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.