This is the first stage in my attempt to read (or reread) all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances in the correct order. This was first published in 1935, and it shows. The writing style is high-flown Jane Austen, the backdrops are authentically drawn from the era, complete with famous characters, and the plot is squeezed in amongst all that historical accuracy. The characters have to play second fiddle, and the book suffers for it.
Judith Taverner and her brother Perry are orphans, seemingly abandoned by the guardian appointed by their father, the Earl of Worth. Undaunted, they set off for London to track down the Earl and establish themselves. And on the way there, they bump into (literally!) a most unpleasant character, haughty and supercilious, who treats them like dirt. And guess who their guardian turns out to be?
This was rather good fun, if you can overcome a natural distaste for a heroine who stubbornly does everything she’s told not to do, and a hero who arrogantly manipulates his wards without ever bothering to explain his reasoning. But the side characters were entertaining, the dialogue sparkled with wit and the mystery element of the plot was nicely done, even if there was never the slightest doubt in my mind about what was going on, and why, and by whom.
For fans of historical detail, there’s a veritable deluge of it here. If you want an exact description of the Prince Regent’s outlandish Brighton Pavilion, or a list of the coaching inns between London and Brighton, or the various shops and lending libraries for the well-heeled, or the types of snuff in use, look no further. And several famous people, including the Prince Regent himself and various of his brothers, play small but significant roles in the story. To my mind, so much regurgitated research got between me and the story, and by the end I was skipping the seemingly endless descriptions of furnishings and decoration.
The author has obviously been inspired by Jane Austen, specifically Pride and Prejudice, and I noticed many turns of phrase lifted almost wholesale from there, not to mention certain elements of the plot (the hasty journey to London to track down a missing character, for instance, very redolent of Mr Bennet haring off after Lydia, although in this case with no justification whatsoever). It made the prose a little heavy at times, but still readable.
On the whole, I quite enjoyed the story, and the characters didn’t bother me as much as they did some readers (there are some very disparaging reviews). However, it failed in two respects. The first is the time-honoured one: there would have been no plot at all if the main characters had just talked to each other. The argument for secrecy was never well-made, and the worst thing the hero did to the heroine (to my mind) was to allow her to think her brother was dead. That was cruel and unforgivable, and far worse than the snatched kiss or his consistent rudeness (because – aristocracy; arrogance goes with the territory).
The second failure was the romance. I don’t ask much of a book like this, because the journey is more important than the destination, but there should at least be a conviction in the reader that these two are meant for each other. And honestly, I never felt that here. They argued constantly, and not just sniping but quite forceful battles, and even their romantic rapprochement degenerated into an argument in double-quick time. I’m always happy to see two intelligent, spirited, self-confident souls get together, but this pair veered too far into the arrogant, self-willed and plain bloody-minded. I can’t imagine how they will manage as a married couple.
So despite this being an enjoyable read, well-written and set very much in the era, it still merits only three stars.