I was a bit nervous about reading this because I’ve loved the previous books in the series, and yet this one has one feature that put me off — it’s built around a discussion of Jane Austen’s books. I can’t tell you how tired I am of authors who wheel out Austen’s books in Regencies in a sly (and frankly lazy) nudge to modern readers. However, I should have known that Martha Keyes is cleverer than that, because here Austen’s books are held up as exemplars of the despised novel, and contrasted with the more worthwhile intellectual endeavour of ancient Greek and other classic works. And even if both hero and heroine do come to see the value in Austen, there’s enough debate on other topics here that the book’s theme of reason versus emotion is beautifully illustrated. The hero and heroine play intellectual pingpong over classical works, but when they come to debate the Austen classics, they find themselves drawn into discussing their own feelings in a way that leaves them wide open to falling in love.
Here’s the premise: Phineas Donovan is the intellectual of the family, always with his nose in a book. He’s a bit nervous about taking up a position as tutor to an earl’s son, but how hard can it be? He soon finds he has to be a bit creative about lessons for young George (who sounds a bit dyslexic, perhaps?), but the biggest difficulty is the overt hostility of George’s older sister, Lady Sarah Danneville. But she’s a bluestocking, so she likes books just as much as Phineas does, and the two are soon sparring over works of ancient Greek, and then challenging each other to read samples of the despised romantic novel.
The plot unrolls fairly predictably from here on, as the two gradually learn to appreciate each other’s minds and bodies in equal measure. But Lady Sarah is the daughter of an earl and Phineas is the younger son of an admiral, with neither an independent fortune or a proper career. He’s a tutor with a curacy at the local church, so any match between them is unthinkable – isn’t it?
And here’s where Sarah does the stupid heroine thing, in deciding that she can’t possibly have Phineas so she’ll marry the exact opposite – an older man who already has an heir, so she’ll still have the freedom to be herself and not be tied to the domestic sphere. And her parents have found the very man, so how can she refuse? Oh dear.
Needless to say, things get sorted out in the end, although frankly the ending was a bit soggy, when everyone magically falls into line, and there’s one situation that I strongly disliked. I know it’s meant to be cute and all, but I positively hate it when deceit, even when it’s kindly meant, is practised on one of the main characters. Just be honest and reveal the good news straight away, instead of allowing that character to wallow in misery a moment longer than necessary. And the epilogue was just too sweet for my tastebuds. I know lots of readers love schmaltzy epilogues, but I’m not one of them.
Some other issues that got between me and wholehearted enjoyment of this particular book. I’m really not a fan of the duel viewpoint first person narration. When every paragraph is ‘I did this and that…’, it becomes hard to know which I is being spoken of, and yes, I know every chapter is headed with the appropriate character name, and it’s entirely my own fault for not reading the headings but I don’t, and so I regularly have to do a double-take to work out whose head we’re in. Mea culpa.
The other big issue with this book is the sheer volume of Americanisms peppering it. I’ve never noticed this in Martha’s books before, apart from the odd one or two, but here they’re everywhere, including pinkies, off of, write someone, go do something and absent used as a preposition. And shall absolutely everywhere. Does it matter? Of course not, and 99% of readers won’t even notice, but I do, and it makes it difficult to immerse myself fully in the story. It’s particularly disappointing when the author’s evocation of the Regency era is so magnificent in every other respect.
But in every other way, this book is well up to the author’s usual standards. Both Phineas and Sarah are well-drawn and fully-rounded characters, their relationship develops slowly and believably, and it’s easy to root for them. The dialogue is so satisfyingly sparky between them, and the author manages something that so few others achieve – her intellectual characters are genuinely knowledgeable and quick-witted. So many authors tell us their characters are clever, but very few manage to show it as well as is done here.
Martha Keyes is a brilliant writer and I highly recommend all her books, but for me those Americanisms and the slightly soggy ending keep it to four stars this time.