Here’s the premise: Justin, Lord Amis, heir to an earldom, has spent two years as a diplomat tootling round Europe in the train of various government officials in the aftermath of Waterloo and the outbreak of peace. He returns home, hoping to pick up the threads of his understanding with Lady Amabel Fellowes. Has she waited for him all this time? She has! But at their first meeting, she gives him some information that puts all thoughts of his own marriage out of his mind. His elderly father, who has been living as a recluse ever since his wife died, has remarried a widow with nine children. Justin must rush home to Wooburn Court to find out what is going on.
He’s only just reached the grounds of the ancestral home when he spies a woman with a group of children. Aha! His new stepmother and some of his step-siblings. He promptly falls off his horse (why? Is he such an incompetent rider?), and then proceeds to hurl abuse at the woman before riding off again. It’s worth quoting his exact words, and remembering that this is a viscount and a grown man, not a child, addressing the woman he believes is his new stepmother, whom he has never met before.
‘He looked her up and down in a shockingly insolent manner, from the shabby chip-straw bonnet hiding her golden ringlets to the half-boots of worn jean. Sneering, he said, “So you are the gull-catcher. Mutton dressed as lamb! You need not expect to profit by your chicanery, strumpet. By all the devils in hell, I’ll see you damned first!”’
This may work perfectly well for a villain, but a hero? No. There’s a very funny scene where the woman so addressed tries to account for the odd terminology used (“Why did he call you a trumpet, Ginnie?”). Of course, this is not stepmama at all, but the eldest of the children, who is 20, and definitely not a strumpet (and neither is her mother).
Then comes the scene which really set my teeth on edge. Justin comes down for dinner and finds Ginnie alone, and after a brief exchange of hostile fire, grabs her and kisses her. And she, stupid woman, instead of slapping his smug face, allows him to do it and then pretends nothing happened.
From here on, it’s outright war. Justin is determined to best the Webster children, and they set out with a will to make his life as miserable as possible. Hot water goes missing, starched cravats are discovered limp, there are nettles in the bed, burrs in his boots and a hedgehog amongst his clothes. Meanwhile, it gradually dawns on him that his father, who had been dwindling into a sad old age, is lively and besotted and terribly happy. And as he gets to know the Webster children better, he realises they’re actually fine people (apart from the mischievous twins). All his accusations against them, of spending his father’s money extravagantly, for instance, are completely untrue.
At this point, there might still have been a redemptive arc for him, if he’d simply admitted he was wrong and made his peace with them. But he never quite comes clean, he’s still behaving inappropriately with Ginnie, and he’s invited all his most toffee-nosed friends from London, including his intended, to a house party. The original idea was to put the Websters properly in their place, and if he’d simply confessed all to Ginnie (who runs the household single handed, because of course she does), I’d have liked him a lot better. But he lets things run, there’s confusion and some perfectly natural jealousy from Ginnie, and when his friends are rude about the Websters, just as he was initially, he says nothing, when really he should have said, “Yes, I thought that at first, too, but they’re really nice when you get to know them better”. Stupid Justin.
And then he makes his biggest and stupidest mistake. Having decided that he really doesn’t want to marry Lady Amabel, who is a cow of the first order, he gets hot and heavy with Ginnie but before breaking it off with Lady Amabel. Cue awkward scene.
I can imagine that this sounded really good in the synopsis the author presented to her publisher. Arrogant hero is a bumptious fool, but is taught a valuable lesson by the virtuous Ginnie and her charming (if amusingly mischievous) siblings. The trouble is, to justify the necessary hostility between the factions, Justin has to step way, way beyond the bounds even of common decency, let alone the standards of honour expected of a Regency gentleman. What kind of a man calls his father’s new wife a strumpet to her face? What kind of man forces a kiss on a girl under the protection of his father? What kind of man allows his friends to insult his family? What kind of a man tells a woman who’s waited years for him that he’s not going to marry her after all (even if she is a cow)? It’s appalling behaviour, and I just can’t forgive him.
Obviously, not everyone will see it that way, and if you can manage to read it without any pearl-clutching, you must have a stronger constitution than I do, certainly, but there’s a pleasant and even, dare I say it, a charming little story hidden away behind all the snarling. It’s short, anyway, and even if I dislike the hero intensely, I have no fault to find with the writing. Two stars.