Category: Review

Review: My Lord Winter by Carola Dunn (1992)

Posted February 13, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Some books of this age feel surprisingly modern, but this one is so old-fashioned it’s positively quaint. A buttoned-up hero, a spirited heroine who nevertheless gets into a Heyeresque tangle, and a traditional season stuffed to the gunnels with court presentations, balls, Almack’s patronesses, Gunters, and a society dripping with titles. But there are also glimpses of servants and the middle classes who have lives and personalities of their own, and some delightful side romances.

Here’s the premise: Lady Jane Brooke is the much neglected daughter of a marquis and marchioness who are far too wrapped up in their own affairs to think about her needs. When she reaches an age when she absolutely must be launched into society, they neglect to send a serviceable carriage for her, and she has to take a dilapidated vehicle which eventually expires in Oxford. The resourceful Jane, accompanied by her governess, Miss Gracechurch (Gracie) and her maid Ellie, haven’t enough money to hire a post chaise, so it will have to be the mail coach. When it falls into a ditch right outside the Earl of Wintringham’s gates in thick fog, Jane is determined to seek shelter within. The curmudgeonly earl (my lord Winter from the title) is all for throwing them all out into the fog, but when the Dowager Countess, his aunt, says the same thing, he prefers to thwart her by inviting them all to stay.

To say they’re a motley bunch doesn’t do them justice. Apart from Jane and Gracie, there are a lawyer, a loudmouthed northern industrialist and two undergraduates who’ve been rusticated. All of which enlivens the earl’s dinner table no end. This part of the book is very funny, and Jane’s attempts to wrest something resembling conversation from the earl start to bear fruit when he’s revealed to be an interesting companion behind the steely exterior. They spend enough time together before the fog lifts to begin to have some feelings for each other.

If this were all, it wouldn’t be much to write home about, but the central conceit of the plot is that Jane has been travelling on the mail coach as plain Miss Jane Brooke, so as not to attract unwanted attention to herself. She’s relieved to find that the earl and his aunt rarely come to town and never attend grand social events, so Jane’s unlikely to meet them there. She decides, therefore, not to explain who she really is. Who would believe her anyway? A girl in unfashionable clothes travelling on the mail coach is hardly likely to be the daughter of a marquis.

The rest of the book involves Jane making her come-out in London, while going to increasingly implausible lengths to avoid meeting the marquis publicly, when her deception will be revealed. Instead, he seeks her out through the lawyer from the coach, and she meets him many times in her guise as Miss Jane Brooke, and they visit the many attractions of the city, like Astley’s Amphitheatre and the Tower of London. Some reviews find the continued deception too difficult to believe in, but to my mind it’s very much in tune with the spirit of Georgette Heyer, who wrote many heroines who became increasing illogical in their attempts to cling to the original lie and avoid owning up. There are shades of Arabella here, partly with the breakdown outside the gates of an unfriendly man, but mainly because the last quarter of that book involves Arabella’s increasingly convoluted machinations, where all that was needed was for her to tell the hero the truth. So I forgive this book for following the same pattern, and the eventual resolution is very sweet and quite moving.

A lovely traditional Regency, very much in the Heyer style, beautifully written, and if you find the main couple not to your taste, there are two other charming romances to enjoy. Five stars.

 

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Review: In My Lady’s Chamber by Laura Matthews (Elizabeth Neff Walker) (1981)

Posted February 13, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I’ve read several Laura Matthews books, and I’ve enjoyed them all, something that’s not usual in authors of this era, where the catalogue tends to be spotty. But this was a perfectly judged blend of a second-chance romance with a happy family setting and a treasure hunt thrown in for good measure. There’s a half-hearted villain but his villainy never really amounts to much. This is just good old-fashioned fun, with some unusually good writing underneath.

Here’s the premise: Theodosia Tremere is the daughter of a clergyman, who almost married Viscount Steyne some years previously. Her father having died, she’s now taken up a position as governess to the charming Heythrop family, headed by Lady Eastwick. Her husband is abroad, so the family is headed by her eldest son, twenty-year-old Edward, who is finding his new responsibilities difficult. There are two younger brothers and three daughters, and all of them are delightful. It’s unusual and very refreshing to encounter a completely happy family in a Regency, and also one where the governess is not only treated with respect by the family, but has pupils who are lively but not mischievous. For the summer, Theodosia has a plan to get all the children out and about by instituting a search for the long-lost family treasure.

Into this pleasant setting comes the sort-of villain, Uncle James, who, having run through his own money and finding his debts rather pressing, is planning to marry a rich widow. As a way of convincing her that he’s serious, he invites the widow’s brother to view his estate, to prove that he’s not just a fortune hunter. As his estate adjoins the Heythrop family’s estate, and his own is run down, he and his guest stay with the Heythrops. And by happy coincidence, the guest happens to be Theodosia’s former suitor, Viscount Steyne.

Seasoned Regency readers will know the way the romance will go — a certain amount of initial hostility, followed by a gradual thawing and realisation that yes, they really can start again and make it stick this time. There were some wonderful conversations between the two, with real emotion roiling through them, especially in Steyne (I love it when the hero is the one doing the bulk of the agonising). In books of this age, the romance is often a bit staid, not to say downright perfunctory, but not so here. There’s enough angst here that it could have been dropped straight into a modern novel (and although I’m not in general a fan of too much angst, here I mean it as a compliment).

The treasure hunt (and the villainy) is just a lot of fun, and if the solution to the mystery was too easily found in the end, I can’t quite see how else it could have been done, so I won’t quibble. There are not so many Americanisms as in some of the author’s work (the inevitable gotten, and fall instead of autumn, but I didn’t notice anything else). My only big question-mark is over the amount of time the hero spent in the heroine’s bedroom, in some cases uninvited, and in one case refusing to leave. It was treated as a comedy interlude, so she nipped into the dressing room to put her nightie on and then climbed into bed, then punctured his vanity totally by falling asleep! Even so, it raised my eyebrows somewhat. I wondered whether this was the meaning of the title (which is singularly inappropriate otherwise).

But these minor grumbles aside, I really loved this book, loved both Steyne and Theodosia (whom he rather charmingly calls Doe) and can’t give it less than five stars.

 

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Review: A Fine Gentleman by Laura Matthews (1999)

Posted February 13, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Oh, I loved this book so much. A heroine with gumption and a sparky (ie not bland) character. The fairly conventional grumpy hero who melts relatively quickly. And things that go bump in the night. What’s not to like?

Here’s the premise: Impoverished distant relation Caroline Carruthers is invited to be a temporary companion to the widowed Lady Hartville. Her son, Lord Hartville, the grumpy hero, is very well aware that his mother wants him to marry Caroline, but he finds her too meek and insipid. Besides, he’s quite happy to be a bachelor. But then a child of about five years of age appears at the estate and calls him ‘papa’. He’s quite sure the child isn’t his, but Caroline seems determined to hold him to his supposed obligations. And then Caroline’s frivolous younger brother appears, together with his worldly and very attractive friend Markingham, and strange things start to happen.

Let’s deal with the ‘mystery’ first. The parentage of the child is the big mystery of the book, but the resolution really isn’t that difficult to guess. The problem with a book of this era is that the cast of characters is very limited, so there aren’t very many possible villains to choose from. I spotted the culprit within seconds, so it isn’t difficult. Nevertheless, the author milks the suspense for all it’s worth.

The romance is also never in doubt. There’s some lovely back-and-forth dialogue between hero and heroine, which isn’t frivolous enough to be called banter, but also isn’t intense enough to be unsettling. They are drawn to each other, not quite from the start, but certainly from around the midpoint of the book when the open hostility morphs into something else altogether. There are some lovely set-piece scenes (like the storm, for instance) which develop the relationship nicely. I was less enamoured of the line that she has a voluptuous body and a certain innate awareness of sexuality that serves to move things along. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the scenes where she is less than properly attired, and exposed to his appreciative eye. Yes, he’s a gentleman and the hero, but still, I would have preferred it if he’d shown more restraint at those times.

The resolution is both predictable and very satisfactory, and (unlike many books of this era) there’s a proper ending to the romance, too. There are a number of Americanisms which distressed me (gotten; wooden walkways outside village shop; ready-made dresses in village shop; straightaway (straight bit of road); cream in the tea; allergic (not used before 1908)). I also wondered greatly at the number of indigent relations that Lord Hartville is supporting (I think the number thirty-two was mentioned at one point). If he was giving each of them the five hundred pounds mentioned for one pair, he’d be flat broke in five minutes. It’s far more usual to hand out fifty quid a time, and even that would mount up. Despite all that, I enjoyed the book enough to give it five stars.

 

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Review: Cadenza by Stella Riley (2018)

Posted January 24, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is an absolute trope-fest: an unexpected inheritance, an impoverished estate, two role-swapping impostors, a social outcast with a mysterious history, the whole trapped-in-an-inn scenario with compromising implications… and on and on. But somehow it still manages to be fresh and original, and the primary reason for that is the glorious character of Julian Langham, the virtuoso harpsichordist, who is like no Regency hero ever. He’s obsessive about his music, socially inept, completely outside all the norms of Regency heroes and yet he’s utterly compelling. I loved him.

Here’s the premise: Julian is on the brink of a brilliant career as a concert harpsichordist in Vienna when a lawyer arrives to tell him he’s a distant cousin and heir to a recently deceased earl. Julian doesn’t want to know, but the lawyer persuades him to go back to England, tidy things up at his unwanted estate and then return to Vienna. Julian agrees, only to discover that the estate is on the verge of bankruptcy, and there are three children, neglected by-blows of his predecessor, living wild. He finds that he can’t just abandon his responsibilities… which is precisely the point where the lawyers desert him. Julian is left with nothing, his only hope of salvation a long-neglected and mistreated harpsichord which he can restore, in time. At least then he’ll have music and life won’t be quite so unbearable.

But help is coming from an unexpected quarter. Two cousins, Arabella Brandon and Elizabeth Marsden, are faced with an impossible situation. Arabella, the sister of a baron with a good dowry, is invited to London by distant relations the Duke and Duchess of Rockliffe, but following a disastrous and humiliating failed betrothal, Arabella can’t bear the thought of it. Elizabeth is invited, too, and she’d love to go, but her impoverished clergyman father won’t hear of it. Instead, she arranges a post as housekeeper and governess. And so, inevitably, the two get their heads together and decide to swap places. Arabella will go into service for a few months, while Elizabeth will pretend to be her cousin and have a season in London. No one has ever seen them, so no one will know – what can possibly go wrong?

Experienced Regency readers will know the answer to that, of course. I found it interesting that one of the two heroines is called Arabella, in town pretending to be something she’s not. Familiar? Fans of Georgette Heyer will recognise the echoes of ‘Arabella’, who used her own name but was pretending to be a great heiress, but the similarities are enough to make me uneasy. If only the author had chosen a different name.

So Arabella, masquerading as Elizabeth, ends up in the home of Julian, the reluctant earl, and Elizabeth, masquerading as Arabella, is thrown by bad weather and an enforced stay at an inn (more tropes) into the path of Ralph, the Earl of Sherbourne, a world-weary and sophisticated man about town with a terrible reputation, not just as the all too common rake, but as a murderer (in a duel). As is the way with rakish heroes, Ralph turns out to be more sinned against than sinning, and something of a paragon with the heroine.

The plot proceeds pretty much as you’d expect, as the masquerade gradually unravels. The blurb talks about the Duke of Rockliffe’s ‘omniscience’, but here he works out the deception from some fairly clear clues, so no special skill is necessary. Then it’s merely a question of coasting downhill to the inevitable happy ending. One quirk of this author is that everything tends to work out for the best. Nothing horrendous goes wrong, and missteps by any character are quickly set right (usually by the duke being dukish and throwing his aristocratic weight around). But that’s fine.

I only noticed one historical error: legal adoption was not a thing until 1928. Before that, it was an ad hoc business, where children were informally taken into the household of a relation or friend and raised as if they were adopted, and they might even take the family name, but there was no legal process involved. There is one gratuitous sex scene, which is a pity. Otherwise, this is a beautifully written and compelling work, which I utterly loved (especially Julian). At the end, there’s more focus on Julian and Arabella, with Ralph and Elizabeth rather overshadowed, but ultimately this is Julian’s story, so perhaps that’s fitting. Five stars.

 

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Review: The Shadow Earl by Stella Riley (2023)

Posted January 24, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 4 Comments

This isn’t a bad book. In fact, I read it swiftly, without the slightest urge to hurl my Kindle at the wall, and on the whole I enjoyed it. So why the 3* rating? I’ll come to that.

Here’s the premise: Christopher (Kit),the Earl of Hazelmere, has fallen in love with Sophia Kelsall, but they’re deemed too young to marry. He’s told to go off and take his Grand Tour. A couple of years abroad will broaden his mind, and if they’re both of the same mind when he returns, they can marry then. So Kit takes off with his cousin Basil, but after two years they part company, Basil back to England and Kit, still wanting to explore, to Constantinople. And then… nothing. For three years, nothing is heard of Kit. Basil and his father take over Kit’s London house, and help themselves to his fortune. Sophia is left in limbo, not properly betrothed, but not fully free, either. Her father is very ill and likely to die soon, her mother is pressing her to marry at once, and Basil is very keen to lead her up the aisle. What’s a girl to do? But then, just when she’s given up all hope, Kit returns. But he’s changed, not at all the man she fell in love with.

The two themes of the book are now clear. On the one hand, there’s Kit and Sophia and the question of whether they’ll get back together, or rather (since it’s blindingly obvious that they will) how that will be accomplished and whether the author can spin things out for the full length of the book (happily, the answer is no).

The other matter is what happened to Kit, where he’s been, why he neither returned nor wrote, and how it all came about. This isn’t quite as blindingly obvious, but we find out pretty quickly how it happened and who the villain is, even if we only gradually learn all that happened during those three years. And so the only real question is how Kit will arrange things so that the villain can’t threaten him ever again.

This all sounds like fairly normal fare for a book set in the pre-Regency Georgian era, and so it is. And Stella Riley is a terrific writer. I regard The Parfit Knight, the first book of the Rockliffe series, as one of very few perfect books. So what went wrong here?

Problem number one is something I’ve grumbled about in previous Riley books, and abandoned the Rockliffe series because of it, and that’s the sheer weight of characters from earlier books. I don’t mind one or two of these, or any number, actually, if they’re treated as new characters so that I can keep up, but hurling names around as if I’m supposed to remember them from however many years ago, when I first read about them, is insane. And in fact, there are several earlier books I haven’t read, including a whole series. Since this book is supposed to be the first of a new series, would it be asking too much to make it readable for those of us who are not intimately familiar with the whole crew from the past?

There’s an exchange between two characters that goes something like this (paraphrasing):
A: We’ll have to bring X in on this.
B: Why? How can he help us?
A: You don’t want to know.

No, actually, I DO want to know, because it might help me remember who the hell X is.

Problem number two is that all these people, the ones from this book, and the vast numbers from previous books, are all uniformly good-looking, intelligent, talented, loyal to a fault and filled with steely determination to right wrongs and generally be heroes. Well, apart from the various villains, small and large, who have no redeeming features whatsoever. Perfection and cartoon wickedness don’t make absorbing reading. I like my heroes (and heroines) to be real people with faults and quirks and… oh, I don’t know, personalities, maybe? And I’d like the villains to be less unrelievedly awful.

The third problem is that nothing very terrible happens during the whole course of the book. Kit and Sophia have problems, they work them out. Sophia’s sister is deaf, Kit has a plan to help her, it works perfectly. The army of Kit’s loyal friends devise a plan to trap the big villain and it all works exactly as planned. There are no misunderstandings, no unexpected twists, no last-minute threat from the villain. Sorry but that’s just not interesting. There’s no tension in it. The book can be beautifully written (and it is) but without some unexpected happenings, it’s just dull.

I’m sorry to be so negative, but it’s just because I’m so disappointed. The Parfit Knight was so wonderful, and the next two in the series were great, too, so it makes me very sad to write a review like this. I found very little to quibble over, historically, only the big wedding thing. What is this fetish with big weddings? No one cared about big weddings then! Or choosing a picturesque church. Or having a ‘wedding dress’. Or betrothal rings. Or a bachelor party. Or kissing in the street! Or speeches and toasts at the wedding breakfast. The marriage service just wasn’t a big deal. Otherwise, nothing tripped me up. There is some sex in the book, but it’s the usual stuff (he’s brilliant at it, she’s instantly orgasmic, you know how it goes). But that’s OK. I’m not keen on too much realism in the bedroom scenes. And the funny thing is, even with all my grumbles, I read the thing over two days, and enjoyed it, on the whole. But still… three stars.

 

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Review: The Captain’s Old Love by Mary Lancaster (2023)

Posted January 24, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This was a whole heap of fun. A second chance romance between a couple who were thwarted ten years’ earlier. He went off to sea and concentrated on his career. She instantly married someone else, had a son and was then widowed. Now they meet again, and the outcome is never in doubt. But there are still problems (of course).

Here’s the premise: When Royal Navy man Julius Vale met Antonia Temple, it seemed like a match made in heaven. They were soon betrothed but were driven apart by circumstances that only gradually become clear. Now he’s retired from the navy as Captain Sir Julius Vale, and has returned to his old Blackhaven home with a multitude of siblings in tow, not all of them legitimate. He’s thirty-six and never got over the loss of Antonia, so he’s reluctant to accompany the siblings to a ball. He plans to leave as soon as they’re settled, walk home along the beach within sight of his beloved sea and have a quiet evening. But just as he’s slipping outside, he sees the last person he expected – Antonia.

Their early encounters are filled with anger and pain, but there’s still something between them and they are inexorably drawn together. He discovers that her husband is dead, but that a poor marriage settlement has left her in difficulties, so she’s taken a position as paid companion to a wealthy lady, who travels about with her brother, and is presently in Blackhaven to take the waters. And as they circle warily round each other, they discover the truth: that each of them thinks the other broke it off ten years before, and that they have been repeatedly lied to.

Inevitably, they end up reigniting the same passion that drew them together in the first place, and this time there’s nothing to stop them from marrying and being idyllically happy for the rest of their lives… or is there? Well, of course, things are never that simple, especially as they reach this stage at about the halfway point in the book. From there onwards, their enemies circle ever closer around them, trying to drive them apart, there’s a subplot involving stolen horses and worse, and that marriage settlement is significant, too.

It’s great page-turning stuff, but I have to confess it’s all wildly improbable. I had a particular problem with Antonia. Firstly, when the man she loves apparently jilts her without a word, what does she do but immediately go off and marry someone else. Who in their right mind does that? Even if you believe the web of lies being spun around you, why rush into marriage with another man? Marriage was literally a life sentence in those days. The only rational reason is because she was pregnant, and for a while I wondered about that, but it doesn’t seem to have been an issue. Her parents told her to marry, so she did.

And then, when her present happiness is about to be snatched away from her, again she does what she’s told, and, what is worse, she jilts Julius without a word all over again. What kind of cruelty is that? To do all over again the thing that hurt him so badly the first time. And even though she comes round fairly quickly and starts thinking of ways out of her dilemma, I just can’t forgive her for not telling him at once what was going on.

Julius, on the other hand, is everything a hero should be. His huge family is intriguing (I’m assuming that all the siblings will get their own story eventually, which I look forward to reading). For those who read through the very long original Blackhaven series, lots of the characters from that pop up here in cameo parts, but it’s not necessary to remember them all (fortunately for me).

I very much liked the way the whole plot, in all its disparate parts, came together at the end very elegantly. I didn’t notice any historical errors, although I was a bit surprised that one character managed to ‘pretend’ to be a solicitor (and was more likely to be called an attorney in those days), and the guardianship of the child was airbrushed away at the end. However, I was very pleased to note that the author has discovered that Blackhaven would have been situated in the county of Cumberland in Regency times, not the modern invention of Cumbria. There’s one sex scene, not particularly graphic, and a few references elsewhere. Just one other grumble – I would have liked a list of all the siblings with their ages. It was really hard to get them straight.

If I were judging this book just on plausibility, it would probably rate three stars, but I enjoyed it so much, tearing through it in only two sessions, that it merits a good four stars, and I look forward to whatever comes next.

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Review: A Very Proper Widow by Laura Matthews (1982)

Posted January 14, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

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.

 

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Review: Lord Greywell’s Dilemma by Laura Matthews (1983)

Posted January 14, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

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.

 

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Review: A Snowbound Courtship by Holli Jo Monroe (2023)

Posted January 14, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is a delightful little book, only novella length, but still packing in quite a lot of story, for all that. I’ve never read this author before, but I’ll be looking out for other books by her from now on.

Here’s the premise: And it’s one of the most original ones I’ve come across. Josephine Pearce had a happy and fulfilled life with her widowed father and her three younger sisters. She’s still single at twenty-seven, but that’s never bothered her. But now her father has died, there’s no brother to inherit, so the estate has passed to a cousin and his unpleasant wife. Life has become pretty miserable, and there’s no prospect of a season in London for one of the sisters to find a husband. So Jo is going to do what responsible older sisters must do – she’s going to get a husband for herself, and a home for all the sisters. And she knows just who and how. Her object is Mr Wallace, the steward on the neighbouring estate of Oakstone Hall, and if she times one of her charitable visits just right, she’ll get caught in a storm and have to take shelter in Oakstone Hall and stay overnight, she’ll be compromised and the honourable Mr Wallace will be forced to offer for her. This sounds like a pretty ruthless plan, but she’s fairly certain that Mr Wallace would not be averse to the idea.

Which is a fascinating concept. I’ve read innumerable books where the heroine is accidentally compromised, and quite a few where an unscrupulous female, not the heroine, tries to get herself compromised by the hero, but this is the first time the heroine has set out quite calmly and rationally to get herself compromised by a man, and not even a handsome, titled man, just someone situated to take care of her and her sisters.

Needless to say, her careful plans go badly awry. The storm is worse than she’d expected, she’s almost run down by a stranger on horseback, whose horse then bolts, and they’re both forced to take shelter in a hermit’s hut on the Oakstone estate. Since they’re soaking wet, this involves undressing down to their underwear to dry out their clothes. Of course it does. Fortunately, it turns out that he’s not a stranger at all, but a neighbour she was friendly with as a child. And wouldn’t you just know it, he grew up to be pretty hot stuff, handsome, charming and the heir to a title. What are the odds, eh? And wouldn’t you just know it even more, they get discovered by the very Mr Wallace that Josie had been planning to entrap.

From here on, the plot’s one that any experienced reader of the genre would expect, but it’s none the worse for that. There’s a lot of agonising on both sides over whether they’re doing the right thing, and since Mr Wallace insists on thrusting himself into the middle of the situation, it all gets a bit complicated. I rather liked the effort that went in to trying to hide the truth of the situation from the world at large in order to protect Josie’s reputation. So many Regencies skate over that aspect, but it felt very authentic to me.

Of course everything comes to a very satisfactory conclusion. There were one or two oddities of language (a transactional relationship? In a Regency novel?) but otherwise this was beautifully written. As a novella, it naturally lacks the subplots that a full length novel would feature, but that just means that all the focus is on the central romance. A highly enjoyable read. Five stars.

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Review: What’s In A Name? by Janny Hambly (2023)

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

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.

 

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