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Review: A Country Wooing by Joan Smith

Posted February 25, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was lovely. Having just struggled, with steam coming out of my ears, through a more difficult book, this one slipped down as easily as ice cream. Strawberry, maybe… or salted caramel… Sorry, got distracted there for a moment. There’s not a lot of drama here, so anyone looking for adventure or angst or passion might find it a tad tame, but for me it was a simple story, well-told, and just what I needed.

Here’s the premise: Alex, the Earl of Penholme, returns from the Peninsular war to take up his inheritance after his older brother Charles fell off his horse and broke his neck. Interestedly awaiting him is neighbour and friend Anne Wickfield, living in reduced circumstances with her widowed mother. She has no very fond memories of Alex, the least friendly of the family, and a poor contrast with dashing, handsome, charming Charles, who had long since won Anne’s heart. She’s surprised, therefore, when Alex is unusually attentive to his old friends, and to Anne in particular.

The hero and heroine here are my favourite kinds – not melodramatic, not high-flown society types, not over the top, just nice, normal people, the sort you might meet every day. They’re both just practical, get-on-with-it types. At first, Anne can’t make Alex out at all – why is he paying her so much attention? What does it mean that he’s brought a ring back from Spain for her? She decides it’s arrogance. Now that he’s come into a fine inheritance and is something of a catch, he’s showing off a bit. It takes her a while to come round to the idea that, actually, he wants to marry her.

And this makes Alex one of the best types of hero – the one who fell in love with the heroine years ago, remained agonised but silent watching her fall in love with his older brother, dreamt of her during his soldiering and when his brother died, came home with a glad heart to finally claim his bride. I love me a faithful man, who stays true to his lady through thick and thin. But his faithfulness is put to the test when he discovers, piece by horrifying piece, the true extent of the debts his brother has left him, and realises that he can’t possibly dig himself out of the hole. Or marry impoverished Anne, either. But there is a possibility of salvation if he marries one of the neighbouring daughters of a cit worth a million pounds. Fortunately, this is no Civil Contract, Heyer’s wonderful marriage of convenience tale, but the way the conundrum is resolved forms the latter part of the book, and very satisfying and logical it is too.

A couple of quibbles. One is a title error – the younger sons of an earl are not Lord anything, they’re Honourables. The heir has a courtesy title, but nothing for the other sons. The other is the names of the younger Penholme children. The eldest four are Charles, Alex, Rosalie and Robin – perfectly unexceptionable. The younger four are Willie, Bung, Loo and Babe. Whatever was the author thinking? I suppose it may be intended to show the closeness of the family by giving them pet names, but it just made me shudder.

But otherwise, the story is near perfect. The development of the romance and in particular Anne’s slowly growing realisation that she fell in love with a spectacularly selfish man, and his brother is worth ten of him, is lovely. The side characters are delightful, too, with a special mention for Mr Anglin, the cit, who has echoes of Jonathan Chawley from Heyer’s Civil Contract, but is also unequivocally himself. I also liked the very tiny vignette of his wife at the end, where we see the terror of a middle-class woman being pushed, against her will, into a much higher level of society. She has neither the self-confidence of her husband nor the education of her daughters, and hates it all, but of course is powerless to do anything about it. I’d like to have seen more of her.
A wonderful story, beautifully written. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review: Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith

Posted January 5, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A curious one. On the one hand, this has the liveliest banter between hero and heroine I’ve ever come across – they really are a good match for each other! On the other hand, our hero and heroine are both complete idiots in some ways, he because he fails to recognise that he’s falling in love, and she because she’s constantly overstepping the bounds of propriety, even when she should know better.

Here’s the premise: Prudence Mallow is the impoverished daughter of a deceased clergyman, living a quiet life in London with her widowed mother and her eccentric Uncle Clarence. A chance opportunity to earn a little money copying the work of authors gives her the idea of writing her own novels, which slowly begin to find success and she starts to mingle with other writers. One of them is the handsome rake, Lord Dammler, whose improbably adventurous poems of his world travels have made him the toast of London.

Having a common publisher, naturally the two are thrown together and… well, that’s it, really. Lord Dammler decides he likes Prudence’s books and the lady herself, and starts squiring her about town in his carriage and taking her to balls and the like. And this is where I take issue with both of them, because this is highly improper behaviour. She has a mother who should be chaperoning her at all times, unless she’s in an open carriage, and she absolutely shouldn’t ever be attending a ball with only an unrelated male as her escort. No way. Not even as a twenty-four year old spinster who wears a cap.

Now, to some extent this is all part of the plot. Dammler thinks she’s older and more worldly-wise than she is, and Prue’s throwaway lines, entirely in innocence, are misinterpreted as either great wit or double entendres or both, so she gets something of a reputation as a bit of an original. However, Dammler is better versed in the beau monde than she is, and should be protecting her from these traps. Instead, he treats her very much as he would a male friend, talking about subjects that no single lady should ever be exposed to, and although he sometimes recognises this, it never stops him. And Prue’s mother and uncle seem to unwittingly conspire to push her out into this racy literary and social whirl.

I’m going to be honest, I never really liked Dammler very much. I have no idea how old he’s supposed to be, although I got the impression that he’s still quite young, not far off Prue’s age, but he seems very immature for a man who’s been right round the world, and is a marquis, to boot. He seems to think it’s fine to drive around with Prue during the day, and then spend the evening with his multitude of paramours. Not only is he unbothered by Prue seeing him with his lightskirts, he even tells her about them. Not really hero behaviour. There’s a very silly (and predictable) incident at an inn, where he behaves badly and storms off in a huff like a rebellious teenager. And then at the end, when he’s finally seen the light, having told all and sundry that he’s going to marry Prue, the one person he neglects to tell is Prue herself. So there are several perfectly stupid chapters when he’s swanning around Bath trying to demonstrate that he’s a reformed character while she’s mystified as to why he’s behaving quite out of character.

I think this is meant to be a kind of Georgette Heyer-lite, but it never quite worked that way for me, despite the sly little references (restorative pork jelly, anyone?). Given that Prue is clearly based on Jane Austen and Dammler is a sort of Byron-alike, there are references a-plenty for aficianados, but combined with the references to Almack’s and the various patronesses, a bit-part for the Duke of Clarence, drives in the park and so on, it all felt a bit tired and old-fashioned.

What saves it is two things. Firstly, the banter is superb, both very clever and genuinely funny. And secondly, there’s good old Uncle Clarence. For a side character, he has the sort of towering comic role played by Jonathan Chawleigh in A Civil Contract, in other words, a character who dominates every scene he’s in. And of course this is Joan Smith, so it’s all beautifully written and creates a very believable Regency setting. Since, despite all my grumbles, I read it avidly, I’m going to be generous and round up to four stars.

I have to say though that books of this age (it’s more than forty years old) are a bit of a gamble, and this is not just Joan Smith, it’s true of the entire genre in that era. Sometimes, even when they’re stars of their time, they feel slightly out of kilter to my modern ears. But interesting reads, nonetheless.

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Review: Escapade by Joan Smith

Posted November 13, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

After a couple of reads that just didn’t do it for me, I was relieved to come back to Joan Smith for this delightfully frothy traditional Regency. It’s very old school, of course, being over 40 years old now, but that just emphasises how far tastes have shifted. There’s no existential angst or any of those new-fangled feminist opinions that modern heroines are so fond of. No, this is all about the season and Almack’s and the proper pursuit of every respectable young lady, which is Finding Oneself A Suitable Husband.
Here’s the premise: Ella Fairmont is no longer a debutante, but her aunt hasn’t given up hope, so here she is indulging in another round of London’s Marriage Mart. To make the exercise more palatable, Ella amuses herself by retailing all the society gossip in a snippy little newspaper column, where she poses as ‘Miss Prattle’. The principal object of her vitriolic pen is Patrick, Duke of Clare (although we’re never given a reason why she dislikes him so much). But then the Duke invites Ella and her Aunt Sara to a house party at his country residence in Dorset…

I’ve read a similar tale more than once before, but even if I hadn’t, it would be easy enough to see how things are going to go, and it’s true that there are few surprises. But that’s not what a book like this is all about. If you want shocking twists, go and read a thriller. With a Regency, it’s all about the journey, not the destination, and the journey here is delightful.

First of all, there are a whole array of very silly side characters. The Duke, foolish man, has invited along three of the leading contenders for his hand, for he happens to be one of the most eligible bachelors in the kingdom. Lady Honor is the high-ranking one, without a word to say for herself, utterly confident that the duke is hers by right. Miss Sheridan is the beautiful one, who can think of nothing but her appearance. And Miss Prentiss is the one with a multitude of accomplishments, none of which she has much aptitude for. There are three male friends, too, to make up the numbers and squabble gently over the ladies’ hands, but they blurred together in my mind and I can’t even remember their names.

An honourable mention must go to the duke’s mother, a lovely, sensible lady who’s entirely supportive of her son, and completely different from the usual trope of the harridan dowager duchess. Then there’s Aunt Sara, who’s a bit of a live wire and has some of the best lines in the book.

But the starring roles go to Ella and Patrick, who start off deep in indifference, start to discover that the other is actually more interesting that they’d suspected and needless to say, end up very much in love. Given the date of the book, this is a fairly restrained affair, devoid of real passion, and mostly their growing interest manifests itself in the rising level of banter between them. They are soon on first-name terms, and arousing a certain amount of jealousy in the others.

The duke’s journey to love is steady and rather touching. Once his interest is piqued, he turns his attention on Ella and singles her out very conspicuously. For some reason, never properly explained, everyone assumes he’s just stringing her along, or flirting, or otherwise just amusing himself, but since he doesn’t have a reputation as a rake, it’s hard to see why they would think that. And towards the end, when she seems to blow hot and cold, he pursues her quite determinedly and charmingly.

Ella, however, is harder to fathom. Why did she dislike him so determinedly at first, enough to make him the principal recipient of all her most acid comments in the gossip column? Why, when she starts to realise that he’s actually not as bad as she’d thought, does she not ease off a bit? And why, why why, when she’s written something completely wrong and malicious about him, doesn’t she do the sensible thing and confess? I do get a bit cross with heroines (and heroes) who just refuse to talk things through. And another why – why, for the love of mike, when he proposes to her, albeit in a completely wacky way, doesn’t she at least wonder if he might be serious? And again, talk to the poor man. Give him a chance to explain himself. But I suppose if all heroes and heroines were sensible, rational beings, their stories would be about 20 pages long.

Now if this was all, this would be just another light-hearted Regency romance, nothing special. Fortunately, after a slightly sluggish start, it kicks into a glorious high gear of comedy. The banter between Patrick and Ella is sparkling, with just an edge of hostility, but there’s also a lot of fun in the house party itself, when Ella comes up with some outrageous schemes for the guests to entertain themselves, although I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what they are.

Needless to say, there are some hiccups on the road to true love, resolved in the last few pages by the hero sweeping the heroine into his manly arms for a thorough kissing. I strongly disapproved of his arrogance (he never for one moment doubts that she’ll marry him) and I wanted him to grovel just a little bit to win her over, but that was very much the norm for that era.

A beautifully written book, with a few very minor historical errors that only extreme pedants like me would even notice, with a charming hero, a spirited and intelligent heroine and a shed-load of laugh-out-loud humour. I loved it. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Cousin Cecilia’ by Joan Smith

Posted March 15, 2017 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a lovely traditional Regency, focused on social niceties and marriage prospects and not much else. Anyone looking for high action or sex scenes or intrigue should look elsewhere. But for anyone who’s a fan of Georgette Heyer, this is a good substitute.

The premise is that the heroine, the eponymous Cecilia, is unmarried herself but an expert matchmaker, brought in to ensure that her cousins’ suitors get to the point of a declaration. She finds they’ve been led astray by recently returned widower Lord Wickham, so she sets out to charm him in order to arrange matters to her satisfaction. So far so good, and of course it’s no surprise that the initial flirtation between the two turns to something else.

With all Regencies of this type, there are two aspects that both have to work well for the book to be an overall success. One is the romp element, the side plots and minor characters and mishaps that drive the story forward, provide the amusement and throw the main characters into increasingly difficult encounters. This side of the story is fairly lightweight, but the characters are well-sketched and the mishaps are suitably entertaining. Cecilia’s efforts to bring her three provincial charges to a proper degree of self-esteem are nicely done, and I liked that the girls tended to lapse as soon as her back was turned. I liked, too, the very confined setting. Although the book ends up in London at the height of the season, most of it is set in one small town, and this aspect reminded me of Pride and Prejudice.

The romance is quite nicely developed, a slow-burn rather than insta-love or (worse) nothing at all until the last chapter. But here we see how a society flirtation gradually deepens and turns to serious love. However, I had a real problem with the character of Lord Wickham. He’s framed at the start as the villain of the piece, a worldly and dissolute man who leads the young suitors of the cousins by taking them to gambling dens and entertaining them to drunken parties at his home. He’s a very aloof, unfriendly man, we’re told, who never socialises and is rarely seen.

And naturally, the first time our heroine ventures out of the house, who should she bump into but this reclusive man, walking about town like anyone else, and perfectly willing to be sociable and charming, and even requesting permission to call upon her the next day. Just like any regular fellow. This pattern is repeated endlessly. Far from being a dissolute man leading the youngsters astray, he turns out to be a quiet and well educated, not to say learned, man, and it’s not really clear to me why he ever had a bad reputation. This is a theme of quite a few Regencies, in fact, that the supposed rake or black sheep turns out to be perfectly respectable after all.

And so the romance gets under way, and, given that both parties are intelligent, articulate people of independent means and both free to marry, it becomes increasingly difficult to contrive reasons why they shouldn’t progress smoothly to the altar. So the author falls back on the time-honoured strategy – the misunderstanding. He thinks she’s looking only for a practical marriage of convenience. She’s insulted by his unromantic proposal. And then they go to London and things get very silly indeed. I know Regencies are required to have a degree of silliness, with the two lovers at cross-purposes, but this was far too long-drawn-out for my taste.

However, overall the story was an enjoyable traditional Regency, historically sound and with characters who were believably of the era. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and only the above-mentioned flakiness in the plot keeps it to fours stars.

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