Here’s the premise: Lady Sophronia Hadlow did her best to find a husband when she was brought out into society, but her unusual height meant that she was unsuccessful, just as her mother, Lady Chelmarsh, feared. Sophy retired from the fray thankfully to allow her younger sisters their turn, but now she’s called upon to return to London. Her mother is bringing out both Sophy’s younger sister Harriet and a cousin, Susan Tyneham, but she may be called away to the confinement of another daughter, Frances. If so, she’ll expect Sophy to take over as chaperone.
So, this is shaping up to be your run-of-the-mill ‘season’ book, with the usual backdrop of modistes, Hyde Park, Almack’s, eligible gentlemen and fortune hunters, etc, etc, and so it is, in some ways, but it has a lot more depth than the usual. The way Sophy is drawn in by Lord Rothley is perfectly believable, and the reader feels the same giddiness as Sophy – is she actually flirting? Is he flirting with her? Sophy has never had an admirer before, so she’s a bit out of her depth, yet never silly with it. She’s that perfect heroine, sensible, quick-witted, easy in society, whether male or female, and really, it’s hard to see why she wasn’t snapped up years ago. And no, her unusual height isn’t a valid excuse – plenty of men are tall, too, and some of them are capable of admiring a woman for more than just looks or dowry or breeding.
Her sister Harriet is a fairly typical debutante, rather timid and trying not to put a foot wrong, but the cousin, Susan, is a fascinating character. Although she’s an innocent in many ways, just like Harriet, she enjoys a power over men that has them almost instantly at her feet. And when I say she enjoys it, she really does, even though she doesn’t really understand the dangerous game she plays. She just can’t stop playing, though. She drops a package for a passing gentleman to pick up. She even flirts with the male servants. She pretends to let her horse run wild, so that she can be ‘rescued’ by some passing cavalrymen. And when a man admires the gentle Harriet, she sets out to steal him. Needless to say, this leads to all sorts of problems for Susan herself, and also for Sophy and family. And when Lady Chelmarsh is forced to decamp to her married daughter in a hurry, it’s left to Sophy to steer Harriet and Susan towards suitable matches and try to prevent Susan from destroying their chances entirely.
And into this oddly nerve-wracking scenario come the suitors. Lord Bollington, an early admirer of Susan’s, is put off when she tries to increase his ardour by making him jealous. Sir Esmond Fawley is a pleasant and respectable man who seems oddly drawn to the uncontrollable Susan. There’s Lord Tyneham, Susan’s boorish and stuffy brother, who has decided he’s going to marry Sophy, whether she likes it or not. And then there’s Lord Rothley, who seems to have something of a reputation and is definitely rakishly attractive, but when he starts dancing attendance on the three young women, Lady Chelmarsh warns Sophy against him in no uncertain terms. And yet… she finds him almost irresistible, and she feels instinctively that she can trust him.
The plot unfolds in ways that are anything but predictable. If Sophy and Harriet and several of the men are rather too ‘nice’ and would perhaps be bland in other contexts, the wildcard Susan always stirs things up in interesting and unexpected ways. And the writing is superb, in every way, with a perfect Regency tone, no typos and (apart from the 23-year-old unmarried chaperone) no major historical errors. More than that, there’s a complexity to the characters that’s rarely seen in this genre. So despite the chaperonage, I can’t give this less than five stars, and recommend it to anyone looking for a literate and beautifully realised portrait of the Regency.