Tag: simonson

Review: The Bar Sinister by Sheila Simonson (1986) [Trad]

Posted September 4, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 2 Comments

This is the first book in the series, but it was written after the second book (Lady Elizabeth’s Comet) as a sort of prequel, and to be honest, I’m glad I read Lady Elizabeth’s Comet first. If I’d come across this one first, I might never have read any further.

Here’s the premise: Captain Richard Falk needs a safe home for his two motherless children while he fights Napoleon. Widowed Emily Foster wants to take in children as company for her own son. She’s not impressed by Captain Falk, who’s brusque to the point of surliness, but she loves the children, and so they strike their bargain. Over the next two years, she finds herself enchanted by the absent soldier, who writes long, intricate stories for the children in his letters, but when he briefly returns for a visit, she’s again hard-pressed to find any civility in his manner. But then trouble arrives, in the well-meaning shape of Richard’s sister, Lady Sarah Ffouke, to see the children. Because it turns out that Richard is the son of the Duchess of Newsham (although not of the duke), and was brought up as Lord Richard Ffouke for the first twelve years of his life.

And here at once we have the biggest stumbling block in the book, for me. Buckle up, folks, this is going to be ranty. All the way through, Richard is described as a bastard, as illegitimate, as base-born… even the title, Bar Sinister, refers to his illegitimacy. Lady Sarah is always called his half-sister. Yet Richard is completely legitimate – in law, at any rate. In the Regency era, any child born within wedlock is presumed to be legitimate, unless the father repudiates the child, either before birth or shortly after. There’s a very narrow window within which to do this, and if it isn’t done, or if the father acknowledges the child in any way, then it’s perfectly legitimate.

In this case, the supposed father (the duke) didn’t repudiate Richard, and accepted him into his household for twelve years. Even though everyone knew that the duchess had had an affair and Richard was her lover’s child, he was legally a legitimate son of the duke and stood in line to inherit, if his two older brothers died or failed to produce heirs. And no, a sworn statement by the duchess of his true parentage wouldn’t have been enough to convince the House of Lords to set Richard aside, if he should ever claim the dukedom. It would take far stronger evidence than that, and for good reason. If every father could suddenly decide to disinherit a son who displeased him for whatever reason, the peerage would be in chaos. Apart from that very brief window, there is no getting rid of children, ever, where there are inherited titles and entailed estates at stake. Just can’t be done. Frankly, the duke was bonkers to accept Richard in the first place, knowing the likely consequences, but to turn round later and try to get rid of the inconvenient cuckoo in the nest is ridiculous.

A large part of the book concerns the efforts of the duke and later, his sons, to dispose of Richard, although whether they were more concerned with hushing up the old family scandal of his birth or taking him right out of the line of inheritance isn’t entirely clear. Some of their actions seemed designed to kill him, but most were just to persuade him to go away, on the principle of out of sight, out of mind. None of which makes a ha’p’orth of difference to the inheritance of the title. All of it is unbelievable, and I find it impossible to believe in a duke who is so dishonourable as to give his word and then break it, and so downright coarse in his behaviour towards his brother.

My other quibble is a relatively minor one. The author uses a number of words with old-fashioned spellings – sopha, gothick, publick and so on. These may be historically accurate (I wouldn’t know), but they grated rather, and my personal pet peeve was writ as the past tense of write. So Emily writ Richard, Richard writ the children, Tom Conway writ Richard and on and on, until I was grinding my teeth in frustration. Does it matter? Not much, but it was so, so annoying.

But having got all that off my chest, you will be astonished to hear that I actually enjoyed the book rather a lot. Nowhere near as much as Lady Elizabeth’s Comet, but well enough. I didn’t much like the morose and uncivil Richard, and couldn’t quite see what Emily saw in him, but Emily herself, dreaming away in her Hampshire backwater, was a delight, the children were lovely, the military-minded Aunt Fan was gloriously eccentric, and Emily’s papa, Sir Henry Mayne, Bt, was a big softy under that gruff exterior. I even loved McGrath and Mrs McGrath. And I absolutely adored Dona Inez and Dona Barbara and their adventures, although we only got little hints of them, but it was all deliciously funny. I laughed out loud a great deal, and I always approve of a book that makes me laugh.

Two characters of special note were the aforementioned Tom Conway and Lord Bevis, who are main characters in Lady Elizabeth’s Comet, but reduced to walk-on parts in this book. Bevis gets no opportunity to shine here, and is in fact rather an antagonist, but Tom Conway is lovely. He and Emily have some delightfully flirty exchanges which are perhaps the best part of the book, and if I’d been Emily I’d have abandoned surly Richard like a shot to have a go at the charming Tom. But sadly that wasn’t how it went.

I won’t bang on about the shenanigans with the ducal family, because the whole thing was pretty silly and unbelievable (see rant above). The duke and his brother were, not surprisingly, impossible to like. The duchess, Lady Sarah and her long-suffering husband Wilson were nicely drawn and very nuanced, even if I’m not sure I’d want to make friends with any of them. The romance is kind of weird, because the main couple spend very little time together. Emily falls in love with Richard-the-letter-writer and basically decides she’s going to marry him. And that’s it.

This isn’t the smoothest book ever written. There’s a lot of jumping about to places and people I didn’t much care about, where Emily and the children are somewhat forgotten, so the book feels rather lumpy. The plot, as I’ve already pointed out multiple times, has credibility issues. But the writing is elegant and witty, and the characters are (Richard excepted) lovely. If I could give it 3.5 stars I would, but since I can’t I’ll round up to four stars in deference to the sheer brilliance of Lady Elizabeth’s Comet. Which, sadly, is a much more interesting book than this one.


Review: Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson (1986) [Trad]

Posted May 31, 2021 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 0 Comments

There are books I enjoy, books I REALLY enjoy, and books where everything else grinds to a halt so that I can read on, breathless, until the end is reached. This book is definitely in the third category. I cannot recall a book where the characters are so deep, so subtly nuanced, so downright intriguing before. A fascinating read.

Here’s the premise: Lady Elizabeth Conway, the eldest of eight daughters of an earl, awaits with trepidation the arrival of the new Lord Clanross, a distant cousin who was never expected to inherit, was shipped off to join the army in his youth and has been employed as an estate manager since he was invalided out. Definitely not earl material. His arrival is inauspicious. He looks pale and ill, and is boring as ditch-water, when he’s not being rude. But when his war injuries flare up in life-threatening manner, Elizabeth begins to see a different side to him.

Elizabeth is a fascinating character. Her great obsession is her telescope, through which she hopes to detect a new comet. As she’s viewed as irredeemably eccentric and a blue-stocking to boot, she’s still unmarried at the age of twenty-eight, and her scientific bent makes her largely oblivious to what’s going on around her, particularly the welfare of her two younger sisters, fourteen-year-old twins Jean and Margaret, who have bested a succession of governesses and are well on the way to running wild. Lord Clanross, on the other hand, is very much interested in the sisters and presses Elizabeth to get on and organise a governess. The two spar frequently over this and… well, pretty much everything.

Into this somewhat hostile environment comes Lord Bevis, heir to an earldom, a handsome, witty and charming man who has been pursuing Elizabeth for years, followed in time by Willoughby Conway-Gore, Clanross’s current heir, a somewhat snivelling man who has run through his own fortune and is put out that Clanross has survived to cut him out of the inheritance. He brings with him his beautiful peahen of a sister, with the object of marrying her off advantageously to Clanross or Bevis – either will do. And in the background is Elizabeth’s conventional companion, the new and very unconventional governess and an assortment of relations.

The beauty of this book, however, is that it is entirely written in the first person from Elizabeth’s point of view. This means that we see absolutely everything through her eyes, infused with all her own prejudices and foibles. There are times when the twins aren’t even mentioned, for instance, because Elizabeth has basically forgotten their existence. The dull companion barely registers but the governess, with her scientific bent (she’s a botanist) registers far more. And of course we see the two important men in her life just as Elizabeth herself sees them, and watch how her opinions gradually blur and shift as she begins to view them differently.

Clanross is the interloper, an unworthy commoner with the soul of an accountant, elevated beyond his desserts by a quirk of the laws of primogeniture. He’s rude, plain and downright awkward, and makes Elizabeth bristle with righteous indignation (and outright prejudice) every time she encounters him. Bevis, on the other hand, is the golden aristocrat, the smooth talker, flirtatious, mannered and so, so charming, with the familiarity that comes from long friendship. It’s no wonder that she begins to think perhaps it’s time to say yes to him, and settle down to married life. But the difficult question of her telescope won’t go away. Bevis is horrified by the thought of her pursuing so eccentric a study after they’re married. Clanross, on the other hand, respects and admires her scientific work.

And so, inch by inch, Elizabeth comes to understand Clanross better and begins to appreciate his true worth. And all this is done with scintillating dialogue which is genuinely clever and witty, and very, very funny, as well as Elizabeth’s inner thoughts, and her guilty realisation that she really has neglected her sisters, and hasn’t done justice to Clanross himself. It’s all brilliantly done. I can’t remember when I last read a book that I enjoyed so much, and on a number of different levels. Even the minor characters are perfectly realised and fully rounded human beings, in all their quirky mixture of good and bad and outright weird. And the romance? Perfectly judged and eminently satisfying. An excellent five stars.