Here’s the premise: Tom Breckinridge is the son of a ne’er-do-well who practically bankrupted his family. Happily, he died before things quite reached that point, and Tom’s been spending the years since slowly rebuilding his finances and nurturing his estate. His mother has remarried, his sister is also married and Tom himself is in love with Diana Marshall, who seems to favour his suit. But into this promising situation comes Reginald Popplewell, a childhood friend of Diana’s, who has dazzled her with his charm, wealth and prospects of inheriting a viscountcy. Mr Marshall is very much on his side, and Diana appears to be too. But Mrs Marshall intervenes to invite Tom to stay with them, and when there are setbacks, to follow them to Brighton for the summer. And Tom, faithful, honest Tom, does so, and even tries to make a friend of Popplewell, as Diana asks him to, in the hopes of winning Diana in the end.
I have to say that Tom is one of the most delightful heroes I’ve had the pleasure of encountering. He’s a true down-to-earth fellow, not given to flowery compliments or flirtation, but he knows his own worth and holds to his principles, and that is so rare in a Regency novel. To be honest, a lot of heroes appear to have no principles at all. I absolutely cheered every time he managed to put one over on his adversary (which was not very often, to be frank – at first he appeared to be quite outgunned, but Tom is deep (and the knowing one of the title) so he gets there in the end.
It’s rare to meet a villain who’s as complex and downright nuanced as Reginald Popplewell, or ‘dear Reggie’ as he’s generally known. He appears to the world as a perfectly amiable and charming man, perfect husband material, one would think, yet through Tom’s eyes we see the snide comments and the sly ways in which he tries to make Tom feel inferior and put him at a disadvantage with Diana. It’s very, very clever, and the reader totally sympathises with poor misused and abused Tom. This book is a glacially slow read in many ways, with a fair amount of long-winded introspection, but I read on avidly to see dear Reggie get his comeuppance.
And then we come to Diana. What can I say? The whole premise of the book is that, although she seems to be drawn to Tom, she does very little to encourage him, constantly seeming to be in thrall to Reggie, and she refuses to believe there’s anything underhand about him. In fact, she outright accuses Tom of irrational prejudice against his rival, and wants the two to be friends so that Tom will come to appreciate Reggie for the good and noble man he really is. And honest Tom does as she asks, or makes a valiant attempt to, and only succeeds in proving to his own satisfaction what a deceiving toad Reggie is. But Diana never makes the same effort to see Reggie from Tom’s point of view. Considering that she supposedly wants to marry Tom, she’s astonishingly dismissive of his opinions. If a good, honest man tells you that another man is a shady character, you should at least trust him enough to think about it. After all, women only see men in certain carefully prescribed contexts, so she couldn’t possibly know what Reggie gets up to when she’s not around. Although, to be fair, her father ought to have been looking out for her interests too, and he failed rather badly in that regard, being blinded by his own advancement, silly man. But that doesn’t excuse Diana for arguing so forcefully against Tom’s opinion. There’s a moment when they have a huge dust-up when I wondered just why he wanted to marry her at all. Any rational man would have said, well, if that’s how you feel, you can have Reggie, I’m outta here.
But in the end, it all gets worked out and I expect that marriage to Tom will knock the most obviously stupid of her ideas out of her head. A beautifully realised Regency, with language and manners and every detail perfect. Only that slight overdose of introspection and a moderately silly heroine keep it to four stars.