I got off on the wrong foot with this, misunderstanding the opening scenes pretty comprehensively. Too many random names, unexplained relationships and (frankly) comments which made no sense. When a baron dies, there is never the least question of who will inherit the title. The rules were laid down at the time the barony was created and simply can’t be changed, so no one would be in any doubt about it. Eventually, I restarted, discovered the family tree at the beginning and thereafter got on rather better, but still… the heir is never going to be a surprise. Nor that the widow and unmarried daughters will move to the dower house, and live on cabbage soup forever more. Such was the way of the Regency world – the male heir got everything, everyone else got crumbs.
So here’s the plot. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The hero and heroine have some deeply buried history. Met, fell in love, split up because reasons. Now they meet again, still in love, but somehow they both think the other hates them. And needless to say, it takes the entire book for the reasons to emerge and for them to work out their misunderstandings, when really, if they had a jot of sense they would say: we’re both of age, no obstacles now, what do you say we give it another go? Or at least talk about it, and not rush off making plans with some other person altogether. I must have read this theme a score of times, and it still makes me want to bang their heads together. For the woman, it’s difficult with the constraints of Regency life, but a man of independent means should be perfectly capable of deciding what he wants in a wife, and reaching out for it.
The hero, Jonathan, comes across initially as a paragon of virtue. He spends his time improving the lot of his tenants, helping out his cousins and, in his spare time, starting a village school. Meanwhile, the heroine, Catherine, continues to call him Mr Carlew, even though he’s now Lord Winthrop, which is incredibly rude. However, she otherwise behaves with commendable restraint, especially with her mother, who is completely horrible in the early part of the book.
But then both hero and heroine go off the rails. He decides that the best way to forget Catherine is to marry some pretty young thing at the earliest opportunity, and pays determined court to the first passable girl who turns up. She goes off to Bath where she is openly rude to visitors, who then retaliate by circulating spiteful rumours about her relationship with an elderly man. And to compound the stupid, everyone thinks it’s a great idea to counteract the rumours by setting up a fake engagement with the elderly man. Oh dear.
And then, when things get rough in Bath, Catherine and her mother decamp for home, where the plot veers between melodrama and outright farce, and the hero has to ride to the rescue. And even then, when they’re finally given an opportunity to set things straight, they only half explain and leave several chapters for the romance to finally lurch to its happy ever after. And this is indicative of the whole book – everything was dragged out far too much. The whole plot could have been condensed by about a third to make a much tauter and (to my mind) more readable story. But many people enjoy an expansive Regency so I guess it’s all a matter of taste.
The other characters were more in the nature of caricatures. The two mothers behaved incredibly badly for most of the book, before miraculously becoming sickly-sweet at the end. The hero’s half-sister, Julia, veers between niceness and spoilt brat. The recently-married couple (characters from a previous book?) are uniformly sickly-sweet. The residents of Bath are, for plot reasons, shallow tittle-tattlers to a man (or woman), with the exception of the General, who’s a sweetie pie.
This is a Christian book, so there are numerous references to God, and a degree of preachiness, and this got a bit wearisome after a while. I do appreciate the point that there is a real need for this kind of book, and there are so many Regencies where the main characters are jumping into bed by chapter 3 that a faith-based story is refreshing. However, I sometimes found it hard to see the point. There were times when Catherine’s mother was particularly whiny, and a prayer or the memory of a snippet from the Scriptures helped Catherine stay sane and patient, which was good, but there were many times where she behaved incredibly badly, despite all the prayers and Bible-reading. However, I’m not very familiar with this kind of story, so it may be that there are subtleties that whizzed over my head.
There were a very few historical errors. Whisk(e)y was difficult to get in the Regency, so our hero would have shared a brandy with his friends instead, or possibly Madeira or claret. Adrenaline was unknown (first recorded usage 1893). The letter in an envelope was unlikely; there were occasional hand-made ones, but envelopes weren’t in widespread use until 1840. I learnt a new word – to pang, as a verb – and while this is interesting, I could have wished that Catherine’s heart had panged a little less frequently. Not sure if anyone in Regency times would call a sister ‘poppet’ (it was in use, but it sounds odd to me).
But generally speaking, the historical accuracy was excellent and the writing hard to criticise. I would have liked a little more humour, although at one point there’s a glorious discussion of the etiquette attached to sneezes. I would have loved more of this kind of whimsy. Despite my long list of criticisms, there is nothing at all wrong with this book. It follows a well-worn plot, very close to Persuasion, although with echoes of Pride and Prejudice and Heyer’s Bath Tangle, too, and it’s none the worse for that. It was perfectly readable, and even though I wanted to slap the main characters upside the head, I kept reading avidly to see how they resolved their differences.
And yet… somehow, it didn’t quite work for me. The characters never quite came alive, the dialogue sometimes felt stiff and some of the plot twists felt contrived. Worst of all, I never quite got past the feeling that the hero, at least, ought to have been sensible enough to know what he wanted and go after it, without stupidly getting betrothed to some woman he doesn’t care tuppence about. So ultimately it only gets three stars for me, but I already have the next book in the series (about Catherine’s sister, Serena), so I shall give that a go.