Another odd book from Laura Matthews. I enjoyed it well enough, but the quirky side characters were unredeemably awful, I didn’t particularly like either of the two main characters and the intrusive sexual element felt jarring.
Here’s the premise: Vanessa Damery has been a widow for two years, with two small children to raise and her husband’s much-neglected estate to manage, with no help from her fellow trustee. In addition, she’s been inundated with a variety of her husband’s relations and assorted hangers-on, which her kind-hearted parents tell her it’s her Christian duty to support. Into this difficult situation belatedly arrives the missing trustee, Lord Alvescot, very much aware of his condescension in doing so, and quite prepared to find everything in disarray at the hands of a mere woman. And just why are her expenses so high, anyway? His arrival is marred by a collision with the recklessly driven curricle of one of the hangers-on, his expected suitably large bedroom isn’t available, and in the poky room he’s assigned, a flimsy chair promptly collapses under his weight. Not an auspicious start.
I have to say, for anyone who’s a fan of curmudgeonly heroes, Alvescot is a spectacular example of the breed. He dislikes and distrusts everyone, is universally hostile and thoroughly charmless, and then there’s his aristocratic arrogance. But then Vanessa is edgy with him, too, not rude precisely but certainly prepared to give as good as she gets. Meanwhile, the hangers-on are as dismal a bunch as one can imagine, and it’s hard to see why she keeps supporting them, let alone have them living under her roof. In the whole household, only the children and the land steward are nice, normal, friendly people.
I was a little surprised that Vanessa was left so alone to take care of everything. Her husband’s relations are just spongers, not one of them having the commonsense to make themselves useful, or help in any way, apart from the one proposing vastly extravagant menus. And did she have no relations of her own who might have helped out? It would have been very unusual in those days for a woman to be managing an estate of any size. Normally the trustees would all be male. But there is a very poignant moment when she has to take the authoritative role, not one she’s ever been trained for and which goes against all her instincts, but she does it, and ends up shaking afterwards. That felt very real, to me, and was the point where I felt real sympathy for her.
The romance has a lot of ground to cover to get from mutual hostility to happy ending, and frankly I never found it very convincing. He gradually comes to see that she’s doing a good job with both the estate and the children under difficult circumstances, and inch by inch he begins to want to relieve her of some of the burdens. And of course, if he’d been remotely doing his job as fellow trustee from the start, she wouldn’t have had nearly so much to contend with. What she sees in him is less obvious. He starts off disliking her quite intensely, and when that starts to change into something else, he starts touching her. Now, holding her hand at a moment of stress is one thing, but he rests his hand on her shoulder at one point and starts playing with her hair, during an otherwise rational conversation, and frankly that just felt creepy to me. Then he kisses her and goes away without a word, leaving her uncertain, and sends her only businesslike letters. Foolish man.
Needless to say, the two do sort themselves out eventually, as well as seeing off the hangers-on, and the final night-time shenanigans with one particular lady are almost worth the price of admission alone, and single-handedly dragged the book from a grudging three stars up to four. I’ve mentioned the sex, which is not particularly graphic but didn’t add much to the story, although to be fair, with a widow, there ought to be some acknowledgement of it, and particularly whether the first marriage was satisfactory or not. For pedants out there, be warned that there’s a good sprinkling of Americanisms, especially ‘gotten’, but generally this felt very Heyeresque in tone. Despite the criticisms, I still enjoyed the read, and if this is a bit different from the usual Regency fare, I’m always happy to wander away from the familiar roads.