Here’s the premise: John Longden is minor gentry with a reasonable income of his own, and a wealthy wife. He was blinded in a shooting accident, but he doesn’t repine, and his three grown daughters (Clemency, Prudence and Faith) help him manage. But four years ago, his wife set out on a journey and vanished into thin air, her money is now unavailable to him, and his own investments have gone disastrously wrong. The family is practically destitute, the only valuables remaining are the mother’s jewels.
The daughters, however, are resourceful. They are determined to find genteel employment of some sort, but they need someone to help them with references and the like. Clemency has the bright idea of calling upon their neighbour, Piers Kennedy, a former naval captain and now a sheep farmer and wool merchant, for help. Mr Longden saved his life many years ago, so he will surely feel under an obligation to help them. Her sisters cannibalise their mother’s fine silks and velvets for suitable clothing to rig Clemency out for a formal visit, but it doesn’t go well. The two end up in a battle of wits, he grabs her wrist to stop her leaving and ends up kissing her.
Now, normally I strongly dislike supposed heroes who ruthlessly impose themselves on gently brought up young ladies just because they can, and he has less excuse than most such instances. He doesn’t mistake her for a serving wench, for instance (not that that excuses such behaviour, but given that this book was written fifty years ago, it’s in line with the prevailing morality of romances of the era). But somehow, the way the scene is written makes the kiss almost inevitable, and not as reprehensible as it would otherwise be. In fact, for me it’s the fact that he grabbed hold of her that I find most shocking. A kiss might be construed as a romantic gesture, but a Regency gentleman should never, ever lay a hand on a lady’s person.
From then onward, the lines are drawn. She despises him thoroughly for his reprehensible behaviour (as she should!) and he is riven by guilt and determined to find some way to help the family. And (the part that makes me like him rather a lot) he sees all the positive elements of her actions and is half way to being in love with her before she’s even left the house. Even though he stoutly maintains that he’s never going to marry because reasons, he’s still drifting towards it with every single meeting. And he doesn’t do anything stupid along the way, like kissing her again, for instance.
I’m not going to spoil the plot by telling you how it all turns out. Suffice to say that the missing wife subplot is resolved in a satisfactory way, and ties in neatly with the melodramatic ending, which seems to be de rigueur in books of this era. The hero gets a chance to be suitably heroic, the heroine gets a chance to be suitably resourceful and there’s the most glorious proposal scene which made me laugh out loud. And everything is settled in the best possible way. A lovely traditional read that made me smile all the way through. Five stars.