Author: Sophie Irwin
Publication: Penguin, trade paperback, 2023
Genre: Historical Romance
Setting: 19th century EnglandDescription: Ten years ago, Eliza Balfour, a quiet seventeen-year-old, was bullied by her parents into marrying an earl 25 years her senior, although she loved his nephew, Oliver Courtenay. The marriage was unsuccessful, in part because she did not bear an heir but, happily, he has passed on, and Oliver has inherited the title. Eliza has never stopped loving him but knows he despises her for marrying for position. Lord Somerset did leave Eliza a fortune – but it is conditional upon her avoiding scandal. When she travels to Bath with her cousin, Eliza’s intention is to live quietly (yet pleasantly) but when Oliver turns up as well as dashing Lord Melville, she is tempted to enjoy herself for the first time but will that risk losing her new-found independence?
My Impression: Irwin’s first book, A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting was enjoyable but improbable: it was more like Bridgerton than Heyer or Austen so I was surprised by the critical acclaim (the full force of the British publisher’s marketing campaign didn’t hurt but is not a guarantee). However, the Bridgerton Netflix series was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic so I suppose most readers are looking for something racier than Georgette or Jane. I am happy to say that I found this book to be far superior to Fortune-Hunting and very convincing. Eliza is an appealing character, who recognizes she was too passive in the past and while she has hopes for the future, she soon realizes she also craves independence. Irwin surrounds her with well-depicted secondary characters: Eliza’s cousin Margaret; her deceased husband’s disagreeable relatives; Oliver, now Lord Somerset, after years of military service outside of Britain; talkative Bath neighbors; and the scandalous Lord Melville and his equally outrageous sister. Even Eliza’s mother who appears in person just twice is a strong presence through her letters and Eliza’s constant awareness of what her mother’s reactions would be to any situation.
Melville is outspoken and Eliza is wary that associating with him could cause the gossip she is trying to avoid:
“Caroline explained to me that you’re in love with Somerset . . . I’m curious; would you call him your nephew?”Irwin’s language is well-chosen and appropriate, unlike many of her peers. I had to stop reviewing historical romances for Publishers Weekly because so many were sloppily written – both with respect to grammar and absurd situations – not to mention full of anachronisms. That may be what the reading public wants or can handle but it is certainly not what I choose to spend my time reading! However, I gave this five stars and finished it in one sitting.Quibbles: At first, I wondered why Oliver Courtenay, heir to an earldom, was dismissed as a suitor for Eliza merely because his immediate prospects, as an army captain, were modest. However, the earl was a mere 42 and could have produced a son with someone else, and the Balfours were counting on Eliza’s husband’s status to improve the prospects of her siblings at once. More distressing was when Lord Melville, a Byronic-like poet, tells Eliza, “These past weeks have been . . . difficult for Caroline and I . . .” – bad enough to have that jarring grammatical mistake but for it to come from the mouth of a poet! I could not help correcting the grammar errors in my copy, despite being a librarian myself. I’d write to tell my former employer to correct it in the paperback but this *is* the paperback!Source: Library. This is my nineteenth book for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and I recommend it.
Eliza choked on air.
“I – I – I,” she stammered. “H-how dare you! He is certainly not my nephew! And I am not in love with him!”
“I shan’t mention it to him, if that is why you are concerned,” Melville said.
“If that is why I am concerned?” Eliza repeated. “My lord, you seem to be going out of your way to ask me the most intrusive, most indelicate . . . many people would consider it a great impertinence.”
“I hope you are not one of them,” he said. “They sound tedious.”