This is one of those books where it would be very easy to dislike either the hero or the heroine – or both! The hero is a bit of a goody two-shoes, a pious clergyman with egalitarian ideals and a burning desire to improve the lot of his parishioners, who hates the frivolity of the beau monde. The heroine is a society butterfly, only happy in the swirl of entertainments and gossipy chatter that is London, and very disparaging of country life (and country parsons). But fortunately, the parson has an Achilles heel in the shape of his meddlesome brother, and the socialite is discovered to have a more compassionate side. They are both more human and more redeemable than they appear at first.
Here’s the premise: Anna Tunstall is to join her friend, Emily Leatham, at the village of Avebury, in Wiltshire. On the way, she is attacked by highwaymen and knocked out. Harry Aston, the pious clergyman, happens upon her prostrate form and naturally sets out to rescue her. And when her eyes flutter open, he’s smitten (with this lovely line): ‘When she raised her clear eyes to his and he saw the answering gleam of fun, Harry knew the end to his bachelor days had come. He was done for.’ But of course she’s an earl’s sister and destined, she’s sure, for a life as a political wife, and he’s a lowly rector of a country parish. Or is he?
At first, things chug along rather nicely, with Harry pursuing his suit steadily, and Anna succumbing to his charm and finding out that he’s not as bad as she’s thought, for a parson. There’s still a huge difference in personalities, she wavers back and forth and they seem to be drawn to each other by physical attraction more than anything else, but it seems to be working out. And then comes the huge spanner in the works – Harry’s big brother arrives, complete with fancy title, and the secret of Harry’s identity is out (this is not a spoiler; his family is mentioned in the blurb). And naturally Anna’s far from pleased that he didn’t tell her.
The rest of the book is a succession of misunderstandings, more wavering from Anna and mischief-making from big brother, together with a number of dramatic upheavals to do with friend Emily and Harry’s cook, with everything resolved in an improbable sequence at the end, including the highwaymen. I feel there was rather too much drama thrown in, but never mind.
I was a bit surprised by the church scene, where the parishioners were locked out of the church, there appeared to be stables for the gentry’s carriages, and the rector arrives by curricle. Even when I was a child, church doors were never, ever locked, and the rectory would normally have been right next door to the church, a very short walk away. I’ve never heard of a church with its own stables. There were a few other oddities like this that had me puzzled, but nothing that spoiled the story for me.
It was a little disappointing that, after choosing such an unusual setting for this book, so little was made of it. Avebury is a unique place, sitting pretty much in the middle of a huge and spectacular stone circle, but the stones were barely mentioned and Avebury felt like just another generic English village. At least the author resisted the temptation to have the main characters go haring off to London for part of the time, which I half expected as a way of pointing up the different natures of hero and heroine. It would have been interesting to see Anna back in her more usual environment, and see her growing disenchantment with the shallowness of society life.
The romance ends in fine style, although I confess I’m not too sure that this is a match made in heaven. How will Anna cope as a country parson’s wife? I don’t really see it, somehow, and she’s sharp-tongued enough to make his life miserable if she’s discontented with her lot. But I’m an optimist, so let’s go with the happy ever after.
There’s nothing terribly unexpected here, but it’s very readable, and kept me turning the pages voraciously. Both hero and heroine grew on me over the course of the book, despite their flaws, and I enjoyed the unusual setting, a parson hero who’s genuinely devout, and a heroine who was forced to face up to her true nature. Four stars.