Review: A Very Plain Young Man by Christina Dudley (2014)

Posted May 6, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a delight almost from start to finish… no, not even almost, it actually was delightful from start to finish, because although the story opens with the hero visiting his mistress, which would normally be a downer in an otherwise traditional Regency, the scene is so funny I forgive it. The lady is a bit of a drama queen, and since Our Hero is not best pleased by her histrionics, he finds himself scratching around for a delicate way to end their relationship. To his every excuse, she finds some counter-argument, and in the end he’s forced to tell her that he’s about to marry. Any self-respecting mistress understands that he can’t have any other relationships – at least, not for a while. He’s free! But in order to keep the lady from pestering him, he’ll really have to find himself a wife, or at least make the attempt.

And so begins the story. Our Hero is Frederick Tierney, the wild older brother of Joseph, the gentle hero of the previous book, The Naturalist, and since said brother has just married the impoverished but equally beetle-mad Alice Hapgood, Frederick decides to descend on the Hapgoods. Having spied the serenely beautiful older sister, Elfrida Hapgood at a ball, he decides that she would make him a suitable wife. Since he’s handsome, charming and wealthy, not to mention the heir to a baronetcy, he can’t imagine that he’ll have any trouble wooing her. But Elfrida is a down-to-earth young lady, not at all romantic, and she knows Frederick’s quite above her touch, not to mention having a terrible reputation. To his surprise, she’s not even interested in him.

And that, in a nutshell, is the whole story. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? It’s hardly an original plot. But the skill is all in the execution, or in this case the characters of the two principals. Frederick is sunnily undeterred by Elfrida’s indifference, and determines to ruffle her composure however he can. This manifests itself in the most glorious teasing banter, which manages to be witty and brain-addling and gloriously funny all at the same time. Many authors are claimed to be masters (or mistresses) of the art of writing witty banter, but nothing I have read before even comes close to this. It’s quite brilliant.

Elfrida’s composure stems at least in part from short-sightedness, so she sees the world in unrelieved fuzziness and doesn’t fuss over the details. And Frederick, lovely Frederick, discovers her secret and realises that she’s never seen just how handsome he is, so he takes care to position himself close enough for her to appreciate him in all his golden-haired glory. And the beauty of this is that it doesn’t come across as arrogance, but as a simple acceptance of himself. He truly thinks that when she sees him properly, she’ll fall for him. And who would not? I defy anyone not to love Frederick.

Of course, there are bound to be obstacles to the path of true love. Frederick’s past comes back to haunt him, and Elfrida is faced with a potential husband of a very different kind, soberly honourable and a very sensible choice. Needless to say, things come right in the end, thanks to Frederick’s irrepressible conviction that Elfrida will marry him eventually. There is only one wobbly moment where Elfrida makes a really stupid decision, but the rest of the book is so brilliant, and Frederick’s solution to the difficulty is so adept that I won’t hold it against her.

An honourable mention for some of the minor characters. I loved Elfrida’s younger sisters, chatterbox Margaret and artistic Edith, and her parents too, the father only interested in his dogs, and the mother dozing by the fire, when she can work up the energy to get out of bed. I’ve mentioned the melodramatic mistress, and then there’s the ‘maid’, Mrs Todd, who is in a league of her own. I love a book that’s funny, and this one actually had me laughing till I cried.

The writing is a treat for anyone looking for truly Austenesque prose, although there are a fair few Americanisms [*]. Nothing drastic, though, and certainly not enough to disrupt my enjoyment. A wonderful read that I raced through almost in one sitting. Five stars.

[*] The author tells me that these have been fixed.

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Review: Ormsley by Jenny Hambly (2022)

Posted May 6, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Another stellar read from Jenny Hambly, which I read more or less in one sitting. Lovely characters who feel like the sort of people you could actually meet in real life (and enjoy spending time with), beautiful writing and a perfectly evoked Regency with no anachronisms that I detected.

Here’s the premise: Hugh Brandforth, the Earl of Ormsley, returns unannounced to his estate after a futile pursuit of a wife. He’s thirty-seven, and was enjoying his discreet dalliances with married women too much to bother marrying himself, but being the only son, his ageing father had decided to secure the succession more firmly by taking a second wife, younger than Hugh. She produced a son, Henry, but Hugh has no love for his stepmother and her mother, and has belatedly decided to do his duty and find himself a sensible wife who won’t be difficult and will definitely not expect him to love her. He doesn’t believe in love. But it’s proving to be trickier than he’d supposed, so he’s not in the best of moods when he arrives home.

It’s not the homecoming he might have wished for. The gates are locked, for one thing, and then he finds himself berated by his old nurse for neglecting his little brother, accosted by an aggrieved woman, who is a complete stranger, when he mistook her for the boy’s nursemaid, and even the woman’s coachman is disrespectful. It’s a bit much for an earl to put up with.

But who’s this aggrieved woman, I hear you ask? Why, that’s the heroine, Miss Cressida Harrington, who has leased the dower house from the Countess of Ormsley, in order to escape from Bath rather precipitately. She was about to receive an unwelcome proposal from a notorious rake, and feared he was about to resort to heavy tactics to ensure her acceptance. But that’s not the sort of marriage she wants. She was once betrothed to a man who then died, and she’s not about to settle for something less than the perfect love she shared with Robin.

This is quite a lot of groundwork to get past before the story properly gets underway, and quite a bit of it is upfront in the first chapter, which describes Hugh’s childhood and upbringing in some detail. It’s very much the way Georgette Heyer would have done it, too, but for my taste I think I prefer to uncover the characters’ histories in dribs and drabs over many chapters.

From then onwards, the story unrolls without too many surprises. Hugh learns how to love, and Cressy learns that her first love was very different from the grown-up passionate feelings she develops for Hugh. In between, Henry learns to become less wild, Hugh’s youthful stepmother and her mother throw spanners in the works, Hugh’s loose-lipped friend does his unwitting bit to muck things up and Cressy’s erstwhile suitor turns up to drum up a little macho maleness in Hugh’s breast. And there are some family secrets to emerge, none of them terribly surprising, but nicely done.

There’s a lot to be said for a pleasant and undemanding read like this. There weren’t any great obstacles to the main characters’ romance, apart from their own reluctance, that is, and after the initial hostilities their sparky exchanges are perhaps a little flat. But they’re both sensible, their moments of high drama are understandable, and thank heavens for people who talk openly to each other, and have wise friends to steer their budding romance away from the shoals of the Great Misunderstanding and into open waters. And at the end, most of the antagonists have repented somewhat and are Doing the Decent Thing. And if that makes it seem slightly dull, overall, that’s partly a reaction to the sheer brilliance of Carteret, which was so epic that almost anything would be a bit of a come-down afterwards. So it doesn’t quite reach the heights of five stars for me, but it’s a very, very good four stars, and highly recommended.

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Review: Forlorn Hope by Judith Hale Everett (2022)

Posted May 6, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

One never knows what to expect from a Judith Everett book (which is very much a good thing, in my estimation). After two books set in the same immediate family, this one veers off at a tangent with a minor character from book 2, Geoffrey Mantell, a second son making a career in the army, and the strange, rather fey, girl next door, Emily Chandry. The two strike up a childhood friendship, and meet again as adults when Geoffrey is on leave. He spends his time searching in rather desultory style for a wife, but when he returns to the war, he decides that Emily is the one he wants. He returns in time from his soldiering only to find that he’s too late – she’s married and gone.

Now, this is the central premise of the book, the tipping point, and it’s revealed in the blurb, but we don’t reach it until well past the 25% point. I confess I read the many early chapters in some impatience to get to the meat of the story – and of course to the resolution, because how is there to be a happy ending out of all this? I was very, very curious to find out how the author resolves this conundrum. I had some ideas, but there were a number of ways this could go. It’s a very intriguing premise.

From this point on, the story revolves largely around Geoffrey’s efforts to put his love for Emily behind him, find himself a wife and move on with his life. All of which he fails to do in pretty spectacular fashion. Gradually he finds himself drawn into the oddity of Emily’s marriage, and the even greater oddity of her now deceased father’s machinations, since his determination to keep his presumed fortune out of the hands of his avaricious son-in-law creates problems for everybody.Geoffrey is a straight-down-the-line character, an honourable and dutiful man in a family of rather wilder types. His older brother Francis is a rake quite uninterested in settling down with a wife. His sister, Clara, is an unrepentant flirt who’s also in no hurry to marry. His mother only seems interested in getting the three of them suitably married. His father is distant, thinking his son a dull dog. Which he is, of course. I like an honourable hero as much as anyone, but I don’t like one who angsts at great length about his situation. There was, frankly, far too much time spent with Geoffrey agonising over Emily, and how he was to be the friend to her that was all he was allowed to be, while not showing his true feelings, and how he must find himself a wife to distract himself. I’d have liked him a lot better if he’d simply taken himself back into the army or found himself something else to do, preferably at the other end of the country. But of course, then there would have been no story.

Emily is (to my mind) a much more interesting character. As a child, she was unloved and neglected, spending her time in the woods, semi-feral, and building a fairy village in a clearing, complete with miniature houses, people and animals. Geoffrey is drawn to the endeavour as much as to the girl, and the two became friends in childhood while jointly working on the project. The whole concept is both magically creative but also unutterably sad, that she (or in fact both of them) were so little loved within their own families that they created a fantasy world to play out the happier lives of their pretend villagers. I liked that Emily grew up to be such a strong character, despite the neglect, taking charge of her own destiny as far as the law and circumstances allowed. She escaped her horrible father by marrying a man who wasn’t perfect, by any means, but with whom she could at least have a better life, and when the final crisis comes, she takes charge then, too. Good for her.

Even the side characters like Francis and Clara are livelier and more interesting than stolid Geoffrey. He’s such a goody-two-shoes that he spends time in London, while he’s supposedly looking for a wife, helping a random stranger with her affairs. Now, the random stranger happens to be the heroine of book 2, and so we see again some of the events of that book, but this time from Geoffrey’s perspective. This is not uninteresting to those who have read (and remember) book 2, but it adds nothing at all to this book except to illustrate that Geoffrey is a Good Person, which frankly we’ve already seen too much convincing evidence of. So that whole section of the book could easily have been dispensed with. It may well be that when the Branwell Chronicles is completed, these little cross-over vignettes will add depth and richness to the series-long story, but for me, impatient to find out just what was going on with Emily, this whole section was an irrelevance.

As the book progresses, it veers more into Gothic melodrama, with some dramatic happenings before our hero and heroine get their inevitable happy ending. I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the resolution to the problem of getting Emily out of her marriage, but it was perfectly in keeping with the Regency, and the nature of the characters themselves, so I won’t quibble over it. In fact, the author has such a sure hand in evoking the Regency that the odd Americanism that creeps in is quite startling (my favourite is the very non-British ‘grandbabies’). But really, there are vanishingly few of these, and in general the writing is quite brilliantly accurate to the period, without being heavy.

Overall, this didn’t resonate with me the way the first two books in the series did. There’s a greyness and lack of humour that probably exudes from Geoffrey (and is therefore totally in keeping), but I felt it weighed the book down somewhat. I would have liked more of a spark from Geoffrey, a little less of the remorseless agonising and sheer goodness, and a lot less of the repetitive pursuit of an eligible match when his heart wasn’t in it. I could have done without any of the overlap with book 2, and the sub-plot with Geoffrey’s mother added nothing very much to the story. Conversely, I would have liked a bit more of Emily, and that curious marriage. If this were the first Everett book I’d read, I’d probably have given it three stars and never read anything else by her (in which case I’d have been very much the loser). But it’s so beautifully written, and evokes such a believable Regency, that I’m going to give it four stars and hope for better fortune with the next book.

There are very few authors who have the courage to take an idea, a character, a situation and simply allow it to unwind at its own pace and in its own way, without ever trying to nudge it into the familiar plot-ruts. Writers like Mary Balogh, E A Dineley and Arabella Brown can do it, and Everett is of the same ilk. Such writing can be hit or miss, and this one isn’t a total success for me. Nevertheless, I respect and applaud the attempt, I have the utmost admiration for Everett’s talent and I will always prefer this kind of uncompromising originality to the majority of cookie-cutter Regencies.

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Review: Kingscastle by Sophia Holloway (2021)

Posted April 8, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve read one previous book by this author, The Devil You Know, which I loved apart from one major flaw late on, but the writing was absolutely superb. So it is here, too, and although I had some niggles, they didn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying the book, to the extent that I read it in one sitting.

Here’s the premise: Captain William Hawksmoor is obliged to leave his beloved Royal Navy when both his cousin (of the same name) and his uncle die, leaving him the new Marquis of Athelney. The cousin who had been expected to inherit having been a useless good-for-nothing, the will specified certain conditions, namely, that he should marry and produce an heir within two years. The new Marquis has the same name, so the provisions apply equally to him, and he’s not unwilling. The title, the estate and his obligations he sees as just his duty, and he’s very good at doing his duty. But where will he find a bride? However, when he arrives at his new home, Kingscastle, he meets his aunt, Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor, who is determined that he should marry his cousin, timid and hectored Charlotte, but he finds the much mistreated companion, Eleanor Burgess far more to his liking.

It has to be said that Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor is a real piece of work – think Lady Catherine de Burgh on steroids. She’s so over the top as to be a caricature, but since she is almost the only obstacle to the plain sailing of the romance, I suppose we must give her some latitude. And, to be honest, in an era when women of rank were often both badly educated and accorded great deference, it was inevitable that some would conceive a completely misguided sense of their own importance in the world, and look down on anyone they deemed inferior, their position allowing them to be as rude as they like and get away with it. Neither the daughter, Charlotte, nor the companion, Eleanor, is in any position to gainsay her ladyship in the slightest.

Lord Athelney is a straightforward and pragmatic soul, and so it isn’t very long before he’s proposing to Eleanor, not any romantic sense, but as a way for him to fulfil the terms of the will and for her to escape her difficult circumstances. But he makes it clear that he likes and admires her, and that he thinks they can make a good marriage out of it that will content them both. And she turns him down. Of course she does. Why would she do that? Because she wants him to love her, naturally. It’s not enough for him to like her, she’s holding out for something more. At this point, I want to sit her down and berate her for her utter stupidity. She has nothing at all in her life except a miserable existence as a punching ball for Lady Willoughby, which is likely to see her dismissed without a reference very soon. And then she will have no future at all except that of increasing poverty and a desperate old age. Turning down a marquis is utter madness.

I had the same issue with Georgette Heyer’s Sprig Muslin, where Lady Hester has been in love with the hero for years, and rejects his pragmatic proposal for the same reason – because she’s holding out for love. At least in that case, although she was very much unappreciated by her family, she didn’t have the dire spectre of poverty looming over her. Eleanor has no such excuse.

However, thank heavens for a hero who knows what he wants and is prepared to wait for the heroine to decide what she wants, too. Of course, there are obstacles a-plenty, mainly the ever odious Lady Willoughby, but also a major misunderstanding between hero and heroine. The author has to jump through hoops a little to make this work, but she succeeds pretty well. I’m not at all a fan of the Great Misunderstanding but at least this one felt credible. There are also some melodramatic moments where the hero gets to shine and be… well, heroic. Which is fine. I’m all for heroic heroes, and Lord Athelney is a fine example of the species.

Despite the niggle about Eleanor’s stupid refusal of the first offer, I’m happy to let it go, partly because the book would be a novella if she did the sensible thing, but mainly because there’s so much else to love about this book. The writing is awesome, authentically Austen-esque without ever descending into the impenetrable, there’s some splendid banter between the protagonists, there’s a charming little side romance as a bonus, and the book is funny. I can forgive a book almost any sin if it makes me laugh, and this one did. The scene where Lord Athelney disposes of the two less-than-respectable ladies is utterly brilliant, and I particularly enjoyed the little nautical phrases that kept cropping up with the two naval men. Describing the approach to a proposal as a ‘coming alongside manoeuvre’ is delicious. I’ve only encountered one other book which got this right, although less subtly than Holloway (None So Blind by Sarah Waldock, where one character described a ball as ‘fleet manoeuvres under full sail’).

Altogether, I found this to be a fine read, and I can’t give it less than five stars. Highly recommended for anyone yearning for the authentic Regency experience.

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Review: An Eligible Gentleman by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1983)

Posted April 7, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a meringue book – light, very digestible and sweet enough, but ultimately not meaty enough to be filling. I’m writing this a few days after finishing it and already I’m struggling to remember what I liked about it.

Here’s the premise: Frederick is that staple of Regency romances, the eligible but confirmed bachelor who has no wish at all to marry and settle down. His mother [*], however, has other ideas. She and her sister Ianthe, Lady Chalgrove, plan to marry Frederick to Ianthe’s daughter Phoebe (yes, a cousin marriage, so if this bothers you, best avoid this book). Lady Eversley is to bring Phoebe to London for the season, where she hopes cousinly feelings will blossom into something warmer. She persuades Frederick to accompany her to collect Phoebe. But Phoebe is in love with someone else and has no desire at all to marry Frederick, so her friend and local hoyden Eleanor Denham (Nell) sets about a cunning plan to make Frederick look like a bad match. Not understanding her motives, but knowing that her story is nonsense, Frederick takes Nell in great dislike. And when she, too, goes to London, the stage is set for a great deal of misunderstanding.

To be honest, this book made very little impression on me. Neither the events in London nor any romantic moments stayed with me, and I don’t feel inclined to reread to remind myself. However, it was very digestible, and I certainly enjoyed reading it, although I got a bit muddled with who was supposed to pair off with whom. A pleasant four star read.

[*] The lady actually died earlier in the series! This didn’t bother me in the slightest because I didn’t notice, but I saw it pointed out in a review and went off to check.

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Review: A Season At Brighton by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1971)

Posted April 7, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

The third book in this series picks up another few years further on, and follows the rejected suitor from the previous book, Lord Pamyngton, and a new family, the Denhams, who have an abundance of daughters to be married off. Heroine Catherine (Katie) first meets Lord Pamyngton when she is in dire straits, having run away from home and fallen into the clutches of a none too respectable man. Lord Pamyngton rescues her, and discovers to his surprise that he himself is blamed for her predicament. Keeping his identity a secret to learn more of this situation, she confides in him and is later mortified to realise who he is, and that he practised such subterfuge on her.

So begins, rather awkwardly, their acquaintanceship, although I have to confess that it seems odd they never met before when they are close neighbours and the viscount even bears a family resemblance to his parents. But I’m always prepared to allow a book its initial premise, however unlikely, so let it pass.

The story then shifts to Brighton, where the married sister lives and where Lord Pamyngton has also gone, and once again Katie gets herself into scrapes of one sort or another, whether more from innocence or foolishness, it’s hard to say. I’m not a great fan of heroines who do incredibly stupid things (like running away and forgetting to take any money, for instance), and Katie is particularly stupid in that way. However, given the era in which it was written and the influence of Georgette Heyer, who loved to have her very young heroines scampering about the countryside, I suppose it works.

It’s fortunate that our hero, Lord Pamyngton, is sensible enough both to know his own mind and also to know Katie’s proclivity for getting into scrapes, so he helpfully keeps watch over her, enabling him to be on hand to rescue her with rather more plausibility than is usual in this kind of tale. The plot unravels in a fairly predictable and melodramatic way, but the writing is as amusing as ever and I enjoyed it all enough to give it four stars.

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Review: The Toast of the Town by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1968)

Posted April 7, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Another pleasantly undemanding read, light-hearted and very much in the Regency romp style of Georgette Heyer. This follows on from The Clandestine Betrothal, and although it isn’t essential to have read the previous book, it does make it a little more enjoyable to have some understanding of the background.

Here’s the premise: it’s four years after Hugh Eversley married Susan Fyfield, and they’re in anticipation of their second child. Hugh’s lively sister, Georgiana, an old school friend of Susan’s, is now twenty-one, the eponymous toast of the town, and has already turned down six different suitors. She’s a restless spirit, and Susan is sure that all she needs is a husband and children to settle her down. Accordingly, she has filled their house with guests to try to get Georgiana successfully paired off. Among the eligibles are Lord Pamyngton, a gentlemanly but dull viscount, and Henry Curshawe, brother to George Eversley’s very boring betrothed.

Georgiana is bored by this dull house party. She doesn’t like any of the Curshawes, and doesn’t take Lord Pamyngton’s gentle pursuit of her seriously. But one day she decides to take out Hugh’s curricle and matched pair for a spin, and her high spirits get her into trouble, throwing her (literally!) into the path of perhaps the one man who’s unimpressed by the very beautiful Miss Eversley, Dr John Hume. He ticks her off soundly and when she retaliates in kind, the stage is set for each of them to deeply dislike the other. So much so, that when the youngest Eversley brother, Freddy, challenges Georgiana to make the doctor fall in love with her, she accepts at once.

After this, things hum along nicely, and I really enjoyed the banter between the two, plus Georgiana’s ingenious attempts to entrap the good doctor into a declaration. But of course things don’t quite go to plan, and Georgiana has to suffer a great deal before she begins to understand her own heart and reaches her happy ending. The other members of her family as well as her two suitors act as facilitators or obstacles along the way.

I did have a couple of grumbles. One is Georgiana’s brother George (and what sort of family has a George and a Georgiana, anyway?). George is betrothed to the World’s Dullest Girl ™ and seems to have a very cavalier attitude towards her, looking forward to the time when they’ll be married so that he doesn’t have to pay her much attention, for instance. I kept expecting him to see the light and realise that she was the WDG ™, but he never did. George was rather sweet in The Clandestine Betrothal, so it was a sad comedown for him.

The other grumble was the good doctor’s cousin, who’s perfectly qualified to be a doctor’s wife, is desperately in love with him, the whole family expects them to marry and he ends up chasing after the entirely unsuitable and above his station Miss Eversley. And poor Anne isn’t even given the sop of a secondary romance to heal her broken heart. There was a throwaway line about her being young and meeting someone else in the future, and that’s all the thought she gets. I was very sad on her behalf. Georgiana’s other suitor, the gentlemanly Lord Pamyngton, gets his moment of glory in the next book, so his broken heart will be mended.

All in all, an enjoyable read in the old-fashioned style. A solid four stars.

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Review: A Clandestine Betrothal by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1967)

Posted April 7, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was an unexpected delight. I’ve seen Alice Chetwynd Ley’s books bobbing around for a while now, but this is the first time I’ve read anything of hers. It’s a fairly slight story, but given its age (55!) it’s worn remarkably well. Ley’s writing career overlapped with that of the great Georgette Heyer, so it’s inevitable that her writing is heavily redolent of Heyer, but it’s none the worse for that.

Here’s the premise: Susan Fyfield is, at seventeen, finally leaving school. But what does her future hold? She’s an orphan, although a wealthy one, and dependent on her aunt’s kindness for a home. She knows very well what she would like her future to hold – one Hugh Eversley, dashing older brother of her best friend, Georgiana Eversley. She’s heard everything Georgiana can tell her of Hugh, and glimpsed him once or twice. She even stole away from school to see him when she heard he was to visit a house nearby, and was very embarrassed when she was discovered hiding in the shrubbery, whereupon he very kindly drove her back to the school.

But when Susan returns to her aunt’s home and finds out that her gloating cousin Cynthia is triumphantly betrothed, she takes a step too far – she tells them that she’s secretly betrothed. And when Hugh takes pity on her at his sister’s ball, and Susan gets a bit tipsy, she blurts out her most secret dream to her aunt – that her betrothed is in fact Hugh Eversley himself. The aunt doesn’t entirely believe her, but she feels she’s going to have to confront Mr Eversley herself to make sure of the truth, so Susan naturally feels she has to rush round to his lodgings to warn him. Whereupon he takes pity on her again and suggests going along with the secret betrothal for a while.

So far, so not very believable. He’s a leader of society, a notorious rake (aren’t they all?) and determined avoider of matrimony, and she’s a chit of a girl barely out of the schoolroom. To be honest, pretty much everything up to this point becomes a matter of conscious suspension of disbelief. Not so much Susan’s daydreams and childish impulsiveness, because she’s very immature, as young girls leading sheltered lives tended to be in those days, but that a man like Hugh Eversley would take any interest whatsoever in her defies credibility. And yet… despite the rakishness and society gloss, he’s actually a very nice man at heart, who sees Susan’s vulnerability and wants to spare her more pain. And of course, he’s only twenty-seven himself, so not exactly the jaded older man so beloved of Heyer. A ten year age gap isn’t at all unusual in the Regency, so it’s quite easy to believe that he’s attracted to her right from the start, while telling himself he’s just taking a brotherly interest in his sister’s friend.

From this point, anyway, the plots runs on swimmingly, with the discovery that Susan isn’t her aunt’s niece after all, but a foundling of some sort, and the story becomes largely about finding out just who she is and why she was handed over to her ‘aunt’ at all. Needless to say, it’s Hugh who beetles about trying to find answers and discovering along the way that he’s very much in love, without quite knowing what to do about it.

The author neatly sidesteps some of the hackneyed plot devices so beloved of Regency romances. So Susan runs away, but to a very safe harbour, and (apart from that brief visit to Hugh’s lodgings, which would have been quite beyond the pale) is never unchaperoned with Hugh. She even grows up visibly, which makes Hugh’s feelings even more credible. And Hugh? Ah, I do love me a sensible hero. I wasn’t much enamoured of his continued pursuit of the actress, and although this sort of comes right in the end, I would still have liked him to acknowledge the wrongness of loving one woman while chasing another, however platonic the chase might have been.

Like all Regencies of the era, it’s short on passion and long on mannerly restraint, but the writing is impeccable, the Regency atmosphere is faultless and the book is dripping with charm. I only knocked a star off for a degree of incredulity in the early chapters and that lack of passion. Four stars.

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Review: The Devil You Know by Sophia Holloway (2017)

Posted March 9, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Such a frustrating book – beautifully written in every way, and near perfect up to roughly the 75% mark, and then things went a bit pear-shaped. It didn’t ruin the book for me, and I’ll certainly look out for more by this author, but it was disappointing.

Here’s the premise: Kitty Elford’s half-brother is about to marry, and his bride wants Kitty out of the family home at once if not sooner. Kitty is given an ultimatum – leave penniless to make her own way in the world, or marry the notorious rake the Earl of Ledbury. Kitty’s not unwilling – the earl is handsome, after all, and she sighed over him as a debutante, but she knows his reputation all too well having seen him about his seductive business one evening. But it’s better than being penniless, and the earl is happy to have Kitty’s generous dowry to fund his race horses (the sister-in-law really, really wants her out of the way), so married they are.

The wedding night is a disaster, but we see nothing of it because this is a traditional Regency. Despite the fact that a large part of the book is about sex, whether the hero’s pre-marital shenanigans, the wedding night fiasco or the long wait for hero and heroine to reach an accommodation in that direction, there’s nothing graphic about it at all. There’s no reason why this should feel odd, and I’ve written marriage of convenience stories myself that keep all the sex offstage, but the abrupt transition felt uncomfortable. One minute, the hero is fortifying himself to do his duty by his bride with brandy, and the next she’s waking alone in bed, and for a moment I wondered if perhaps he hadn’t come to her room at all. I don’t know how else it could have been done but somehow it all seemed understated. The jump deserved something more – a new chapter, perhaps?

The interesting question is why a rake, who presumably knows everything there is to know about pleasuring women, should make such a hash of things with his own wife, but perhaps the proffered explanation – that’s he’s never bedded a virgin before – will suffice. Anyway, he decides that he doesn’t like being married, and would rather pretend it’s never happened, especially as his bride sets to with workmen and wallpaper samples to set right the neglected house, and upend his whole existence. So he invites a group of his friends to stay to distract himself with jocular masculine company, which works about as well as you would expect.

Fortunately, one of the friends is Lord Inglesham, a widower and by far the more promising character to play the role of hero. He’s quite wasted as a sidekick, frankly. He offers Lord Ledbury some sound advice, which would have been blindingly obvious to any half-sensible man, and some of it does sink in, for Ledbury and Kitty do start to get onto better terms. He discovers that she’s an accomplished rider, for one thing, which is the one thing guaranteed to soften him towards her, and she’s starting to soften towards him, too.

Now, you’d expect that this would result in a return to the heir-producing efforts so unceremoniously abandoned after that disastrous, but unseen, wedding night, but no. One thing after another conspires to prevent it, and the author has to stretch credulity to snapping point to keep them apart. I confess to getting impatient with the artificiality of it all, and wondering why on earth they didn’t just sit down and discuss it openly, like sensible adults. But no, they have to wait and wait and wait some more, because reasons.

At this point, I was very much comparing the book with Mary Balogh’s The Obedient Bride, a book which takes the same basic premise of a marriage of convenience to a man of casual morals, and follows it with uncompromising honesty. Balogh doesn’t shy away from the sex, but she also creates a very believable transformation in both main characters. Holloway, by contrast, has to resort to some fairly tired old tropes to create the drama at the end which will finally bring the principals together.

And this is where the book veered off the rails for me. It wasn’t the melodrama that sank the final section of the book, but the hero’s response to it. He starts the book as a deeply selfish individual who’s gradually come to see his wife as not merely the funder of his racehorses, or a housewifely nuisance, but someone he values and appreciates in her own right. He even begins to realise that he loves her. But when the crisis comes, he simply runs away – there’s no other way to describe it. And I wanted to slap him upside the head, and tell him not to be so stupid, to go to Kitty and TALK to her, for heaven’s sake. You know, like a grown up. But no, he has to be rescued by his long-suffering friend, the heroic Lord Inglesham, once more. I can’t tell you how deeply disappointing I found this, but on the other side of the coin, if I’d cared less about Ledbury, I’d have been less disappointed. I suppose it’s a testament to the author’s skill that I so badly wanted him to come good at the end.

There’s some more fairly over-the-top melodrama before matters are resolved, but I can’t honestly say I was convinced by Ledbury’s transformation from perpetual rake to faithful husband. Reforming a rake believably is arguably the most difficult challenge a Regency author can undertake, and to be fair, few are truly convincing. The reader wants to believe, though, and maybe that’s enough.

I don’t want this to sound too negative, because for the first three quarters of the book I was breathless with admiration. The language is perfectly of the Regency, I didn’t detect a single anachronism or infelicitous phrase, the main characters have believable depth, and the dialogue is electrifying. The back and forth between Kitty and Ledbury, and particularly Ledbury’s volatile moods are brilliantly realised. I loved every moment of it. It was only that saggy ending that spoilt things for me and kept it to four stars, but I thoroughly recommend it all the same.

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Review: The Wastrel’s Daughters by Arabella Brown (2021)

Posted March 9, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I knew after reading the first Regency by this author (A Detestable Name) that this one would be different. Arabella Brown is such an original writer that it couldn’t be otherwise, and I was not disappointed. It’s perhaps not quite as witty as the first book, but the glorious writing is present and correct, along with an array of likeable and intriguing characters.

Here’s the premise: Harrogate residents Polly Selby and her sister Anne are left more or less destitute by their father’s death (the wastrel of the title). Discovering that even the house is mortgaged, they let it out and seek employment for themselves. Anne, the much younger sister who’s had some education, becomes a governess. Polly, at thirty-two, becomes a companion to a tartar of an elderly woman, who’s driven off innumerable companions. Both of them find themselves courted by unlikely suitors, and there are a couple of side romances, as well.

Let’s deal with Anne first. Her post is one where the governesses are invariably dismissed within months (or even weeks) because of the husband’s roving eyes. Dismissed she is, but not before she’s made a friend of the rakish Mr Hallam. Seeing the governess sitting in an unobtrusive corner in case she’s needed, he sees her as easy prey, but she understands what he is and gives him a piece of her mind. He agrees to behave properly with her, and in fact rescues her from any harm from the lecherous husband. She’s still dismissed, though, but this is such a regular occurrence that the housekeeper has arranged for her to be looked after until she can be found new employment. The doctor and vicar take turns, seemingly, to look after the dismissed governesses!

Meanwhile, Polly is getting on like a house on fire with the tartar, who turns out to be a great big pussy cat after all. But then Polly receives some bad news, swoons and is carried home insensible by a stranger whereupon she falls into a life-threatening fever for weeks (no doubt channelling Marianne from Sense and Sensibility). Anne is summoned home to nurse her, and take over her duties as companion until Polly recovers.

And here the two unlikely suitors appear fully on stage. Rakish Mr Hallam returns, newly chastened and reformed by Anne’s upbraiding and the ministrations of a friendly Jew running a sponging house in London. A sponging house is a sort of unofficial prison where the gentry go to be locked up until they, or a long-suffering relation, get round to paying their debts. Mr Solomon, the Jew in question, teaches Mr Hallam how to manage his affairs, and with the prospect of clearing all his debts in time and thereafter leading a blameless if boring life, he pays court to Anne with great determination.

And here I have to take issue with him. No gentleman should be courting a lady and trying to win her affections unless he’s in a position to marry, which Mr Hallam isn’t. He might well be, one day, but he’s a long way from that point, so I disapproved very strongly of his actions.

The other unlikely suitor is Mr Ledsham, the gentleman who rescued Polly when she fainted, and became intrigued by the mysteriously insensible lady. After calling every day to enquire after her health, he eventually gets to meet her, and he too begins to pay court to her… or does he? What precisely are his intentions? Polly isn’t at all sure, and frankly, I wouldn’t be either. A more restrained courtship would be hard to imagine. There were times when I wanted to box his ears and tell him just to get on with it – to declare himself, or show a bit of passion. But he never does, until the final pages of the book.

I’m going to be honest here. I love this author, because she can write – boy, can she write! And she thinks outside the (Regency) box. Here we are in Harrogate, getting a fascinating glimpse into the differences between High Harrogate and Low Harrogate, tiptoing round the fringes of the gentry (like the tartar and Mr Hallam’s family) and trade (like Mr Ledsham with his mines). There’s no season here, no Almack’s or Vauxhall’s or Hyde Park, no debutantes or wilful heiresses, no elopements or seductions or kidnappings. Not very much happens, but it’s all interesting.

But the structure of the story is all wrong. Anne goes off to one household to be a governess, then (very briefly) another before returning to Harrogate for good. Those two families are not mentioned again. There’s a wastrel of a brother, whose only purpose seems to be to inflict a debt-collecting heavy on his sisters. He’s then callously written out of the story altogether. I kept expecting him to turn up again like a bad penny, but he never did. It seems he’s gone for good. There’s the mystery of the missing valise, supposedly containing some treasure from the wastrel father which was never found. Instead of trying to find it, the sisters simply shrug – oh well, they say, I guess it’s gone, then. I’d have liked some effort put into actually tracing the father’s movements and working out where the valise might have gone. That would have been far more satisfying.

But my real complaint is with Mr Ledsham and Polly. Honestly, given their ages, I would have thought their romance, or courtship, perhaps, could have been speeded up just a touch. What on earth were they waiting for? Although maybe I’m being unfair, and judging them by the standards of so many modern Regency romances that get into the heavy breathing by chapter three at the latest. Perhaps this is much more the sort of delicate dance that would actually have been the norm in the Regency. It reminded me a little of Anna Dean’s lovely series, where the romance builds inch by cautious inch over four books. Still, I did get quite impatient with both Mr Ledsham and Polly.

The blurb describes this as a chaste novel, and it certainly is that. The romance is incredibly gentle and low-key, so anyone looking for a more emotional story should probably move swiftly on. But if you want an authentic Regency experience, in the unusual setting of Harrogate, with a multitude of well-drawn and almost uniformly kindly characters, this is the one for you. It’s the Lark Rise to Candleford version of the Regency romance, where nothing terribly awful happens, and the pace is stately, but very much one to savour. The unevenness of the plot keeps it to four stars for me.

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