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Despite being old enough to know better, I'm a sucker for well written romantic fiction especially that which has a historical setting. I use the words 'well written' advisedly because there is an awful lot of trashy stuff out there and it's often hard to find the pure gold amongst all the dross littering the bookshelves. Nowadays, American writers account for the biggest percentage of romance authors these days but they produce mixed results. I can't begin to count the number of books purportedly about English men and women of a couple of centuries ago who proceed to stroll along the 'sidewalks', watch the leaves drop in the 'Fall' and eat 'candy', all of which immediately turns the book into a wall banger rather than a page turner because I become obsessed with spotting every little error of time and place as well as groaning over each Americanism and, believe me, there are plenty!
One of my favourite writers of historical romantic fiction is Mary Balogh who, having been born and raised in Wales before emigrating to Canada in her early twenties, has managed to retain her command of English English as opposed to American English which lets down so many books in this genre. Her knowledge of the time period of which she writes, coupled with her use of the English vernacular and strong storytelling skills, makes these books a pleasure to read. She began her writing career producing Regency romances for Signet (an American equivalent of Mills & Boon or Masquerade) but the sheer quality of them soon propelled her towards greater things and besides rewriting and amplifying some of her earlier books, she's risen to become one of the best historical romance writers around.
The Huxtable family, three sisters and their young brother, although of the gentry, are living a very secluded and impoverished life in rural Shropshire where they struggle to make ends meet. Into their midst comes Elliot, Viscount Lydgate, who tells them that Stephen Huxtable has just inherited an earldom and is now the Earl of Merton and that Elliot has been appointed as his mentor until he reaches his majority. As Elliot is also looking for a wife, he decides to propose to the eldest sister, Meg, but before he can do so, Vanessa Huxtable, Meg's younger sister makes a proposal of her own. Elliot's acceptance leads to a journey of discovery for both him and Vanessa.
This book is the first in a series of five novels featuring members of the Huxtable family and is set during the Regency period, a time when good breeding, impeccable manners and an unsullied reputation were of paramount importance. The Regency is a period much loved by romance writers and with good reason. The strict moral code of the upper classes was juxtaposed with all manner of covert shenanigans and although it was perfectly acceptable for men to be rakes and sow their wild oats with women who were no better than they ought to be, gently reared young women were required to be above reproach, at least until they'd married and produced an heir and a spare. This was a time of great excess for those who had the money (or indeed, even if they didn't have the money) and the divide between rich and poor was enormous.
The story here is predicated up a family of gentlefolk whose clergyman father has died and they are reduced to eking out a respectable existence in a country backwater but money is in very short supply. The eldest daughter, Margaret, has been responsible for caring for her sisters, Vanessa and Katherine and the youngest, Stephen.
We first meet the handsome and dashing Viscount Lydgate when he makes his appearance at the local dance, bringing thoughts of Pride and Prejudice immediately to mind, but after that all similarity to Miss Austen's masterpiece disappears and the characters here are entirely the work of Miss Balogh. Elliot, Viscount Lydgate is the nephew of the late Earl and is in Shropshire to inform Stephen Huxtable that he has inherited the earldom. Elliot has been tasked with the guardianship of Stephen and overseeing his transition from his current existence into a new life of privilege and wealth. However, Elliot's plan to remove Stephen from his current family home and leave his sisters behind fails to find favour and he has to remove the entire family, including the widowed Vanessa, to their new home.
The relationship which develops between Elliot and Vanessa is a realistic and entertaining one. Vanessa is the 'plain' sister, Margaret and Katherine being stunningly beautiful and even Stephen is described as handsome with the face of an angel. It soon becomes clear to Elliot that just as he finds her less than beautiful, she doesn't regard him as a shining role model for her brother either. She thinks he's rude, overbearing and arrogant.
Elliot has decided that the time has come to marry and the best way to deal with the new Earl's sisters is to marry one of them so that his wife can arrange suitable marriages for the other two. He intends to propose to the eldest, Margaret, however, Vanessa, realising Elliot's intentions and knowing that Margaret is still holding a torch for a man who has gone off to be a soldier, offers herself for the role instead and, taken by surprise, he accepts. Not the best start for a romantic relationship you'd think but such is the skill of Mary Balogh, that she can turn such an unprepossessing start into a luscious love story.
This story is a bit of a slow burner, largely because this is the first in the series and there's a lot of information to impart along with the love story. There are quite a few characters to introduce, and eventually a further two sisters, a brother and a cousin will all get their own story. Despite that necessary scene-setting, this tale never gets too bogged down with detail that you lose sight of the main contenders, Vanessa and Elliot.
Conflict is brought into the story in the shape of the dispossessed cousin, Constantine. Con is something of an enigma: the eldest son but precluded from the earldom because he was born a few days before his parents actually married. Although he had acted as the guardian of his younger, handicapped, brother, following a row with his cousin, Elliot, Con has been exiled to the periphery of the family. This is a situation which is revisited through the following books of the series and only reaches a resolution in the final novel, Con's own story.
But back to the major players in this book. I liked Vanessa. What she lacks in looks, she more than makes up for in personality and feistiness and, this being a romance, of course she hasn't totally been hit with the ugly stick so once she's dressed up and had her hair done, she's more than passable looking! The conflict between herself and Elliot is believable and the way the couple endeavour to make their marriage of convenience work is probably a fair representation of how these situations were dealt with back then. Of course, for many such marriages, there wasn't a happy ever after, but who wants to read the ugly truth? Not me, there's enough of that in the world as it is!
I found Elliot less easy to like: he's a somewhat stereotypical romance hero in that he's high handed, arrogant and, of course, ruggedly good looking. However, he's also rather pompous at times which isn't exactly an endearing character trait and that, coupled with his serious attitude to his duties towards the Huxtables and his seeming lack of a sense of humour, reduces his appeal somewhat.
All the other characters, especially the Huxtable siblings, are well rounded and believable in the main, though I do get rather tired of romance novels being filled with devastatingly attractive characters. I only have to walk down any street to see that the percentage of such people is very low indeed and that most of us are passable looking but less than gorgeous, so Mary Balogh is to be applauded for providing a heroine who doesn't quite fit the usual mould. What I didn't like so much was that, despite providing a less than beautiful heroine, the effect was diluted somewhat by the fact that the rest of the family so beautiful.
I also felt that the ending was rather rushed, almost as though the author had decided her novel would have a specified number of pages and she needed to reach the conclusion quickly in order not to go over her limit. Other than that, however, this book has made a very good start to what promises to be an excellent series. It won't appeal to everyone, especially those who prefer their novels to be plot driven rather than based on character and the development of relationships and probably not to many men.
I enjoy reading books from many genres, romance being only one of them but these days I tend to be selective about the romances I read. I found this book to be enjoyable, with characters who were likeable and easy to relate to and it certainly whetted my appetite for reading the other four books of the series. I liked the Huxtable family enough to want to know what happens to the rest of them.
This book is currently available from 1p for used copies or can be bought new for a little over £5. It's also available in Kindle format for £4.50.
The Huxtable series:
1. First Comes Marriage
2. Then Comes Seduction
3. At Last Comes Marriage
4. Seducing an Angel
5. A Secret Affair