An odd little book, rather uneven, with a straightforward romance, some very convenient coincidences and a whole heap of melodrama. It’s safe to say a lot of buckles were swashed (or swashes were buckled, not sure which). But a very enjoyable read, for all that, and a real page turner.
Here’s the premise: Captain Charles Trevannion is a career soldier committed to seeing off Bonaparte in Spain, but he’s recalled, under protest, to England to investigate some traitorous goings on near his old home in Sussex. Someone is getting secret information to the Frenchies, and it Must Be Stopped. His grandfather recently died, so that will do as an excuse for him coming home. He and his trusty batman, Giles, decide to stop for the night at an inn run by Giles’s brother, Jasie, but when they find the place all closed up and Charles sneaks in through a window, he finds himself bopped on the head. And so, rather inauspiciously, the hero and heroine meet.
This book was written in 1972, so it conforms to many Regencies of the era in that the heroine is a fairly naive seventeen-year-old, and the hero is a worldly-wise thirty-two. The heroine is Nell Easton, an orphan, her only relative in the world a generic wicked uncle, who wants to get his hands on her fortune. But Nell is being cared for by Jasie and his wife, Emma (the Emma of the title), and it’s Emma who comes up with the Cunning Ploy to protect Nell and allow Charles to snoop around on his own quest – she and Charles must pretend to be betrothed.
This has the usual effect in Regencies, that the two are thrown together a great deal, and begin to fall in love. So far, so predictable. But when Nell’s wicked uncle arrives on the scene, things get messy very quickly, and only a great deal of derring-do by our swashbuckling hero resolves things satisfactorily, with happy endings for almost all the good guys, and the usual comeuppance for the villain.
Some quibbles. About halfway through the book, everyone starts calling Charles ‘Sir Charles’. I suppose, since the grandfather was Sir Nicholas, Charles has inherited a baronetcy as well as the estate, but it’s never mentioned explicitly. In the Regency, it was vitally important to know everyone’s rank (so you know precisely how low to bow or curtsy, and whether you can call on someone or should wait for them to condescend to call on you), and so too for readers of Regency romances. If he was a baronet, then he was Captain Sir Charles Trevannion, and that should have been made clear from the start.
As for Nell, she’s made out to be a good little soldier’s daughter, practical and not at all stupid, and then she has to go and fall for the oldest trick in the book, and put herself into the power of the wicked uncle, needing a number of people to risk their lives to rescue her. Silly girl. But this book was written fifty years ago, so silly heroines were very much a thing, then. And it allowed the hero to be manly and clever and suitably heroic, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much. Although I did wonder how it was, when there was only one way in and out of the old house where she was held, Charles managed to go back in and rescue a fallen comrade via a different route. Strange.
There isn’t much to nail the story to the Regency era, apart from the status of the war with Napoleon, and since the story was set deep in the Sussex countryside, nothing felt off to me. There were a lot of minor editing issues, but more careless punctuation or missing words rather than actual typos. It just felt sloppy, as if it had missed a final proofread. But nothing that bothered me overmuch. The romance was very much of the restrained type common to the era. If you’re looking for an emotional roller-coaster, best look elsewhere. In this book, the drama is all in the plot, not the characters angsting. There’s a lot of head-hopping, so we always know what the villain is thinking and plotting, which ramps up the tension somewhat artificially. One thing that is striking about books of this era is their lack of squeamishness, so death is not necessarily restricted to the villains. There were a couple of deaths in this book that raised my eyebrows, one human (before the start of the book but described in gruesome detail) and one canine (and distressingly onscreen). I know it’s necessary to establish the depths of the villains’ depravity, but I felt that could have been done more subtly. If this would distress you, be warned.
Overall, an enjoyable if old fashioned read, heavy on action and light on character depth, and pretty good considering it was Mira Stables’ first book. Four stars.