Here’s the premise: Kate Malvern is an impoverished orphan struggling to make her way as a governess. When the son of the house shocks his family by proposing, she finds herself out on her ear and running back to her former nurse for shelter while she looks for another position. But Sarah, the nurse, secretly writes to Kate’s only known relative, Lady Broome, who descends at once and sweeps Kate off to her stately pile, Staplewood, where she lives with her elderly and frail baronet husband, her highly-strung son Torquil, and a resident doctor. Lady Broome showers Kate with kindness and gifts, but Kate suspects that she wants something in return and feels that all is not well at Staplewood…
The first part of the book is all Gothic mysteriousness. Lady Broome is suffocatingly kind, but somehow cold. Sir Timothy is an old dear obviously surrendering mastery to his dominant wife. Torquil the beautiful adolescent son is oddly moody. The doctor and the servants seem resolutely determined to convince Kate that everything’s wonderful. And somehow Kate, who’s as bright as a button in other ways, never seems to notice how odd the household is, or if she does, she explains it away to herself or accepts whatever explanation she’s given. The average reader (by which I mean me) is saying: oh, come on, girl! Get a grip.
Into the midst of this spookiness drifts the Broome cousin and next heir, Philip, who seems to have wandered in from another story altogether. In a proper Gothic suspense novel, he would make the heroine fall head over heels in love with him, and then make her suspect him of trying to off Torquil, who stands between him and the baronetcy. Philip handily accomplishes the first part in a matter of days, but resolutely refuses to play the part of apparent villain. There are very brief mentions of certain ‘accidents’ that befell (or almost befell Torquil) for which he blamed Philip, but these are never substantiated, are set down as the products of an excitable imagination and eventually are forgotten about altogether.
Philip is far too nice and non-threatening to play the villain, and insists on being solely the romantic hero. But even here he falls short. He, too, falls head over heels in love within days, but they can’t marry because… um, because… Nope, there isn’t a single obstacle. Dear Aunt Minerva won’t like it, of course, but Philip is independent of her. He has his own house and fortune, he’s a nice, sensible chap and he’s old enough to know his own mind. Kate is gently-brought-up and also old enough to know what she wants, and although she agonises at tedious length about her lack of fortune and connections and other trivia, she never comes close to refusing him outright. To be fair, Heyer obviously recognised the lack of obstacles, because the romance is stitched up midway through the book, but they can’t simply take off and leave dear Aunt Minerva in their dust because… well, because of a fairly cack-handed plot contrivance, actually.
And so the plot builds to the inevitable tragic ending… wait, what? This is Heyer, right, where happy endings are baked in. But not this time. Oh, our low-key hero and heroine get to ride off into the sunset, as expected, but otherwise, the ending is a bit of a downer. All in all, not a particularly enjoyable read. The romance is my least favourite style, the plot was a million miles from the light, fluffy type that’s Heyer’s signature, and even the moments of humour were few and far between. Heyer’s shown she can tackle more demanding relationships in A Civil Contract, and I will always applaud an author for stepping outside her comfort zone and trying something new, but this one was a relative flop for me. Three stars.