This book ran on swimmingly until about the 98% mark and then the hero committed such an offence, I’m not sure I can forgive him. There will be spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you don’t want to know.
Here’s the premise: Miss Honoria Fenton has reached the grand old age of twenty-four without attracting a single offer of marriage. That’s what happens to the daughters of devout clergymen buried in the country. Papa has now been dead for more than a year, but it seems Mama intends to mourn his saintly person for the rest of her life, and Honoria is now buried in a different part of the country, with spinster Aunt Thomasine, along with twelve-year-old twins Percy and Tamsin. All Mama’s efforts are bent on getting Percy educated so that he can enter the church, with no thought for her daughters. Or for Percy, whose thoughts run in an entirely different direction (think Felix in Heyer’s Frederica).
But one day, Honoria receives a curious bequest from her godmother, the widow of the late Marquess of Melborne – a house in Bath, five hundred pounds to set herself up for a season there and the fabulous Swynden diamond necklace. Mrs Fenton disapproves of the frivolity of a season in Bath; Honoria’s clear duty is to sell the necklace for as much as she can get, in order to fund her brother’s career. The present Marquess of Melborne has offered a staggering thirty thousand pounds to reclaim it for the family. Honoria (and Aunt Thomasine) convince her that the offer will still be there if Honoria returns from Bath unwed, and off to Bath they go.
And almost at once, Honoria has an outbreak of stupidity, and decides to go for a solitary walk to the river, and inadvertently wanders into a seedy area. By happy coincidence (yes, that staple of Regency romances), a gentleman happens to be passing by and rescues her from a fate worse than death before escorting her home. He clearly recognises the address and her name. His name, he tells her, is Jocelyn, so naturally she calls him Mr Jocelyn.
Right away, the reader knows that Something Is Up, and that the mysterious Mr Jocelyn is a Very Important Person. He takes a strangely strong interest in Honoria, arranging for reputable chair men (the men who convey Bath residents here and there in sedan chairs), and even teaching her the minuet and dancing it with her at her first ball. Then, having launched her into society, he disappears.
Of course, since he’s the hero, it isn’t long before he returns (magically just in time to rescue her from another outbreak of stupidity) and it gradually becomes clear to the reader exactly who he is. Honoria doesn’t guess, and he doesn’t enlighten her, and this part of the story is actually very funny, because it becomes obvious that he never, ever lies about it. When she asks him direct questions, his answers are the absolute truth (as the reader is now aware) but are misleading enough that she never suspects his secret, that he is (and here’s the spoiler) the Marquess of Melborne, and not merely some kind of employee or associate of acquaintance (Honoria runs through various possibilities).
It’s all quite clever, and of course the reader is waiting for the dramatic moment when he reveals his identity to her. Except that he doesn’t, and here is where I take serious issue with him – he waits until *after* they get married to tell her, even though she’s told him quite clearly that she would hate to marry a marquess and be someone grand in society and have all that responsibility. His given reason for not telling her is that he was terrified that she would turn him down if she knew – which is precisely – precisely – why he should have told her. Instead, he chose to begin their married life with a huge lie, and yes, technically he never actually lied to her, but he allowed her to believe something he knew to be untrue. It was cruel and, frankly, unforgivable.
However, given the age of book and the different mores prevailing then and the way heroes tended to be domineering, and also given that for most of the book I totally enjoyed it, I’m only going to knock off one star. Four stars.