“Old School” is one of those terms that can have a lot of meaning. After all, the romance genre has evolved quite a bit over the decades and different threads of the genre have gone in different directions. I’ll admit that my first thought when I see the term takes me to the 400-500 page books I used to find in used bookstores and library sales back in the 90s. Big, epic historicals definitely still have their appeal for me, though I’m pickier than I used to be. Some problematic features just can’t be glossed over for me anymore. This time around, Caz and I both ended up going in a similar direction, reading old Regency trads from the late 80s/early 90s. At their best, these stories, just like their contemporary category cousins, pack a focused romance into a relatively short page count. This time around, we both got to catch prominent historical authors in the earlier days of their careers.
Lady With a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh
For this month’s “Old School” prompt, I went back to 1989 and a recently (digitally) re-issued golden oldie from Mary Balogh. “Light”, “fluffy” and “farcical” aren’t words one might readily associate with this author these days, as most of her recent books (and many of her earlier ones) are quiet and introspective, often dealing with darker themes and featuring characters with complex emotional problems and baggage – which makes Lady With a Black Umbrella, with its comedic grumpy/sunshine romance and overall air of whimsy something a little different from the rest of her oeuvre.
Giles Fairhaven, Viscount Kincade, has stopped at an inn overnight to break his journey to Bath – where he’s headed in order to escort his parents back to London. In the morning however, he is unable to pay his bill (or the willing barmaid who kept him company for most of the night, or the gambling debt he accrued playing another guest at cards) because he finds that his purse has been stolen. With no alternative but to return to London so he can make arrangements to send payment to the innkeeper, he is getting ready to leave when he is set upon by three thugs.
Fortunately –or unfortunately, as he later counts it – his situation has been witnessed from an upstairs window by a young woman who refuses to stand by and watch such an unfair fight, and who rushes to his aid dressed only in a nightgown, wielding a hefty black umbrella with which she alternately beats and stabs at Kincade’s assailants. The men leave, and the viscount offers a curt thank-you and goes on his way
Sensible, forthright, twenty-five-year-old Daisy Morrison has been running her parents’ household – and pretty much anything else that comes into her orbit – for years. Declaring herself a confirmed spinster with no intention of marrying (because she would “run” her husband – “And I do not think I could bear being married to a man who would allow himself to be dominated by me.” ) she is quite content to settle into the role of on-the-shelf chaperone, and has decided that her beautiful younger sister Rose should have a Season to find herself a husband. Rose is not particularly enthusiastic about the idea; she would much prefer a quiet life in the country – but trying to oppose Daisy is like trying to will the tide not to come in… so to London she will go.
Before they leave the inn, Daisy takes care to give the innkeeper a piece of her mind about what happened to Viscount Kincade, and then proceeds to pay his bill, his gambling debt and for his… er… entertainment the night before. After she and Rose have left, it emerges that the theft of the viscount’s purse was no accident; someone wanted to stop him getting to Bath – and is out to make life as unpleasant for him as possible. When Giles returns to town to find it awash with gossip about the fact that his debts were paid by a young woman – and that she also paid the barmaid – he’s equal parts furious and humiliated.
Daisy and Rose (who are, incidentally, the obscenely wealthy daughters of a baron who made a fortune in coal) arrive in London only to find that the relatives they had planned to stay with are out of the country (Daisy didn’t check in advance!) and so instead they head to the Pulteney Hotel while Daisy works out what to do. She is, at the advanced age of twenty-five, perfectly capable of acting as Rose’s chaperone, but without her aunt and uncle around to make the necessary introductions, Rose won’t be able to go anywhere where chaperonage would be needed.
But Daisy is undaunted. And soon, her refusal to give up and go home pays off when, on a walk in the park, she spots the very man she had saved from a severe beating. He’s a viscount, so surely he must know a respectable female who could help introduce Rose into society?
Well, no prizes for guessing how this is going to go. I have to admit that Daisy isn’t my favourite type of heroine, but the author makes her so endearing here that it’s impossible not to like her, and I appreciated that her managing tendencies are well-grounded in her backstory. She’s is one of those characters with no brain-to-mouth filter most of the time and who doesn’t always look before she leaps but has the best of intentions and a genuine desire to help everyone and for everyone to be happy. Yes, she’s naïve, but she’s also like a breath of fresh air to Giles – who wants to throttle her or kiss her and isn’t sure which, half the time. (The number of times he imagines himself putting his hands around her neck is somewhat troubling though!). Daisy gets into scrapes constantly – leaping from the carriage to rescue a dog, berating a gentleman for trying to cheat a prostitute – and Giles dislikes her intensely. Except he doesn’t of course, eventually coming to realise that her lack of concern for the proprieties isn’t because she doesn’t know about them, but because she cares more about helping people than being correct. Daisy is improper and completely exhausting, yet somehow, Giles can’t help admiring her bravery and spirit and enjoying the time they spend together.
There’s a nice little subplot about Giles’ younger sister who believes herself in love with a most unsuitable swain, and a secondary romance for Rose; it’s all tightly written and moves along at quite a clip, and the author does a good job with the romance, clearly showing the growing affection between Daisy and Giles. Lady With a Black Umbrella isn’t going to win any awards for originality (it wouldn’t have, even back in 1989), but it’s a frothy confection of warmth, humour and silliness and an all-round fun read.
~ Caz Owens
Grade: B- Sensuality: Subtle
Buy it at: Amazon
The Fortune Hunter by Jo Beverley
At first when I saw the “old school” prompt, I immediately thought of my stash of 20+ year old historicals that I’ve picked up at various used bookstores. Even though some of these older historicals can contain some problematic plot points at times, I can deal with problematic reads as long as they’re written well. Sadly, the ones I picked up just weren’t. One had a way too sunny approach to enslaved people, while another gave the heroine a delightful (ahem) choice between a sullen rapist and an alpha hero who lived for putting her down. Hard pass.
After these false starts, I decided to switch gears to “old school” Regency, and I picked up one of Jo Beverley’s trads from the early 90s. While The Fortune Hunter lacks the polish and depth of some of her later historicals, it’s still an enjoyable read. The heroine drove me batty at times, but there’s a sweetness to this tale that made me very happy to see the couple in question get their HEA.
In this novel, Amy de Lacy’s father has died, and upon his death, she and her siblings learn that they have been left in poverty. This is a plot point I remember coming across in many Regency trads, but it’s been a while since I read one and I’d forgotten how often Regency dads in 90s novels had a bad head for finances.
At any rate, the eldest daughter of the house, Beryl, is acknowledged by all to be both shy and retiring, as well as possessed of only average looks. Just as a sidenote, I have to say that all the mention of Beryl’s perceived difficulty on the marriage market started to get to me after a while. She’s plainly a sweet person, and without throwing in spoilers, let’s just say I’m happy that she got her own subplot that led her to happiness.
The next sibling down, Amy (don’t you dare call her Amethyst), is quite the opposite. She is so good-looking that pretty much any man who sees her all but swoons at her feet. She is also far from being shy and retiring, feeling free to jump into any given situation with both feet. Amy has been the self-appointed head of economization in the de Lacy household, and now she is determined to be the one who will land a rich husband and save the family.
The family has gotten word of a wealthy Cit having moved into the neighborhood, so Amy comes up with a scheme to attract his notice by having her carriage break down outside his gate. Unfortunately, she is better at planning marital martyrdom than checking weather reports, so she instead ends up trapped in a rainstorm with handsome, charming, eligible but not-nearly-rich-enough Harry Crisp.
The romance is quite sweet. It’s obvious that Harry is smitten with Amy. However, her dogged insistence on marrying money makes her much slower to come around. I honestly got rather fed up with Amy (as did some of her nearest and dearest in the story) because she almost seemed to be creating her own obstacles to happiness. On the one hand, Amy is far more blatant about her desire to marry rich than most heroines, but on the other hand, her family’s predicament is very real and the de Lacys have no easy answers.
Even though Amy starts off stubborn and a bit immature at times, her heart is in the right place and she truly loves her family. As the story moves along, she starts to cast off her blinders and grow up. And of course, things do end happily. This book isn’t as rich as some of Beverley’s later works would be, but it’s still an enjoyable read and you can see her strong prose throughout the book as well as glimpses of the characterizations she would become known for in later years.
~ Lynn Spencer
Grade: B Sensuality: Kisses