A new Jenny Hambly book is always a treat, and so it is here – a lovely gentle read, with nothing too melodramatic to disturb the slowly developing romance.
Here’s the premise: Emma Wynn has been living in a safe environment for a year, a place where women escaping from dangers in their life can hide away and recover their health and strength. There she befriended another girl with a traumatic past. But Nell is now happily married to the Marquess of Eagleton and living quietly in Cornwall as she awaits the birth of her first child. Emma is sent to keep her company, a way of giving her a change of scenery while still keeping her safe. There she meets the Eagletons’ reclusive neighbour, Oliver Carne, a man with his own difficult history. The two are drawn to each other from the first, by way of a series of rather too convenient ‘accidents’, but the secrets and scandals of their pasts make them wary of getting involved.
Emma and Oliver are both sensible and eminently likeable people. It’s obvious that they are well suited and everything moves along smoothly, except for the teeny tiny problem of their pasts. Emma must keep herself free from scandal so that she can assume control of her younger brother when she attains her majority, but Oliver has been embroiled in a particularly nasty scandal. It’s not of his making, but it seems impossible to prove his innocence – or is it? The last third of the book addresses this problem, and the weight of history for both the main characters rather overshadows the romance. It makes the book seem rather unbalanced, the gentle and slow-moving nature of the couple’s developing love giving way abruptly to a faster pace as both of them face up to their pasts. Then the difficulties are resolved almost too easily.
The author’s writing shines, as always, with a sure sense of the Regency and a particular talent for evoking a place. In Carteret, it was the house that was described in exquisite detail, but here it’s the outdoors – the river, with its shingle beach where Oliver pulled his boat from the water, or the woods with the ‘buttery yellow’ leaves and frost underfoot. Hambly brings these settings vividly to life, and the image of Emma as a wood nymph in her moss green cloak is one that lingers long in the mind.
I’ve said that our hero and heroine are sensible, but they’re almost too sensible sometimes. I would have liked the odd flaw in their personalities and a little more fire from them now and then. Regency restraint is a real thing and they certainly have good reasons for holding back, but it was a relief when Oliver finally decided he’s not going to wait and got things moving at last. If I have a grumble at all (and it’s a very trivial one), it’s that Emma’s sudden outbreak of accidents seemed very convenient to the plot. Her panic at almost meeting strangers seemed a little out of character, but her injuries forced her into contact with former doctor Oliver.
The other characters are nicely drawn, from the marquess, an endearing combination of haughty aristocrat and over-anxious husband, the very Italian Signora Mantovani and Maria, the down-to-earth locals and Oliver’s grumpy but not unreasonable relations. Be warned, though, that several of the characters have been seen before. Although this is the first of a new series, there’s some overlap with the previous series, as is now the norm with this author. It’s not essential to have read it, but a familiarity with ‘Eagleton’ will be very helpful. I’m spectacularly bad at remembering previous books, but there was enough detail given here to jog my memory, and I don’t think a newcomer to the author would have much trouble picking up the backstory.
As always, a lovely read from one of the best Regency authors around. A very good four stars.