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Review: A Garden Folly by Candice Hern (1997)

Posted July 9, 2022 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

This book made me very angry. Ranty review ahoy. And also kind of spoilery, so don’t read it if you don’t want to know anything. It should be said right at the outset that this is no reflection on the author’s writing ability. I’ve read other books of hers and enjoyed them thoroughly, so this is one of those occasional hiccups, where this particular book is an epic fail for me personally, but it’s just a weird clash of my expectations with the particular characters in this particular story.

Here’s the premise: Catherine Forsythe and her beautiful (if slightly dim) elder sister Susannah have been left destitute by their father’s death. They’ve been taken in by their Aunt Hetty, a widow with a small jointure, and for two years the three of them have been living an increasingly hand to mouth existence in a tiny house in Chelsea, such that even the furniture is being slowly sold off and they’re living on onion broth.

Now stop right there for a minute. Selling furniture? And why is it that these two healthy, able-bodied girls are reducing their impoverished aunt to even greater impoverishment, which seems likely to put all of them in the workhouse? Susannah is adept with a needle, so why isn’t she making some money from her stitchery? Catherine is the clever one (supposedly) so why isn’t she a governess or paid companion or a teacher somewhere? Why are they dragging their aunt into the mire, too?

But let that pass. I’ll allow a book its basic premise, however implausible. Anyway, Aunt Hetty happens to bump into an old school friend one day, who happens to be a dowager duchess, who happens to be planning a house party, and who happens to be a charitable soul. She invites Hetty and the two girls to spend a month at the ducal estate, a month of mingling with eligible and rich young gentlemen. Catherine sees the possibilities at once. Susannah, with her looks, will attract a rich suitor and they’ll all be saved. The duke himself won’t be there, as he’s famously reclusive, but there will be fifty or so other guests.

They manage to scrape together enough dresses to pass muster as well as a carriage (more on this later), and off they go, and within no time flat there’s a misunderstanding and the shortsighted Susannah has taken a shine to the wildly ineligible steward of the estate, an ex-soldier with only one arm, instead of all the rich and titled guests. So it’s all down to Catherine to rescue them from starvation.

Meanwhile, Catherine has gone wandering off into the gardens to admire the flowers and trips over a gardener, or rather he trips over her, sending her flying. They have a brief spat, until he discovers she’s knowledgeable about plants and decides he quite likes her after all. And so they fall into a very pleasant guest/gardener relationship. What she doesn’t know (but we do, because it’s never a secret) is that he’s not Stephen Archibald, head gardener, but Stephen, the Duke of Carlisle, skulking about the gardens he loves, because he can’t bear being the focus of attention as the duke. And although he’s thirty-two, and very marriageable, he’s determined never to marry, unless he can find someone to love him for himself, and not be interested in his title and wealth.

Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? This part of the book is charming, as the two bond over interesting plants. He sends her posies of violets and painting equipment. She paints, and artlessly tells him her plans to marry a rich man so that she’ll never have to live on onion broth again. And her target just happens to be the duke’s best buddy, Miles, the Earl of Strickland. Miles is a widower with two small daughters, and although he doesn’t expect to find love again, he’d like to find someone to mother his girls. It all sounds perfect, and everything is going along swimmingly until Stephen starts to get jealous of his own friend, and ends up kissing Catherine. This is actually a wonderfully romantic scene, perfectly judged, where he basically says: look at him and look at me, and tell me if you don’t, deep down, truly prefer me?

Now, that’s fine, but then Stephen goes completely off the rails and starts (in essence) stalking Catherine, lurking in the shrubbery to entice her away from the other guests she’s supposed to be with, especially from the tempting Miles, and kissing her passionately. Because he just can’t help himself, apparently. She tries to explain her situation, and how horrible it is to be wondering whether you can actually afford food, but he takes no notice. He has to make her love him for himself. He just can’t help himself, you see.

Now I totally get that he wants to be loved for himself, I really do. It’s very understandable, but it kind of goes with the territory of being a duke, and hugely wealthy, that everyone you meet is aware of that, and behaves differently around you. Because, actually, you are different. There’s no way that being raised at that level of society makes a man no different from, say, a plain old gardener. Which is why dukes tend to marry the daughters of other dukes, who just aren’t that dazzled by the vast estates and armies of retainers and whatnot.

But the one thing Regency gentlemen are brought up to have is restraint. Stephen certainly CAN help himself, because losing control is such a breach of etiquette. And then there’s the question of morals and ethics and honour, for heaven’s sake. Catherine has made it very plain that she’s determined to ensure a secure financial future for herself and her family, she only has a month in which to do it and Stephen leaping out of bushes with his smoking hot kisses is an unwelcome distraction, to put it mildly. The problem might be resolved if she could manage to resist him for five seconds, but she can’t help herself either. {Rolls eyes}

There are about a dozen ways Stephen could have addressed the problem honourably, even without telling Catherine the whole truth. He could have told Miles about the situation (and absolutely should have told him that they were both courting the same girl, see point about honour, above). He could have got his mother involved. He could have got Aunt Hetty involved. He could have pointed out that a head gardener on a ducal estate is not exactly penniless, living in a hovel. Or he could have done the decent thing and left Catherine alone (as she repeatedly asked) to follow her own best interests.
Or he could have told her the truth, and let her decide for herself what she wanted to do. You know, treating her with respect as a rational human being. That would have been nice. Not to mention a better foundation for marriage than continuing to trick her, winding her up into such a state of confusion that she spends the last few chapters crying.

But no, what he actually does, after forcing her to decide that she’d rather live in poverty with him than in luxury with Miles (silly girl), he does something unspeakably cruel. What he should do, of course, is to confess that he’s the duke so she won’t have to live in a hovel after all, and after thumping him for putting her through all that agonising for no good reason, she’d laugh and forgive him. But he doesn’t do that. He decides for some unfathomable reason to reveal his identity to her in public, at a ball, with an announcement of their betrothal.

This right here is what makes me so angry. The rest of it I could just about stomach, if he had only come clean straight away. But no, he had to humiliate her in front of a houseful of snooty guests, whereupon she faints, and when she comes round, instead of slapping his insufferable face and walking out on him, she forgives him. Silly girl. Ugh.

Now, Catherine doesn’t exactly cover herself with glory, either, since she allowed herself to be pulled into the bushes for those passionate kisses every single time. And she never works out that a head gardener (as she supposes him to be) is multiple rungs higher up the ladder than a farm labourer and she wouldn’t exactly be living in abject poverty if she married him. A head gardener would be paid a decent salary and provided with a cottage and as much food as he and his wife and ten children can eat. Ducal estates are virtually self-sufficient, producing enough food to feed hundreds of retainers, and support any number of tenant farmers, craftsmen, etc. Nobody starves, or lives on onion broth. If Susannah can marry the steward without anyone turning a hair, the supposed gardener can marry, too. Most of her disdain seems to be simple class prejudice – he’s an unworthy husband for the granddaughter of a viscount.

Then there are the relations who realise what’s going on and never think to intervene, apart from cryptically telling Catherine to follow her heart, and laughing at her.

And then there’s MacDougal. This strange character is a servant of Catherine and her sister, who seems to have a magical ability to make things happen. He finds the odd leg of mutton for them when times are hard, and when the invitation arrives, manages to track down all sorts of discarded things (gowns, jewels, a carriage) to rig them out for the occasion. He mills about the garden, too, and his is one of the voices telling Catherine to follow her heart. Who is he? It’s never explained. On the author’s website, she says he can be whoever the reader wants him to be, which is not exactly helpful.

I seem to have written an essay here, because this book really did get me riled up, but I have to say I quite enjoyed it, too. The writing is beautiful, it’s just that the characters behaved in ways that seemed beyond the pale to me. Now it might be that the author intended this as some sort of whimsical rags-to-riches fairytale, and I’m completely missing the point. That’s perfectly possible. But frankly, the overriding theme seems to be – love is all that matters and never mind about boring practicalities like having enough money to live on, and that’s not a philosophy I can ever subscribe to.

As I said upfront, I’ve read other Candice Hern books and thoroughly enjoyed them, but this one is lucky to scrape two stars from me.


Review: The Best Intentions by Candice Hern

Posted February 12, 2020 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

I got off on slightly the wrong foot with this, since I wasn’t at all sure to begin with which characters were the hero and heroine, but once I’d got that straight, it was all plain sailing. For anyone who’s perpetually looking for a Georgette Heyer replacement, this is very much in that style – amusing, frothy and with a grand finale where most of the characters are chasing each other around the countryside. It doesn’t quite have Heyer’s sparkling wit and sizzling side characters, but then what does?

Here’s the premise: the widowed Earl of Strickland (Miles) has decided that he really must remarry, if only for the sake of his two small daughters. His sister helpfully invites a suitable widow as a house guest, and Charlotte is seemingly everything he’s looking for – beautiful, refined, ladylike and clearly happy to become a countess. But accompanying her is her younger half-sister, Hannah, who’s the exact opposite – unsophisticated, accident-prone and never happier than when studying Saxon ruins. And she certainly doesn’t want a husband, even so charming a one as the earl.

Now this chugs along very pleasantly. Hannah gets into scrape after scrape, which the rather starchy earl finds amusing rather than shocking. She gets along like a house on fire with the children, too, which he’s pleased about. And the widow, despite being exactly the sort of woman he’d thought he wanted, somehow leaves him cold. Even so, it takes him a long, long time to realise what it is he does want.

I liked both Miles and Hannah very much. He’s a bit stuffy, what with all that weight of family history on his shoulders, but he unbends beautifully with Hannah, and she’s a delight, especially when she’s gets all excited about Saxon history and architecture. They both feel very real. I wish I could say the same about the other characters. The children, especially the older one, are a bit too precocious, I was terrified every time the toddler was left with the eight-year-old twins (near the lake! Eek!) or simply ignored, and most of the other adults blur together in my mind. The side romance felt too perfunctory for words, and could have been left out altogether without in any way impinging on the story.

The biggest problem is the widowed older sister, Charlotte. She comes across as such a cold, mercenary person, who enticed her first husband, a much older man, into matrimony, and is now set on doing the same thing with Miles, even though she doesn’t particularly like him, and certainly doesn’t have any affinity for his children. She’s also pretty horrible to Hannah, which Hannah takes rather well, in fact. I would have liked to see Charlotte either get a proper comeuppance, or else get her own romance. Either would have worked.

Some niggles. No earl, now or in the Regency, would ever address his small daughter as ‘pumpkin’. I wasn’t too sure about ‘poppet’ either. He’s such a stuffy character that I couldn’t see him having pet names for them at all. There are some logistics oddities – Epping in Northamptonshire? When did it move from Essex? And I wondered greatly at the huge number of horses the earl must have had sitting around in his stables just waiting for the time when his guests would need to take out four separate vehicles.

Nevertheless, this is a delightful read, very resonant of Heyer, with a heroine trying (and frequently failing) to be demurely ladylike and a stiff-necked earl learning to unbend and laugh again. There’s no sex, just a bit of tongue-tangling kissing. Four stars.


Review: ‘Miss Lacey’s Last Fling’ by Candice Hern

Posted January 19, 2018 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

A wonderful read, which starts with a most unusual premise: a girl who has been the downtrodden and unregarded homebody running her widowed father’s country house discovers that she has inherited her mother’s fatal illness and only has months to live. Determined to experience everything she can before she dies, she takes herself to London to stay with her disreputable aunt, where she conducts herself outrageously and becomes notorious.

Given this premise, the remaining twists of the plot are so blindingly obvious that there are truly no surprises. But it doesn’t matter. Rosalind’s vitality and the delightful way she hurls herself into every new experience are glorious. Her hero, Max, a notorious rake and son of her aunt’s great love, is determined to resist her charms but is slowly drawn to her despite himself. The growing love between these two is beautifully brought out.

Now, this is not to say that the book is perfect, because no book ever is. Rosalind’s machinations to keep her illness secret defy credibility, and the ending sagged pretty badly. There was so much stupidity and misunderstanding and angsting and back-and-forth between our hero and heroine that I wanted to box their ears. Both of them. One thing I do dislike is an artificial obstacle before the HEA. Once they both come to realise that this is True Love, then I expect them to behave like sensible, rational human beings and get things sorted out pronto.

But in the end, it didn’t spoil my enjoyment too much. I loved both these characters and their realistic and slow-growing love, and (unlike many Regencies) I can actually imagine them being contented for the rest of their lives. Five stars.