A curious book, with elements of False Colours, by Heyer, but very much in its own style. A little too emotional for my taste, and only lightly rooted in the Regency, but Putney can really write, so I enjoyed it overall.
Here’s the premise: Dominic Renbourne is the second son of the Earl of Wrexham, the spare by just ten minutes. His twin Kyle got the courtesy title and the expectations, while Dominic joined the army and survived (just) the horrors of Waterloo. The two drifted apart when they were sent to different schools, and then fell out spectacularly when Kyle went to Oxford and Dominic refused to join him there and train for the church, preferring a more active career in the army. But now Kyle needs a favour from his identical twin – to take his place on a visit to court the Lady Meriel Grahame, whom Kyle plans to marry for her vast fortune. It should be easy because the lady is disconnected from reality, so neither she nor the elderly ladies looking after her will know the difference.
Despite his reluctance, Dominic is induced to agree to it, but he arrives at Warfield Manor to discover, not the madwoman he’d feared, but a beautiful creature entirely at one with nature and the stunning garden she’s created. This part of the book is glorious, as Dominic delicately gets to know his brother’s intended bride and learns to respect and admire her, while she responds unexpectedly to his overtures. It’s hard to convey just how magical an atmosphere Putney creates, with the garden itself a glorious part of the other-worldliness.
It’s unfortunate that the lady’s response is the one so beloved of many Regency authors, in that she gets the hots for him. This is a perfectly innocent and other-worldly girl, who has observed the wild creatures mating, takes one look at Dominic’s manly body, and decides she’d like some of that, thank you very much. And he, being the hero of a Regency novel, naturally had trouble keeping himself from jumping her at once. There’s no intellectual rapport built up between them, nor could there be since she doesn’t talk at all to anyone. Instead it’s all about sex.
For me, that’s a disappointment, and gradually, as she begins to trust him and allows herself to be drawn out from her self-imposed seclusion, I found it increasingly difficult to believe any of it. It’s all beautifully done, because Putney is a virtuoso, but to me after a unique and enchanting start, it became a conventional love-overcomes-all tale. There’s a lot of angst along the way, but since Dominic never overcomes his lust enough to do the decent thing and leave Meriel alone, he lost a lot of his heroic gloss, for me. Then he has to confess that he’s been living a lie, and also confess to his brother that he’s been bedding the woman Kyle was supposed to marry. Then at the end there’s some melodramatic business with Meriel’s rival guardians, which had some wobbly logic in it, but never mind.
To be honest, the most moving part of the whole book for me was not Meriel and Dominic at all, but Kyle’s love for his mistress of many years, and what he was prepared to do for her. That was a great love story, whereas Dominic and Meriel were all about lust.
Still, Putney’s writing is awesome, and if the book was only lightly connected to the Regency (apart from Dominic’s history at Waterloo, it could have been set at any time over a two hundred year long period), at least there were no historical errors that I noticed. An absorbing read, even if not totally convincing to me. Four stars.