Review: A Scholarly Pursuit by Christina Dudley (2023)

Posted November 15, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve been looking forward to this for a while – I’ve loved Agatha (Aggie) Weeks from the very first book in the series, when she and her equally hoydenish friend Araminta (Minta) Ellsworth were shooting arrows at anything they could see, very often at each other.

Here’s the premise: In the last book, Aggie fell for highly unsuitable fortune hunter Francis Taplin, although happily Minta intervened to save her from him, and in the process found her own true love. But it’s now four years later, and Aggie still hasn’t found anyone to replace Taplin in her heart. She’s not still yearning for the unattainable and she’s quite contented with her spinsterish life, thank you very much, but when news arrives that Francis Taplin is returning to the neighbourhood, albeit briefly, Aggie becomes the unwanted focus of everyone’s concern, in case she falls for Taplin all over again.

Meanwhile, not only has Aggie done some growing up, so has Minta’s twin, Tyrone Ellsworth, who’s been testing his bookish nature at Oxford, and drumming up a nice little business writing love poems and marriage proposals for his love-lorn fellow scholars. I confess, this gave me a little bit of a wobble. What is a respectable lad like Tyrone doing encouraging his fellow scholars to write letters of any kind to ladies to whom they’re not betrothed? But the examples we come across in the book are, generally speaking, acceptable – apologies, proposals and the occasional sonnet are not quite the same as regular correspondence, so I can let it pass (although a stickler of a parent might not be so tolerant).

Tyrone’s booted out of Oxford for various transgressions, including the writing of missives for others, but once free of constraint, the business continues, specifically for Mr Gareth Boulton, newly installed curate at St Swithun’s of Headbourne Worthy. And his target is none other than Aggie herself. And here’s another wobble. Unless Mr Boulton has some other source of income, his salary as a curate (maybe fifty pounds a year) is barely enough to feed and clothe himself, let alone take on a wife and the inevitable string of children that will follow, not to mention that a curate can be fired at any time. And although Aggie’s very rich, that just makes him the worst kind of fortune hunter. But it’s perhaps a minor point.

So Tyrone is busy encouraging Boulton’s romantic pursuit of Aggie, even though he thinks it unlikely to succeed, and Aggie is resolutely fending off the persistent Mr Taplin, who’s back and ready to reopen his flirtation with her. And into this setting comes Miss Clementine Caraway, a much hated former head girl of the school Tyrone’s sister Bea attended, now determinedly setting her cap at Tyrone. Throw in the various siblings (of both Tyrone and Aggie) meddling away, as siblings are wont to do, and things get complicated very quickly.

Inevitably Aggie finds out that she’s been deceived, and by her lifelong friend Tyrone, no less, and is furious not just with him, but with herself for being persuaded by a man’s insincere blandishments for a second time. Not that she fell in love with Boulton, but every letter Tyrone wrote for him made him seem like a thoughtful, gentle sort of man, and not the bumbling idiot he is in reality, and I did wonder at the morality of that (although Tyrone himself comes to realise that it’s not a good idea).
This discovery by Aggie comes just at the point where she is realising that it’s Tyrone she loves (and little though she knows it, he has fallen in love with her). The slowing growing feelings between them is one of the high points of the book. I love a slowly developing romance, and the transition from friends to lovers is surely one of the most difficult for an author to achieve, but here it’s beautifully done.

From this point the book rapidly descends into a swirl of misunderstandings and well-intentioned mismanagement, and an ending that felt out of kilter to me. Several reviewers thought it was rushed and out of character, but to me it didn’t have the emotional resonance I expect in a romance. I do think it’s exactly in line with the characters of the two principals – Aggie recklessly rushing into things and Tyrone in his relaxed way just going along with it, and worrying about the consequences later. There’s also a sense of history repeating itself after Aggie’s previous romantic entanglement. But it felt unfinished, and I never thought I’d say this, but I really would have liked an epilogue to show us that everything turned out well.

Some minor grumbles. I would have liked a family tree to work out who everyone was and who they were married to. The author is very correct with names, but I have trouble remembering characters from one book to the next and I’d have liked a bit of help. Historically it’s very sound, although I did wonder about there being packets of branded shortbread in the Regency. I’d have thought it was a Victorian thing, but I may well be wrong. [EDIT: Wilcomb’s shortbread is actually made by the Ellsworths’ cook, Wilcomb, so not a branded packet at all.]  A smattering of Americanisms (visit with, out the door, if it mends matters any and a few others) tripped me up, but it’s a trivial point.

The writing is superb, as ever, authentic and witty and downright clever (especially Tyrone, and how refreshing to meet a character intended to be clever who actually is, although he got into an inarticulate muddle with Aggie, which reminded me a little of Heyer’s Sylvester). There are so many funny moments in it – I laughed all the way through. However, the questionable ethics of writing letters for other people and that strange ending keep it to four stars for me.

 

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