Here’s the premise: Miss Caroline Barnes lives on the fringes of London. Her mother has moved down in the world by marrying Mr Barnes, who’s in trade, although clearly prosperous and well-respected. Caroline is perfectly content, but one day Mr Robert Hartwell arrives on the doorstep and reveals the existence of a family Caroline never knew. Caroline’s mother has a sister who married a widowed baron. Mr Hartwell is the son of the first marriage, but there were two daughters from the second marriage. Lord and Lady Hartwell and the younger daughter are currently in France, being held prisoner by the French, but the elder daughter, Julia, is staying at Mr Hartwell’s house, Canons Grange. She’s lonely, bored and a bit wilful – could Caroline, as her cousin, come to stay, and be company for Julia?
Of course she could, and there’s some fairly dull, oh-my-goodness-why-do-the-sheep-have-horns business from Caroline, who is painted as the ignorant city girl who’s not sure how to cope with the real world. Julia is exactly the spoilt, wilful girl her brother described, but her wilfulness mostly manifests itself in refusing to do anything or to go anywhere, exclaiming how bored she is, and quarrelling with her brother. Caroline slowly and rather cleverly, it has to be said, gets her out of doors and occupied again.
So far, so slightly predictable. But Mr Hartwell is the star of the show, for me. I never got a good sense of what he looked like as a person (maybe he was described, but I don’t remember it), and I don’t even know how old he is, but his personality is intriguing. It’s really hard to tell whether he’s being nasty to Julia, or whether it’s just a quirky manner, or maybe just sarcasm. Whatever it is, they snipe at each constantly, in a low-key sort of way. Maybe he just doesn’t know how to deal with her, or maybe he feels that being ascerbic will drag some sort of reaction from her. Or is he just exasperated with her? I can’t tell at all, which makes him very intriguing. He’s a little snippy with Caroline sometimes, too. Later, when he gets round to proposing to her, he’s shockingly abrupt, but she decides he’s just not had much practise in the romantic arts, and I think I can go along with that. I have to say, it’s one of the most charming proposal scenes I’ve encountered.
And so to Caroline. She starts off well, a smart, sensible lady who stands up for herself, argues her points with spirit and is well on the way to being a thoroughly admirable heroine. And then things start going bump in the night and she starts creeping about the house in her nightgown and tripping over things and getting caught, and in a different sort of book she’d be dead by the halfway point. I know authors are very fond of the whole gothic vibe, but really, it’s hard to do gothic without making the heroine totally someone you just want to slap some common sense into, frankly. As it is here. I counted at least three times that she set off into the darkness, barefoot and inadequately dressed, and that’s not intrepid, that’s stupid. Foolish, foolish Caroline.
However, despite all that and some repetition in the plot (French spies again? Really?) this was an enjoyable read, very well written and with a totally believable Regency. I found it a little slow to get going, but once underway, it rattled along. The similarity with the previous book and the so-irritating heroine keep this to four stars for me.