I quite enjoyed the first book by this author (The Reluctant Bride), although I found the characters a bit flat and the plot verging on dull. This one started out much, much better and for perhaps two thirds of its length, I thought it was headed for five stars. But then the plot disintegrated, and the last few chapters became a schmaltzy love-fest. The writing style is awesome, however (oh, the bliss of an author who can write ‘whomsoever’ without flinching!) and for traditionalists looking for a tale built around the season and Almack’s and rides in Hyde Park, and properly brought up Regency characters who are never consumed by passion, this is an author to watch.
Here’s the premise: Rufus, the Earl of Luxton, is driving his curricle one day when he comes upon the unconscious form of Sophie Clifford, a neighbour, who has fallen from her horse. He takes her to his mother, Lady Luxton, and sister Lydia, who nurse her back to health, realise that she’s the sequestered neighbour who never goes anywhere and invite her to London for Lydia’s come-out. And a lovely time is had by all, although there are disquieting rumours about Sophie, on account of her bright red hair. And one day, she meets a man in Hyde Park who seems to know her, and he, too, has bright red hair. I find it ironic that the hero of this story is called Rufus, a name associated with red hair, when it’s actually the heroine who is so endowed, but I digress.
We very quickly discover that the man with red hair is her biological father, a man who wanted to marry her mother but she was forced to marry Lord Clifford instead. Sophie was conceived after the marriage. Now here is where I began to have some qualms. Sophie sets about getting to know her real father, and even calls him ‘Papa’, and distances herself from Lord Clifford. This is very provocative behaviour. In law, and in every way that mattered, Lord Clifford was her father, and it would have been quite scandalous to treat him in this way, or to cosy up to the man who cuckolded him.
The way society reacts to the public revelation of Sophie’s Big Secret is pretty realistic. She isn’t cold-shouldered overnight. There are just gradually fewer invitations. She realises that she’s affecting Lydia’s prospects, so she moves out, first to a mutual acquaintance, and then by setting up her own household, with a female companion. And again, I’m wondering what sort of Regency is this where a young, unmarried woman could do such a thing. It would have been a huge scandal, absolutely huge. And another issue: when she goes north to find her mother’s family, Rufus accompanies her, with only a companion for propriety. Again, scandalous, when he’s not a relation of some sort.
The family up north turn out to be vastly wealthy from trade, but very welcoming once they were sure Sophie was truly their granddaughter. I was a bit bemused by this part, since Sophie’s blood father recognised her from a single glance in Hyde Park, because she looked so like her mother. Her mother’s parents, however, don’t recognise her at all, and have to be convinced by jewellery and a birthmark. A bit of a contradiction there.
I haven’t yet mentioned the romance, but that’s because for most of the book it takes a back seat to Sophie’s journey of discovery. Unlike in the previous book, the hero’s feelings are much more obvious, and he even makes a mismanaged proposal mid-book. But there was no real passion between the protagonists, and, worse, the romance was sewn up by the three quarters point, after which there was a mild bit of drama and then a great deal of hugging and tearful reunions, a wedding and other schmaltzy stuff that felt more like an extended epilogue than anything else. My main complaint with this author is that most of the characters are just too nice. Apart from one or two villains, and the vague ‘society’ which sways between approval and disapproval according to the whims of Lady Jersey (why do so many Regency authors fall back on her as the arbiter of approval?), everyone is kind and tolerant and understanding and too, too perfect. I prefer a little grit in my characters, frankly.
A historical error: Lydia is the daughter of an earl, so she should be Lady Lydia Solgrave, not Miss Solgrave. And an oddity: a cousin has a ‘minor title’, whatever that may be. It seemed to be a plot device to allow the cousin to have a coat of arms, but since any member of the gentry can have one, it hardly seems to be necessary.
I really liked the interesting plot line in this one, although I didn’t always approve of Sophie’s actions, or Rufus’s, for that matter. They both seemed to drift too close to the edge of impropriety for my liking. But the author’s writing is impeccable, the evocation of society flawless and the questionable antics of the principals never interrupted my enjoyment. I really would have liked more rounded or quirky characters to enjoy, though, so for me that keeps it to four stars.