UK Publisher: Piatkus
Genre: Historical romance
Duncan Wentworth tried his hand at rescuing a damsel in distress once long ago, and he’s vowed he’ll never make that mistake again. Nonetheless, when he comes across Matilda Wakefield in the poacher-infested and far-from-enchanted woods of his estate, decency compels him to offer aid to a lady fallen on hard times. Matilda is whip-smart, she can read Duncan’s horrible penmanship, and when she wears his reading glasses, all Duncan can think about is naughty Latin poetry.
Matilda cannot entrust her secrets to Duncan without embroiling him in the problems that sent her fleeing from London, but neither can she ignore a man who’s honourable, a brilliant chess player, and maddeningly kissable. She needs to stay one step ahead of the enemies pursuing her, though she longs to fall into Duncan’s arms. Duncan swears he has traded in his shining armour for a country gentleman’s muddy boots, but to win the fair maid, he’ll have to ride into battle one more time.
I’m going to say something which risks sounding a bit prudish, but it’s something I have come to realise I feel fairly strongly about. I’ve given it a few goes, but I need to be honest – I don’t like sex scenes in my Regency Romances. It changes the balance of the relationship, the thrust – excuse the term – of the narrative, and the tension between the characters. That’s not to say that sex scenes can’t be done well in romances, they absolutely can (although tbh I’ve mostly seen it in fanfic, but perhaps that’s because my own romance reading has been admittedly quite narrow), but that’s not what I go into a regency romance for. I go into them for emotional repression, unresolved romantic tension, and some mother effin’ pining. Unreadable longing looks, conviction that they can’t be together, half-choked confessions, grand gestures which are for nothing more than making their loved one happy… For me, regency romance is about that tension. It’s also about something deeper than sex – yes there’s desire, but it’s not just restricted to the loins, it’s a soul-deep yearning which encompasses the whole being, BUT because it is the Regency and there are Manners involved, everyone must keep a stiff upper lip and carry on as normal.
I think that scene from Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility really covers what it means for me, when Marianne accuses Elinor of being unfeeling because she has just continued to live her life and be polite and proper despite her heartbreak, and Elinor just crumples and throws it all back at her.
Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?
What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything but your own suffering. For weeks, Marianne, I’ve had this pressing on me without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature. It was forced on me by the very person whose prior claims ruined all my hope. I have endured her exultations again and again whilst knowing myself to be divided from Edward forever. Believe me, Marianne, had I not been bound to silence I could have provided proof enough of a broken heart, even for you.
Funnily enough, that film’s adaptation of Colonel Brandon in Alan Rickman is another perfect example. He pines, he yearns, but he doesn’t just want Marianne sexually, nor does he force himself upon her. Instead he busies himself with her care, comfort and happiness, with no concept of reward, or doing anything other than making her happy – even if that means letting her have someone else. Complete, selfless devotion. Funnily enough, most of this is a product of Thompson’s adaptation as the book is more of a social satire than a romance (and things are a mite less dramatic), but the themes and tropes are found in Pride and Prejudice more clearly, definitely in Persuasion and also in (yes, her again) Heyer’s work.
Which brings me to the book I’m actually supposed to be reviewing. It started off promisingly, although perhaps a mite on the floral side with some of the prose, but there was also a lot of oblique references to sexual desire, and the heroine kept kicking her slippers off to sit with her stockinged feet tucked up on chairs with her, which was a repeated detail that jarred hugely with my knowledge of the regency period and what was appropriate then (not That Sort Of Thing, for starters). Less was made of the propriety of an unmarried woman staying with an unmarried man without any kind of chaperone, even as as widow, but that made sense for the sake of plot progression.
And then they had sex.
Well, no, first Duncan asked for permission to court Matilda (from Matilda), which appeared to mean “make out with her and touch her up”, and then seemed to mean “have lots of premarital sex with her”. Like it went from repressed feelings to boning by halfway through the book. The pacing just seemed very strange to me, and bits where there should have been urgency seemed very dragged out, where bits where I would have preferred to see more time taken (the build up, the falling in love, the admittance of those feelings) seemed very rushed. And they keep having sex, which stops the narrative each time and doesn’t add anything more to the story – if anything it means that their relationship becomes less developed because the physical intimacy becomes the narrative shorthand for “and they were in love”. I found it dissatisfying, but props should be given over Someone To Love, because at least Matilda gets to enjoy herself, unlike poor Anna.
There were also a lot of references to chess, because Matilda is good at and loves chess, but they seemed heavy handed to me and clumsily done. At one point, a coded message is sent to her by Duncan saying “your knights will be here by 9:00am” or something similar which. What does that mean? They’re going to approach in a series of L-shaped jumps? Really it would have been better for the Duncan to reference a specific chess gambit perhaps, and upon receiving the message for Matilda to translate it for the reader: “She knew that the Vienna Gambit involved a pincer movement of pieces using the Queen as bait to corner an enemy piece but ultimately not sacrificing the Queen” or something like that. It would have elevated the chess references to something beyond just either foreplay between the two romantic leads, or simply naming pieces, or using it to show why the villain is bad because he hates chess but the hero is good because he likes it.
I also found there was a lot of telling, not showing. We keep hearing how Matilda wants stability and a home and many, many children, but her character shows she is cerebral, engaged in intellectual pursuits, and incisive. Her character doesn’t demonstrate her deep intense desire for a home and motherhood, it shows that she wants to be challenged intellectually and treated as an equal, given time to really explore this in a way she hasn’t previously, having constantly been on the move and then married to a reclusive German Duke. Equally with Duncan, we are told he is a damaged, antisocial man, but instead he seems to be curious, probing, and have a White Knight complex, and completely open to new relationships. The narrative we are told doesn’t fit the characters we are shown.
Perhaps my issues with this book stem from the fact that I read it so soon after These Old Shades, but I doubt it. I think I just have very different expectations from the target market of this sort of book. I could recognise all the tropes perfectly, and it is the second in a series which will doubtless work its way through all the members of the family (book 1 is about Duncan’s cousin). It is a solid entry into the realms of romance fiction, it hits every note for stalwarts of the genre. If you love romance novels, you won’t go far wrong with this. It didn’t do it for me, but I think I was looking for something a little different.
- A historical romance that hits every key trope of a romance novel perfectly, so if you like romance you will love this.
- For me some of the narrative felt a bit laboured – there was a lot of telling which contradicted what we were shown about characters, and the chess… similes? Metaphors? I’m unclear what their purpose is, but they’re laid on thickly and by the end of the book I was a bit fed up with them.
- I have some issues when sentiments are repeated through a book, especially when they are explicitly stated each time. Possibly because I read quickly, possibly because I have very good narrative recall, it means that if there are repeated sentiments (such as “all Matilda wanted was a home and children”, “Matilda dearly wanted a stable home and children”, “if she did this, she would get her stable home and children”), they rather smack me in the face. That’s why I prefer repression and pining I think – it’s less laboured, and gives more room for subtlety. Speaking looks not repetitive exposition please.
Rating: 3/5 – it wasn’t for me, but it is note perfect for the target audience.