An odd book that I enjoyed, but it had some worrying elements, not least a surprising amount of sexual content for a book of this age, plus a wife dallying with a man other than her husband. But an interesting read, nonetheless.
Here’s the premise: Elspeth Parksone is 26 and determined not to marry. Her mother died ten years ago, and ever since then her father has been merrily fathering bastards on every willing girl in the neighbourhood. Elspeth takes the opposing path of becoming ever more puritanical, taking care of the bastards and devoting her life to good works about the parish. Having accidentally encountered her father in flagrante delicto with a local wench, and misunderstanding the groans of passion, the horrified Elspeth has decided that marriage is not for her. Meanwhile, David, Viscount Greywell, has just lost his beloved wife in childbirth and his son is sickly and not expected to live. When a mutual friend suggests that what he needs is a wife used to dealing with infants, and he knows just the person…
So Lord Greywell arrives to take a look at Elspeth, and after some manoeuvring, they reach an accommodation and marry. He immediately takes off for Vienna and the political negotiations going on there, leaving Elspeth to take care of the child, the household and the estate.
I confess that this is precisely the sort of situation that fascinates me. Modern marriages are almost exclusively based on romantic love, but the Regency was full of pragmatic marriages which were more a business arrangement than anything else. In this case, Elspeth only agrees to it on the understanding that it will be a marriage of convenience only, and she won’t have to participate in any of that nasty man/woman intimacy that so repels her. Lord Greywell is still too grief-stricken over his wife to care much. So long as his son and heir survives, nothing more will be demanded of his wife.
Their first few days together are a master-study in the difficulties inherent in such arrangements. He finds himself constantly comparing her with his late wife, unfavourably. She is constantly bumping up against the traditions of the household, and wondering what she can change and what will annoy her new husband too much. Their interactions are edgy and sometimes downright hostile, and yet they are both smart enough to understand and make allowances for the other. There’s a continual process of adjustment between them, but it’s not clear at first whether this will end in a rapprochement or whether it will descend to outright war.
But then Lord Greywell goes off to be a diplomat, and their only communication is by letter, a very unsatisfactory means of communication for two people with so wide a gulf between them. He fades out of the picture somewhat at this point, and Elspeth is left to her own devices, stymied somewhat by the conventions of the neighbourhood from carrying out her usual charitable projects, and at somewhat of a loose end. Into this void comes Francis Treyford, the effete son of neighbours and a poet, who falls into a kind of infatuation with Elspeth, writing her impassioned poetry and generally hanging around her. And with her husband away, she is vulnerable to his attentions.
I confess to a certain queasiness about her behaviour at this point. I can understand a roving eye before a couple get together, and even something a bit more physical than that, but once there’s a definite pairing, the two should not be looking elsewhere, and certainly not doing anything more than looking. Elspeth and Francis get beyond kisses into something that would certainly have ended up in infidelity, except that Elspeth draws back at the crucial moment. The interlude serves to awaken her to the possibilities of physical intimacy, however, so when her husband returns, she is far more open to the idea than she was, and this smooths the path to the final rapprochement between the two.
I can respect this as an interesting choice by the author, and perhaps in the real world a wife in this situation, effectively abandoned by her husband, feeling lonely and unwanted, might indeed be vulnerable to another man. But frankly, I wonder how likely it would be that a well brought up Regency woman, especially one as buttoned up as Elspeth, would proceed quite so far down the path to an affair. And as a reader I would much rather it had been her husband who opened her eyes to the possibilities of marital intimacy. For that reason, I feel I can only give this four stars. The subject of sex pervades the whole book, and there’s a mildly graphic interlude towards the end. In addition, there are a number of Americanisms (gotten, write him instead of write to him, etc) which also detracted from my enjoyment. A great pity.