Tag: dudley

Review: A Capital Arrangement by Christina Dudley (2024)

Posted July 17, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Oh, the joy of a new Christina Dudley book! Sadly this is the last of the Ellsworth Assortment series, following the romantic adventures of a father who married four times and had the eponymous assortment of children. This features the youngest daughter, Beatrice, the sensitive one of the family, and is a charming wrap-up of the series.

Here’s the premise: Beatrice Ellsworth looks to be set for contented spinsterhood. She’s happy not venturing too far from home, helping her older siblings with their growing families and not finding a man to suit her from the limited selection around Winchester. Her family conspire to arrange a trip to the seaside for her, to unfashionable Bognor, in the hope that a change of scene will inspire a change of heart. Their plans succeed beyond their wildest dreams, for on a sea bathing expedition, an accident with the bathing machine leaves Beatrice trapped underwater. Happily, another bather comes to her rescue, and even more happily he turns out to be a handsome and personable young man. The Ellsworths immediately draw him into their sphere and stand back to allow love to develop.

Which it does, but there’s a teeny, tiny problem – John Clayton, the aforementioned personable young man is already engaged. He’s a canal engineer, and when his mentor in that career died two years before, he left John everything – his business, and his daughter and the fortune she’s inherited. All John has to do is to marry her. At the time, it seemed like a great idea. Now, meeting Beatrice and being instantly smitten, he sees the flaws in the arrangement. But John is an honourable man, so he tells the Ellsworths that he’s engaged, which is just as well, for his betrothed, Priscilla, arrives in Bognor on a surprise visit.

Beatrice accepts that John is not for her, but she doesn’t have the temperament to shake off her disappointment easily. To distract her from her woes, she’s shipped off to London with a family with a daughter of her own age, who’s been torn from the highly unsuitable arms of a groom, and is also to be distracted by London entertainments (and hopefully find a more suitable husband). Now, Marjorie is a real piece of work, and I’d bet that most of us know someone just like her. She’s either Beatrice’s very, very best friend or her mortal enemy, with no point in between. Everything that goes against Marjorie’s own wishes is Beatrice’s fault, and she’s completely and utterly selfish and irrational. And also very funny, it has to be said. And while she’s busily falling for another swain almost as unsuitable as the groom, Beatrice is struggling to overcome her feelings for John Clayton, who pops up everywhere (even at Almack’s, which I felt was a bit of a stretch, but never mind). He’s trying to drum up investors for his canal, while his betrothed is beginning to realise that he’s just as canal-obsessed as her father ever was.

The ending brought no surprises at all, but that’s not a criticism. It means that no unRegency-like rabbits were pulled out of hats to get John out of his betrothal. I did want to box his ears, mind you, at that long-drawn-out proposal. There comes a point when explanations can wait and the couple just need to fall into each other’s arms and enjoy a long, toe-tingling kiss. There was one surprise, though – Mr Rotherwood, who wandered onstage from the previous series, a delightful appearance (once I’d worked out who he was and why his story sounded so familiar!).

This is a quieter book than some of the earlier ones of the series, but that’s entirely in keeping with Beatrice’s quieter nature, so that’s not a criticism either. There’s a smattering of Americanisms but it’s so beautifully written in other ways and I was enjoying the book so much that I didn’t care. In some ways, the previous book, with its stronger emphasis on the glorious Ellsworth family, would have made a more resounding series finale (wouldn’t we all love to be part of a big, rumbustious, affectionate family like the Ellsworths?). Still, this was a wonderful read. A very worthy five stars and I commend the whole series to anyone looking for a literate, intelligent and witty read with a true grasp of the Regency.

Tags:


Review: Miranda At Heart by Christina Dudley (2024)

Posted March 2, 2024 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This started unpromisingly, with the death of a favourite character, and then a big dump of backstory, but once it got into its stride it became a pure delight, with the sort of tangled emotional situations that Dudley does so well, with her trademark humour. I loved it!

Here’s the premise: patriarch Mr William Ellsworth, husband to four wives and father of the Ellsworth Assortment, is dead, and while I’m very sad about that, I’m also very pleased that his fourth wife, the meek and very wise Miranda, will find love now. She was the downtrodden sister of the local vicar, and accepted a companionable marriage to the much older Mr Ellsworth in a spirit of pragmatism. There’s nothing romantic about it, and one of the most moving moments in an earlier book is where she reads a love letter to one of her stepdaughters, and she’s a little envious because no one has ever written anything like that to her (and this despite the fact that she’s contentedly married).

Miranda is now a widow, with a good portion and a life interest in Hollowgate, the family home, which was left to the eldest daughter. This was a puzzle to me, because why does the estate not go to the eldest son, as is normal in the Regency? I seem to recall in Tyrone’s own book he was greatly in demand as a man who would one day be rich. I can only assume it’s because the house came from Mr Ellsworth’s first wife, and so was left to one of her children, and Tyrone was (presumably) the son of one of the other wives. But it seems odd.

So Miranda is now a rich woman, and as soon as she is out of mourning, she inevitably becomes a target for fortune hunters. Meanwhile, Colin Wolfe moves with his son into the neighbourhood, and his is the backstory that took up so much of the early chapters. But it is necessary, both to understand Colin himself and his desire to enjoy himself, and also to make sense of his quiet son. Colin made a loveless marriage in his youth to benefit his family. Now that he’s free again, he wants to leave all trace of his first marriage behind and create a new life for his son and himself. But his lonely son, Edmund, is drawn to the large and loving Ellsworth family, and Colin himself is inevitably drawn in as well, especially by the placid widow.

The romance burbles along to the expected ending, but the burbling is delightfully convoluted, with many a twist along the way. Dudley’s plots are anything but predictable, and the way Colin resolves the final dilemma to win his lady is breathtaking in its audacity. There are side plots a-plenty, too, with Miranda’s other suitors providing most of the comic relief, although the highlight for me was the ball at Colin’s house and his masterful manipulation of the musicians to ensure that he spent the maximum time with the lady of his choice and as little as possible with anyone else. It’s very ingenious and (for me, anyway) completely original, and had me in stitches.

The writing is, as always, brilliant, with every word perfectly chosen – erudite, but not so erudite that the reader is constantly reaching for the dictionary. Bonus points for using delightful words like ‘thitherward’ and ‘hermitical’. There were a very few American grammatical constructions, and Edmund mysteriously became Edmond a few times, but nothing that affected my enjoyment in the slightest. Now that so many of the children are married, with children of their own, I would have appreciated a comprehensive family tree.

This book is a paean to large, boisterous, happy families. The Ellsworths may be an assorted family, but the children have grown up happily, to make happy marriages of their own. It doesn’t surprise me in the least the Edmund was drawn to them, and emerged from his shell while basking in their all-encompassing acceptance. And a pleasant surprise that Colin, too, recognised the importance of family to his future wife and made her happiness more important than his own. A wonderful read, and lovely to read about an older couple. Five stars, and highly recommended, and now to wait for Beatrice’s story.

Tags:


Review: A Scholarly Pursuit by Christina Dudley (2023)

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

I’ve been looking forward to this for a while – I’ve loved Agatha (Aggie) Weeks from the very first book in the series, when she and her equally hoydenish friend Araminta (Minta) Ellsworth were shooting arrows at anything they could see, very often at each other.

Here’s the premise: In the last book, Aggie fell for highly unsuitable fortune hunter Francis Taplin, although happily Minta intervened to save her from him, and in the process found her own true love. But it’s now four years later, and Aggie still hasn’t found anyone to replace Taplin in her heart. She’s not still yearning for the unattainable and she’s quite contented with her spinsterish life, thank you very much, but when news arrives that Francis Taplin is returning to the neighbourhood, albeit briefly, Aggie becomes the unwanted focus of everyone’s concern, in case she falls for Taplin all over again.

Meanwhile, not only has Aggie done some growing up, so has Minta’s twin, Tyrone Ellsworth, who’s been testing his bookish nature at Oxford, and drumming up a nice little business writing love poems and marriage proposals for his love-lorn fellow scholars. I confess, this gave me a little bit of a wobble. What is a respectable lad like Tyrone doing encouraging his fellow scholars to write letters of any kind to ladies to whom they’re not betrothed? But the examples we come across in the book are, generally speaking, acceptable – apologies, proposals and the occasional sonnet are not quite the same as regular correspondence, so I can let it pass (although a stickler of a parent might not be so tolerant).

Tyrone’s booted out of Oxford for various transgressions, including the writing of missives for others, but once free of constraint, the business continues, specifically for Mr Gareth Boulton, newly installed curate at St Swithun’s of Headbourne Worthy. And his target is none other than Aggie herself. And here’s another wobble. Unless Mr Boulton has some other source of income, his salary as a curate (maybe fifty pounds a year) is barely enough to feed and clothe himself, let alone take on a wife and the inevitable string of children that will follow, not to mention that a curate can be fired at any time. And although Aggie’s very rich, that just makes him the worst kind of fortune hunter. But it’s perhaps a minor point.

So Tyrone is busy encouraging Boulton’s romantic pursuit of Aggie, even though he thinks it unlikely to succeed, and Aggie is resolutely fending off the persistent Mr Taplin, who’s back and ready to reopen his flirtation with her. And into this setting comes Miss Clementine Caraway, a much hated former head girl of the school Tyrone’s sister Bea attended, now determinedly setting her cap at Tyrone. Throw in the various siblings (of both Tyrone and Aggie) meddling away, as siblings are wont to do, and things get complicated very quickly.

Inevitably Aggie finds out that she’s been deceived, and by her lifelong friend Tyrone, no less, and is furious not just with him, but with herself for being persuaded by a man’s insincere blandishments for a second time. Not that she fell in love with Boulton, but every letter Tyrone wrote for him made him seem like a thoughtful, gentle sort of man, and not the bumbling idiot he is in reality, and I did wonder at the morality of that (although Tyrone himself comes to realise that it’s not a good idea).
This discovery by Aggie comes just at the point where she is realising that it’s Tyrone she loves (and little though she knows it, he has fallen in love with her). The slowing growing feelings between them is one of the high points of the book. I love a slowly developing romance, and the transition from friends to lovers is surely one of the most difficult for an author to achieve, but here it’s beautifully done.

From this point the book rapidly descends into a swirl of misunderstandings and well-intentioned mismanagement, and an ending that felt out of kilter to me. Several reviewers thought it was rushed and out of character, but to me it didn’t have the emotional resonance I expect in a romance. I do think it’s exactly in line with the characters of the two principals – Aggie recklessly rushing into things and Tyrone in his relaxed way just going along with it, and worrying about the consequences later. There’s also a sense of history repeating itself after Aggie’s previous romantic entanglement. But it felt unfinished, and I never thought I’d say this, but I really would have liked an epilogue to show us that everything turned out well.

Some minor grumbles. I would have liked a family tree to work out who everyone was and who they were married to. The author is very correct with names, but I have trouble remembering characters from one book to the next and I’d have liked a bit of help. Historically it’s very sound, although I did wonder about there being packets of branded shortbread in the Regency. I’d have thought it was a Victorian thing, but I may well be wrong. [EDIT: Wilcomb’s shortbread is actually made by the Ellsworths’ cook, Wilcomb, so not a branded packet at all.]  A smattering of Americanisms (visit with, out the door, if it mends matters any and a few others) tripped me up, but it’s a trivial point.

The writing is superb, as ever, authentic and witty and downright clever (especially Tyrone, and how refreshing to meet a character intended to be clever who actually is, although he got into an inarticulate muddle with Aggie, which reminded me a little of Heyer’s Sylvester). There are so many funny moments in it – I laughed all the way through. However, the questionable ethics of writing letters for other people and that strange ending keep it to four stars for me.

 

Tags:


Review: Minta in Spite of Herself by Christina Dudley (2023)

Posted April 27, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Every Christina Dudley book is a joy to read, and this is no exception. I’ve been looking forward to Minta’s story since she first appeared in the background of her eldest sister’s story, shooting arrows with her bosom friend Aggie, and generally getting up to all sorts of hoydenish mayhem. How was she ever going to turn into a heroine? I couldn’t wait to find out.

Here’s the premise: Minta’s best friend Aggie has traitorously fallen for rakish Francis Taplin, but Minta knows he’s only looking to restore the family’s fortunes after his own expensive lifestyle has brought them perilously close to ruin. How can she save Aggie from him? She turns to Francis’s friendly stepbrother, Nicholas Carlisle, for aid. Between them, they come up with a cunning plan — Minta will turn herself into the sort of young lady that will draw Francis’s attention away from Aggie. When that fails to distract him sufficiently, they use his rivalry with Nicholas to good effect – Nicholas will pretend to court Minta. But Minta hasn’t taken into account that her efforts will look like the ultimate betrayal to Aggie, and neither of them have considered how hard it will be to maintain a pretend courtship that they’d both like to be real. Especially when they can’t tell each other the truth.

Dudley specialises in these complicated webs of deceit, but she does it so cleverly and then untangles them so elegantly that the reader can only watch in admiration. I love the humour, too, which often made me laugh out loud, especially Minta wrestling with The Bosom. And yet there are tiny vignettes that are so moving they make me want to cry. Minta’s newest stepmother, for instance, who reads the proposal letter from Nicholas to Minta, and is swept with emotion because she, for many years a spinster and then with a very pragmatic marriage of convenience, has never received anything one tenth as romantic.

Of course, everything sorts itself out in the end, and nobody does anything wildly stupid. I was rather amused by Francis’s solution to his trials, Minta and Nicholas get their happy ending, and both Tyrone and little sister Bea became more interesting in this book. I see that Tyrone is next up for a romance, and perhaps we’ll see Bea in a starring role after that.

Some quotes that caught my eye:

‘Great guns! Where did Aggie get that bosom? Has she had it all along?’

‘Minta, you look like you were drowned and then murdered.’

‘Not everything is a love story.’ ‘That only means you have not read to the end.’

A terrific book on a multitude of levels. I highly recommend it, but if you’re new to the author, start with The Naturalist and enjoy her entire repertoire. Five stars.

Tags:


Review: A Fair Judge by Christina Dudley (2022)

Posted March 4, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

If there’s one word that sums up this book, it’s ‘charm’. This is an absolutely lovely read, a delightful short read that weaves it’s way through the characters and events of the Hapgoods of Bramleigh series with a very deft hand.

It focuses on Norman DeWitt, brother of Rosemary and Roscoe and second son of Sir Cosmo, a still, silent sort of man who drifts uncomplainingly through his rather ordinary life until he is jolted out of his rut by a chance encounter. A young lady in trouble spurs him to become a rescuing hero, much to his own astonishment, and what a young lady she is! Norman has never been this drawn to a woman before and he’s determined to get to know her better. But there’s a catch, and it’s not one that can readily be solved.

I won’t spoil the surprise by saying any more, but this novella is free to anyone who signs up for the author’s mailing list, so there’s no excuse not to rush off and get hold of it. Five stars.

Tags:


Review: The Belle of Winchester by Christina Dudley (2022)

Posted January 21, 2023 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

The only thing better than a Christina Dudley book is another Christina Dudley book, and for the first time in my life, I marked the release date of this book in my calendar so I’d remember to download it straight away. I thought Tempted By Folly was superb, but this second book in the series is just as good, lacking only the element of surprise at the endearingly oddball Ellsworth family. With practical Florence safely married off, it’s sparky sister Lily next up, and she’s already decided who she’s going to marry – Mr Gilbert Wright, handsome, rich and dashing. He’s not very bright, but that just means he’ll be easier to manage. But she certainly doesn’t want to tie herself down just yet, because now that Florence is gone and Lily is the Miss Ellsworth and no longer in mourning for their last-but-one stepmother, she’s absolutely ready to have a good time and flirt outrageously and be courted by all the young men of the district.

Except there’s one who isn’t interested at all. Simon Kenner, the new curate of St Eadburh’s, is as clever as his cousin Gilbert Wright is dim, and sparks immediately fly between him and Lily. For those who like a lot of banter between the romantic leads, this may be right up your alley, because these two are sparring almost from the off. They’re both sharp-tongued, but Simon, at least, is usually more circumspect with his ripostes. He can’t quite understand why Lily Ellsworth somehow brings out the worst in him, horrifying his nice sister, Sophie, and causing him to repeatedly bend his steps towards Hollowgate to apologise to Lily, only to fall into another spat with her. Lily, meanwhile, is very put out to find that the annoying curate is capable of tying her in all sorts of knots, when she’s normally so much in command.

And now you would probably be thinking – I know how this is going to go, but you’d be wrong. This is a Christina Dudley book, which means that nothing happens quite the way you’d expect. I love the way she gradually ties the characters into more and more tangled knots, only to spring them free at the very last moment with a seemingly impossible twist. I’m not going to spoil the surprise by telling you anything more about it, but both Lily and Simon have to make some adjustments and grow up (yes, and suffer a bit!) before they get to their happy ever after.

I liked that the new stepmother is sensible enough to offer some wisdom to Lily, unlike some of Mr Ellsworth’s previous choices, and I was happy to see that nice Sophie is too smart to have her heart broken. It was also fun to have a little glimpse into the clerical world of Winchester Cathedral (with its echoes of Barchester Chronicles). A wonderful, intelligent and very funny read, with the inevitable five stars.

And I absolutely cannot wait to read Minta’s story. Another one to mark on the calendar.

Tags:


A Fickle Fortune by Christina Dudley (2022)

Posted December 16, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

After the slightly flat story of Edith and Lionel in A Purloined Portrait, this is an absolute cracker. Hetty in London is a delight. As is inevitable with any Regency novel set during the London season, there are well-worn paths to tread and over-used tropes to drive the plot, but Hetty and her swain are so gloriously different, and the background characters so fascinating, that it’s easy to overlook.

Here’s the premise: in the last book, Hetty’s machinations secured the engagement of her cousin and brother, but left another cousin, Caroline, without a betrothal. Caroline is to have a season in London, and when Hetty is invited to join her, she sees a way to repay Caroline for her previous bad turn and help her to find a husband. Caroline sets her sights on the season’s glittering prize, Mr St John Rotherwood, newly wealthy and formerly a tutor of Hetty’s brother Lionel at Oxford. Hetty has an instant advantage over every other young lady – she knows the prize already, so she determines to use her advantage to Caroline’s benefit. But Mr Rotherwood is a scientist and intellectual, and Caroline is (frankly) an air-head. Instead, it’s curious, avid reader Hetty who has most to say to Mr Rotherwood.

This doesn’t suit Caroline, but it also doesn’t suit Mr Rotherwood’s mother, Anne, who suffered for years as the outcast of the family for marrying beneath her, and is now determined to resume her place in society and see her son marry as befits his new position. You’d imagine she would be sympathetic to her son’s growing love for Hetty and want him to choose with his heart, as she did, but no. All the resentments of the years, and her pride in being a baronet’s daughter, combine to make her ambitious for her son. A duke’s daughter is perhaps beyond his grasp, but there’s the very beautiful, if vapid, Lady Sylvia, an earl’s daughter…

Poor Mr Rotherwood is caught in the middle of these machinations. He hates the emptiness of the social whirl, and would far rather get to know the intriguing Miss Hetty Hapgood, who at least has a brain in her head, but he also wants to make his mother proud of him. It’s a dilemma. And just at this point, a huge scandal erupts around Hetty, and Mr Rotherwood steps forward to save her from condemnation. And so we get into the very traditional trope of the enforced betrothal, which the two protagonists arrange between themselves rather ingeniously.

This might have been a predictable tale, but Dudley eschews the well-worn paths of innumerable other authors, and imbues her characters with creative minds and real emotions. Hetty, in particular, is a wonderful character, always brimming with original ways to solve problems, her own or other people’s, and I was thrilled to bits when she finally snatched her own happy ending from seeming defeat. Mr Rotherwood makes a terrific hero, too, and even his mother, who seemed to be an obstacle for most of the book, softened considerably in the end.

I am so sorry to reach the end of this glorious series, although happily the author is already writing a new series, with another delightfully quirky family to enjoy. Christina Dudley is one of my absolute favourite authors, without a single dud in her catalogue. This one is another five star read for me, but I commend every one of her books to anyone who wants an original, literate and downright charming Regency.

Tags:


The Purloined Portrait by Christina Dudley (2022)

Posted December 16, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

Well, here’s a thing – a Christina Dudley book that didn’t set me on fire. Was it well written? Yes, of course. Did I enjoy the read? Yes, absolutely. But I felt a little like Hetty, who writes impatiently of Edith’s letters that they were 3/4 art and only 1/4 interesting stuff.

Here’s the premise: Lionel Hapgood has loved his cousin Edith from the moment he set eyes on her, and he’s waited for years for them both to grow up so that he can marry her. But when he finally can’t wait any longer and blurts out his feelings for her, he takes her by surprise. She’s devoted so much thought and energy to her art, that she’s never given a thought to her own feelings, or even begun to think about marriage. She rebuffs him, leaving him in despair. But when she falls victim to an unscrupulous artist, the two are thrown together again in the most dramatic fashion.

This is book 5 of the series, and the pacing is very different form the others. For one thing, it unwinds back to the earliest days of Lionel’s dealings with Edith and her burgeoning artistic talent, so apart from an opening chapter to set up the later story, the pace is slow and the style is more narrative than action. Of course, it’s written with Dudley’s characteristic flair, but I missed the humour of the earlier books and the development of the story felt rather flat. There was a vast amount about Edith’s art, and I felt I could easily have dispensed with quite large chunks of that. It’s not until we get to Lionel’s first, botched, proposal that the pace picks up a little, and towards the end the action becomes almost too breathlessly fast.

Lionel and Edith are both lovely, sweet characters, and all their actions are completely understandable. Edith’s absorption in her art is very believable. Lionel’s devotion to her from such a young age (he was maybe thirteen when they first met?) seems to stretch credibility slightly, but I can easily go along with that. And then we have the vast array of the extended Hapgood family in the background. I don’t recommend reading this as a stand-alone book – it works much better if the whole series is read in sequence.

Now, to the villain(s) of the piece, and this is where things get a bit spoilerish, so skip to the last paragraph if you don’t want to know more. When Edith’s paintings are stolen, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that the villain might be responsible for staging the whole thing. Yet when Edith gets to London and hears that her own painting has been exhibited at the Royal Academy, she immediately assumes that the artist submitting it is the villain. Yet it would have been more logical to assume it’s the (supposed) unknown thief. It would have been more realistic (and dramatic!) for her not to guess he’s known to her until she is brought face to face with him again. And since he clearly stole (or copied) her painting and then falsely submitted it to the RA, surely there would have been legal pressure that could have been brought to bear against him? I found it incredibly frustrating that nothing terrible ever happened to him. And even more so that the painting itself was never recovered. I know that’s more realistic, but as a reader it felt like a very unsatisfactory outcome. It would have been nice to have some acknowledgement of it, perhaps for Edith to say that she doesn’t need the painting any more because she has the real thing instead.

But the romance is glorious, I loved the ingenious Hetty’s efforts to help and although I would have preferred the two to marry at once, I can (again) recognise that the way events actually played out was more realistic. This was a slightly frustrating read for me, but even a slightly flat Dudley book, with too much art and not enough actual romance, is way, way better than 99% of everything else on the market at the moment. Four stars and on to the irrepressible Hetty and the final book of the series.

Tags:


Review: Tempted By Folly by Christina Dudley (2022)

Posted September 24, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 1 Comment

This book was a joy to read. I had a smile on my face from the opening moment, when the irrepressible Lily talks about her sister’s betrothed as ‘the Dreadful Mr Gregory’ to the final scene of the hero and heroine at last in each other’s arms.

Here’s the premise: Miss Florence Ellsworth has grown up in a family made notorious by her father’s many marriages and assortment of children by different mothers, not all equally loving. She’s determined not to follow the same route, and with her mother’s advice to follow her head not her heart uppermost in her mind, she betroths herself to a dull clergyman, and looks forward to a blessedly uneventful future. But her stepmother (wife number three) dies and immediately Mr Ellsworth is looking about him for a fourth wife, another scandal in the making. And then there’s the new attorney, who’s handsome and young and oh so tempting to Florence. And who is the widowed Mrs Whisp, and what does she want?

As far as plot goes, that’s about it, but with Dudley’s books, everything hinges on the characters and the way they interact with each other. Florence herself is lovely, and Mr Fairchild a hero worthy of her. Then there’s Mr Gregory, who is an awesome character, with his puffed out chest that makes him look like a woodpigeon, and his booming clergyman’s voice. There are so many awesome characters here. Miss Gregory, his faded sister. Florence’s sisters, Lily, the outspoken opposite of Florence, Minta, who likes to shoot things (her friend, mainly), and crying Bea. The sunnily wife-chasing Mr Ellsworth. Miss Dunn, the reclusive governess. Mrs Whisp, the rapacious widow. Very different from each other, but all memorable and all busily engaged in pursuing their own objectives.

Florence’s primary objective is to rein in her father’s wife-hunting. She calls on Mr Fairchild, the new attorney, to ask him to do what he can to steer Mr Ellsworth into respectable life as a widower instead. Mr Fairchild is delighted by the prospect of spending more time with the charming Miss Ellsworth, but it’s a difficult task to undertake when Mr Ellsworth is one of his principal clients, and he doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. On the other hand, he’d like to please Miss Ellsworth. Sadly, Mr Ellsworth is not a man to be steered, and almost before his late wife is cold in her grave he’s advertising for a governess for the youngest child. Since his previous two wives started as the family’s governesses, Florence can see exactly where this is going to end. And if the governess isn’t quick off the mark, she’ll be out-manoeuvred by the brazen Mrs Whisp, who knows exactly what she wants and sets out determinedly to get it. All Mr Fairchild can do is try to control the selection process for the governess, and suggest legal ways to keep the bulk of the Ellsworth fortune out of the hands of avaricious women.

And all the time, Florence is trying to convince herself that her choice of husband is the right one. Florence is precisely the sort of heroine who must have been everywhere at the time, and her dilemma a common one. Living out in the country, her choice of potential husbands is limited. If she fails to marry, she becomes the spinster dwindling into old age in her father’s home, or looking after her sibling’s children, or she slips out of the gentry altogether as a governess or paid companion. The chance of finding a suitable husband, in rank and fortune, is very small, so if someone offers, it’s very risky to refuse in the hope there’ll be a better offer later. And Mr Gregory is so very respectable, and her present home so rackety…

But… There’s always a but. The handsome and young Mr Fairchild is everything a young lady could wish for, but Florence is betrothed, and she can’t do anything as scandalous as jilting the boring clergyman in the hope that the nice young attorney will look her way. What to do? Try to summon some enthusiasm for her betrothed, that’s what. And surely she’d be happier if her not very passionate lover actually kissed her? And here we get to one of the funniest scenes in a book full of funny scenes, which I won’t spoil by telling you anything more about it.

It’s obvious from the first moment how the story will end, but how that ending is reached is an absolute delight, with any number of twists and revelations along the way. Nothing about a Dudley book is ever predictable, and so although I guessed one very crucial secret, there were plenty of other developments that took me by surprise. And it thrilled me that the final obstacle between hero and heroine is an utterly Regency one, the chains of propriety holding them fast, even though in modern terms there was nothing to keep them apart. The way this is resolved is elegant and pleased me greatly. One other very personal point: it’s common in modern Regencies to end with a long-drawn-out epilogue, and sometimes that’s appropriate, but here the story comes to a close with the final romantic moments between hero and heroine, and to me that felt utterly right.

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written on every level. It’s literate (watch out for the sly references to Emma and also the Barchester series), witty and very moving. I loved every word of it. Christina Dudley has a unique talent and I recommend this and all her books to fans of traditional Regency romance. This is a great start to the new series. Five stars.

Note: I received an advanced copy from the author, but that didn’t affect my opinion.

Tags:


Review: Matchless Margaret by Christina Dudley (2021)

Posted May 30, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This is two parts Bath Tangle and two parts Cotillion, and a smidgeon of Northanger Abbey, but at the same time is entirely itself. Christina Dudley is surely one of the finest Regency authors around – original, clever, literate and very, very funny. Every book in this series is a delight, even though they are all completely different, and each one a unique masterpiece.

Here’s the premise: Margaret Hapgood is the third of the four daughters of Squire Hapgood of Bramleigh in Somersetshire. The two eldest are now married, the mother indulges in ill-health, so it falls to Margaret to manages the family’s affairs. This she does so thoroughly that when her uncle, Alwyn Arbuthnot, falls once more into financial difficulties, Margaret is deployed to take him to Bath, accompanied by her mother, to find him a wealthy bride so that he won’t be a drain on the squire’s purse any longer.

This he’s perfectly willing to do, so they find cheap lodgings – and almost the first person they meet is the wealthy widow he courted in London, whose son whisked her to safety out of the eager hands of Uncle Alwyn. The son, Dashiell Waite, is a soldier recovering from a leg injury received in the war with France, and he meets Margaret when she accidentally knocks his crutches from under him. He’s accompanied by his friend, Charles Haworth, another war-wounded ex-soldier, now the unexpected owner of a country estate. They are joined in Bath by Dashiell’s betrothed-from-the-cradle cousin, Charmaine Blakely, and her mother, and this little group form an uneasy friendship, fostered by Charmaine’s unexpected friendship for Margaret.

Charmaine is, in many ways, the driver of this plot, rather than Margaret. She’s the character who most reminds me of Northanger Abbey, for she’s the worldly-wise and flirtatious Isabella to Margaret’s innocent Catherine Morland, not exactly leading Margaret astray but using her as a go-between as Charmaine tries to provoke Dashiell into uncharacteristic jealousy, or at least some sign of passion, and manipulates everyone around her to do her bidding. Even though we can see that she doesn’t much care about Dashiell and is a thoroughly cold and selfish person, she still has flashes of humour and even friendliness. It would have been so easy to make her an out and out villain, but she’s far more layered than that. Her desire for Dashiell to court her properly is actually fairly understandable, although her assumption that he should simply ‘know’ what she wants is perhaps a little unrealistic.

I mentioned the echoes of Heyer’s Bath Tangle and Cotillion, which lies not so much in the characters involved but in the situation. The misaligned but betrothed couple, Charmaine and Dashiell, are reminiscent of Bath Tangle, while between Charmaine and Dashiell, his lovelorn friend Haworth and Margaret, Alwyn and Mrs Waite, we have three of the four couples for our cotillion. The fourth couple is Sir Dodkins Hargate, who takes a shine to Margaret because she reminds him of his dead daughter, and his old friend and neighbour, Mrs Turner. How these four align and realign themselves, and the right couples end up together is the subject of the second half of the book, and I won’t spoil it by elaborating on that. I did find it just a tad surprising, and I’d be interested to know just what Dashiell will do for money now, because it really wasn’t explained.

Nevertheless, this was another fine five star read for me, and even the Americanisms [*] didn’t bother me so much in this book (only the use of ‘passed’ instead of died or even passed on or passed away, but it’s a minor point in the overall scheme of things). The Regency Dudley evokes seems very authentic to me and I thoroughly enjoyed the Bath setting as a variation from the rural countryside (although I confess I wondered whether Sydney Gardens would really be holding outdoor breakfasts in the winter). This probably could be read as a standalone, but it would be far better after reading the series in sequence, to get the full picture of the Hapgood family background. And now on to Edith’s tale (and the faithful Lionel, I hope).

[*] The author tells me she’s fixed these.

Tags: