would have been more satisfying, I think, if the discovery of the body had triggered the resolution instead of it just happening (trying not to reveal anything here). But I was glad it wasn’t as black an event as it seemed at first.
Now, none of this would matter a bit, but I confess to being a bit disappointed at the way the romance ended. Here we have a dashing captain, a leader of men who knows very well how to be decisive, and we have a sensible, intelligent and spirited heroine who knows her own mind. She also has the shining example of two friends who seized control of their own destinies by setting out to snare their chosen husbands. Even if she decided not to use their precise methods, I would have liked to see Selena seize control of her destiny, too. Or that Charles would decide to be brave and snatch her from under the noses of her two suitors. But no. He has to be talked into it by half his relations and hers, and negotiate with his father first, which is very correct but (for me) infuriating. What I want is for one or other or (preferably) both the protagonists to be swept away by passion in the end, overcoming all obstacles, real or imagined. I was also hoping that Charles would turn out to be rich in his own right. His brother-in-law was managing his prize money for him, but although it was mentioned in passing, nothing further was said about that, and Charles had to beg his father for financial support.
As always, though, the book is beautifully written. Here’s a lovely quote: ‘There could be no comparison between Lord Carteret’s cool, grey gaze and Charles’ warm, laughing blue eyes, just as there was no comparison between a still, wintry morning and a glorious summer’s day.’ For almost the whole book, I was utterly enthralled, and couldn’t put it down. Only that somewhat unfocused ending keeps it to four stars for me.