This was a whole heap of fun. The world’s most disfunctional and embarrassing family, a heroine yearning for a man she briefly exchanged glances with two years ago, a hero yearning for a woman he almost married but discovered was not what he thought, and the house party from hell, with a cast of thousands. So much to love about this book.
Here’s the premise: Georgette Fortune is one of ten daughters of an impoverished baron. Several of them have married already, and their father is keen to be rid of the rest of them, but he’s just about given up on Georgette. At 21, she’s just about on the shelf, and although she’s had an offer or two, she’s refused them because she’s met the love of her life, Lucian, the Marquis of Onslow. They had a brief moment of understanding two years ago, when she was winding up a pompous clergyman for her own amusement, and Lord Onslow overheard and found it amusing too. For a single moment, their eyes locked and Georgette’s heart was lost. Here at last was a man who saw life as she did.
Unfortunately, having discovered this paragon, she learnt that he was deeply in love with Miss Julia White, a great beauty and the success of the season, with a troop of devoted suitors. Surely she won’t refuse Lord Onslow when he offers? But two years later, they’re still not married, and when Lord Fortune decides to hold a house party to jolly along one of the younger daughters’ suitors, both Lord Onslow and Julia White are amongst the guests. There’s also one of Georgette’s own former suitors, the very nice Sir Justin Faulkes, whose only fault, in her eyes, is that he isn’t Lord Onslow.
This is going to be a trying time for Georgette. But she can see that Lord Onslow is still taken with Julia, and that she is also interested in him, but there seems to be some constraint between them. Perhaps Georgette can solve her own problem once and for all by facilitating a reconciliation between these two seemingly star-crossed lovers? Then at least she’d be able to put it behind her. But of course it doesn’t quite work out that way…
This book is such an interesting, not to say downright quirky, mix of humour that verges on farcical together with a depth of emotion in the protagonists that is profoundly moving. Georgette, Lord Onslow and Sir Justin fall into an unusual friendship, all three of them hiding the unrequited love of the title, which leads to some fairly intense exchanges. There are also not one but two side romances, between younger sister Jocasta and Lord Paxton, heir to an earldom, the object of the whole house party, and between two of the other guests, a most unexpected pairing (which is not altogether convincing, in my view).
The farce comes from the Fortune family itself, with the baron who speaks his most crass thoughts out loud, and never considers the effects of his actions on his daughters, and a son who is taking after him. Then there are the remaining sisters, all going their own way without much guidance, and so prone to wildly inappropriate behaviour. And then there’s Castle Fortune, the crumbling medieval pile, gently silting up with dust and broken this and that. The preparations for the influx of visitors has the sisters and the harassed servants rushing round exchanging torn sheets and chipped ewers for good ones, and laying in a supply of extra eggs, and maybe an extra haunch of beef.
Now, I don’t know whether the author has ever sat down to calculate the requirements for a Regency house party, but with close to 30 guests, plus the family, plus the servants plus all those visiting servants (valets and lady’s maids, coachmen, grooms, etc) to be accommodated and fed breakfast, dinner, supper and (apparently) ‘light refreshments’ whenever they’re out playing archery. The amount of food required would be astronomical, and need an army of kitchen maids to prepare. Every time a meal was mentioned, I cringed and wondered what on earth they were eating this time. And then every guest got a bedroom to themselves, and this in a medieval castle, which was set up for communal living in the great hall and a handful of private rooms, if you were lucky, for the family. Even a large Georgian house might only have ten or a dozen bedrooms, and a really grand pile might have twenty or so.
But plausibility isn’t what this is about, and after the initial bumbling preparations and light-hearted air of a rollicking and very amusing read, we are soon plunged into a much more interesting story, where the deep and long-hidden emotions of the principals come boiling to the surface, resulting in odd encounters that ought to have been superficial and polite and instead transformed in a second into fierce quarrels that Lord Onslow and Georgette, in particular, can’t understand. Several times as things develop they find themselves licking their wounds after a particularly violent spat and wondering – what on earth just happened there?
This was all wonderful stuff, and I just loved the gradual deepening of their feelings. Beautifully done. Apart from the unreality of the logistics of the house party, I found nothing to quibble at historically. There were a very few typos, and some odd word choices, which sometimes had me scratching my head to work out what was meant. For instance: ‘One of my sisters will be with her, so do not fear for the conveniences’. Conveniences? Or conventions, maybe, or proprieties? Hard to say. [Note: the author has explained that the expression comes from the French ‘les convenances’ which indeed means the proprieties, and is absolutely authentic Regency, which is fascinating.]
This is a quirky book, but then I love quirky. It’s also funny and surprising, both of which earn extra brownie points from me. But it’s those intense fallings out between hero and heroine, and the wonderful deep undercurrents of emotion that earn it five stars.