Review: Kingscastle by Sophia Holloway (2021)

Posted April 8, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve read one previous book by this author, The Devil You Know, which I loved apart from one major flaw late on, but the writing was absolutely superb. So it is here, too, and although I had some niggles, they didn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying the book, to the extent that I read it in one sitting.

Here’s the premise: Captain William Hawksmoor is obliged to leave his beloved Royal Navy when both his cousin (of the same name) and his uncle die, leaving him the new Marquis of Athelney. The cousin who had been expected to inherit having been a useless good-for-nothing, the will specified certain conditions, namely, that he should marry and produce an heir within two years. The new Marquis has the same name, so the provisions apply equally to him, and he’s not unwilling. The title, the estate and his obligations he sees as just his duty, and he’s very good at doing his duty. But where will he find a bride? However, when he arrives at his new home, Kingscastle, he meets his aunt, Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor, who is determined that he should marry his cousin, timid and hectored Charlotte, but he finds the much mistreated companion, Eleanor Burgess far more to his liking.

It has to be said that Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor is a real piece of work – think Lady Catherine de Burgh on steroids. She’s so over the top as to be a caricature, but since she is almost the only obstacle to the plain sailing of the romance, I suppose we must give her some latitude. And, to be honest, in an era when women of rank were often both badly educated and accorded great deference, it was inevitable that some would conceive a completely misguided sense of their own importance in the world, and look down on anyone they deemed inferior, their position allowing them to be as rude as they like and get away with it. Neither the daughter, Charlotte, nor the companion, Eleanor, is in any position to gainsay her ladyship in the slightest.

Lord Athelney is a straightforward and pragmatic soul, and so it isn’t very long before he’s proposing to Eleanor, not any romantic sense, but as a way for him to fulfil the terms of the will and for her to escape her difficult circumstances. But he makes it clear that he likes and admires her, and that he thinks they can make a good marriage out of it that will content them both. And she turns him down. Of course she does. Why would she do that? Because she wants him to love her, naturally. It’s not enough for him to like her, she’s holding out for something more. At this point, I want to sit her down and berate her for her utter stupidity. She has nothing at all in her life except a miserable existence as a punching ball for Lady Willoughby, which is likely to see her dismissed without a reference very soon. And then she will have no future at all except that of increasing poverty and a desperate old age. Turning down a marquis is utter madness.

I had the same issue with Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin, where Lady Hester has been in love with the hero for years, and rejects his pragmatic proposal for the same reason – because she’s holding out for love. At least in that case, although she was very much unappreciated by her family, she didn’t have the dire spectre of poverty looming over her. Eleanor has no such excuse.

However, thank heavens for a hero who knows what he wants and is prepared to wait for the heroine to decide what she wants, too. Of course, there are obstacles a-plenty, mainly the ever odious Lady Willoughby, but also a major misunderstanding between hero and heroine. The author has to jump through hoops a little to make this work, but she succeeds pretty well. I’m not at all a fan of the Great Misunderstanding but at least this one felt credible. There are also some melodramatic moments where the hero gets to shine and be… well, heroic. Which is fine. I’m all for heroic heroes, and Lord Athelney is a fine example of the species.

Despite the niggle about Eleanor’s stupid refusal of the first offer, I’m happy to let it go, partly because the book would be a novella if she did the sensible thing, but mainly because there’s so much else to love about this book. The writing is awesome, authentically Austen-esque without ever descending into the impenetrable, there’s some splendid banter between the protagonists, there’s a charming little side romance as a bonus, and the book is funny. I can forgive a book almost any sin if it makes me laugh, and this one did. The scene where Lord Athelney disposes of the two less-than-respectable ladies is utterly brilliant, and I particularly enjoyed the little nautical phrases that kept cropping up with the two naval men. Describing the approach to a proposal as a ‘coming alongside manoeuvre’ is delicious. I’ve only encountered one other book which got this right, although less subtly than Holloway (None So Blind by Sarah Waldock, where one character described a ball as ‘fleet manoeuvres under full sail’).

Altogether, I found this to be a fine read, and I can’t give it less than five stars. Highly recommended for anyone yearning for the authentic Regency experience.

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