A Most Unconventional Courtship
The setting of this romance is unusual, and highly attractive. The island of Corfu, in northern Greece just this side of the Albanian border, is described well, and its landscape makes a splendid backdrop to the story and serves as far more than wallpaper.
The time is 1817, and the British control the island. Benedict Chancellor, Earl of Blakeney, visits during his Grand Tour, and while walking home inebriated, is set upon by ruffians and rescued by a young woman. She is Alexandra Meredith, commonly known as Alessa, the daughter of a Frenchwoman and and an English earl’s younger son who served as a spy on Corfu during the Napoleonic Wars and died there. Because her English family disowned her father after his marriage, Alessa never tried to get in touch with them even after the war ended. Instead she ekes out an existence for herself and two Greek orphans she has adopted by working as a kind of apothecary and by taking in washing from the British Residency, of all places.
Chance (yes, the nickname made me wince, too) and Alessa fall in love at first sight. The author handles this plot device, which can be hackneyed, with a deft and convincing hand. Both characters feel an overwhelming physical attraction, but as soon as they begin to talk, they are equally charmed by the other’s wit, intelligence, and kindness. Both being independent and strong-willed, they are at first deeply irritated by the strength of these confusing emotions, and at the same time wise enough to acknowledge their feelings to themselves by page eighty. Such insight and honesty with oneself is rare in romanceland, more’s the pity.
Chance never more than vaguely toys with the idea of making Alessa his mistress, quickly recognizing that she is virtuous and would not be open to a proposition of that kind. (And no, he is not one of those heroes who think themselves irresistible.) Once he knows about her British background, he decides the way to best deal with this unsettling woman is to restore her to her family and thus do his duty by a compatriot stranded at the other end of Europe – while at the same time removing temptation. He is aided in this endeavor by the arrival of Lady Blackstone on Corfu, who is Alessa’s aunt and actually on the island to search for her niece.
Although Alessa bristles at Chance’s high-handedness in deciding what is best for her, she does not throw temper tantrums, but carefully considers the advantages and risks of going to England, arriving at the conclusion such a move would be best for her and her children, and agrees to make her aunt’s acquaintance. This kind of rational behaviour can be observed throughout the novel. There may be misunderstandings and quarrels between hero and heroine, but after tempers have cooled – and often before the misunderstanding itself has been cleared up – they go back to speaking calmly and courteously to each other, because, basically, they really like each other, and the author permits this to show. I found this very refreshing in contrast to the many romance couples who constantly shout at each other. This leads me to the nature of the misunderstandings: There is no Big Mis, and although a number of small misunderstandings occur, they stem either from the differences in Alessa and Chance’s character and preconceptions, or, in some cases, from others’ cleverly manipulating them.
As characters Alessa and Chance are immensely likable, but not without flaws. Chance is that historical romance rarity, a truly kind and honorable gentleman. At the same time, he is highly conventional at the beginning of the book, rather smug with it, and too much inclined to believe that he knows best. He definitely needs some shaking up, and he gets it. I kept wondering in how far his names are supposed to be ironic: “Chance” certainly is (at least at the beginning), and Blakeney is of course the family name of the Scarlet Pimpernel, that most romantic of risk-takers.
Alessa is very strong and independent, having taken care of herself and two children for many years, and thus more mature than her 23 years. At the same time she is completely out of her depth in British society, and painfully aware that her unconventional background will most likely make her an outsider there. The resulting insecurity and a quick temper make her vulnerable.
The plotting is carefully done. There is quite a bit going on for such a comparatively slim novel, but each turn is prepared for and develops from what happens before. A number of secondary characters are described with sufficient detail to make them believable and more than cardboard figures. There are two villains, who are not entirely black, although they create havoc enough. In a clever twist, they suffer from the same fault as Chance does to a minor degree. They just try to impose their vision of the world on others – in their case, with little or no regard for what these others’ wishes are.
The love scenes are luscious, and I enjoyed reading them. In all except one the setting is unusual, and this gives them a quality of the unexpected without feeling too contrived.
My only issue with the book has to do with its ending. Just when the most pressing problems have been solved, Alessa suddenly indulges in a tantrum bordering on TSTL behavior. Plotwise, this gives Chance the opportunity for a Grand Gesture, but considering character development, which after all plays a fairly important role in this book, it is a sad misstep. After the Grand Gesture Chance and Alessa engage in a discussion about their earlier misunderstandings, which seemed entirely too modern for me. Additionally, it is superfluous; why do these characters need to sum up causes and effects about which the reader is already aware?
Apart from these fairly minor details, I truly enjoyed reading A Most Unconventional Courtship and recommend it whole-heartedly.