Almost a Bride
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Jane Feather’s books for years. I have not once, but twice now given up on her only to be lured back by great buzz about one of her books. The last time this happened was with The Widow’s Kiss, which I loved, but then she lost me again two books later with the truly horrific Kissed by Shadows. Now there is an almost universal good buzz going on over her latest book Almost a Bride and I’m so glad I gave it a shot, for I enjoyed it very much.
Almost a Bride takes place in Georgian England – which is a nice change; too few novels are published in this time period, in my opinion – and France after the Revolution. The Terror is beginning to wind down in Paris and Jack Fortescu, the Duke of St. Jules, is there trying to find his sister, the widow of a French comte who lost his head to Madame Guillotine. As he searches, he works with those who are smuggling people out of the country – and witnesses the executions, taking note of the names of the victims to pass along to friends and family in England.
When the English Earl of Dunston is somehow caught in a general round up of aristos (this whole scenario, unfortunately, is never really explained very well) he trades his life for that of Jack’s sister, who was subsequently arrested and died in prison. Months later, back in England, Jack sets out to systematically destroy Dunston through gaming. When Jack finally wins everything of Dunston’s, both “animate and inanimate”, Dunston takes his own life.
Jack travels to the country to break the news to Dunston’s half-sister, Lady Arabella Lacey. The 28-year-old spinster had one dull London Season and then retreated to the country to raise her beloved orchids and quite successfully manage the estate. She is not terribly surprised by Jack’s news, she always knew Dunston would come to a bad end, but she is stunned when Jack proposes a marriage of convenience. It is part of Jack’s revenge to possess everything that once belonged to Dunston, including his sister, which Jack views as poetic justice: a sister for a sister.
So, we have several tried and true romance novel clichés set up here: the marriage of convenience, the revenge plot, and the sister made to pay for her brother’s sins, among others, and it is a delight to watch Feather turn these conventions on their heads.
One would expect Arabella to fight the marriage tooth and nail, and though she does resist for a while, it doesn’t take her very long to see the advantages of marriage to Jack. She can keep her home and have more comfort and independence as a wealthy duchess than she would as someone’s dependent poor relation. She hammers out a tough marriage settlement and makes the best of it. Arabella knows there is more behind this marriage proposal than simple reparation on Jack’s part, though Jack refuses to tell her why he targeted Dunston. And, with no illusions where it comes to her brother, she has no doubt that he must have done something awful to merit his destruction. She also knows that Jack has a mistress and that marriage will not change that. She’s a very practical woman and I found that a nice change after having read too many huffy ditzes.
For Jack’s part, though he would have married Dunston’s sister no matter what she looked like, or what her personality, he is pleased with Arabella and surprised to find that he wants the marriage more than he thought he would. He is also an adult and able to separate Arabella from her brother, so there’s none of that “I hated your brother so I’m going to treat you like dirt” stuff going on.
So, if Jack and Arabella are both sensible adults, where does the conflict come in? Through getting to know each other, through all those large and small adjustments that go into making a marriage. They disagree, they reflect, they talk, they resolve. Situations which in another book would have turned into Big Misunderstandings or reasons for anger or sulking, are instead talked through, which then lays another stone in the foundation of their marriage. And of course, as Arabella begins to care for her husband, she cannot help trying to root out all his secrets, especially the ones concerning her brother.
This is not a perfect book; there were some niggles for me. Jack kept the reasons for his revenge a secret from Arabella for far too long. It is the one thing he will not compromise on or talk about. Though I felt it fit his character – he is a very autocratic, private and aloof man – he also knows that there was no love lost between Arabella and her brother and so she would be very supportive of Jack’s reasons for revenge. There is some business with the mistress which I can’t get into without spoilers, but they bothered me. And the ending, while I felt was a tad too emotionally manipulative, nonetheless worked for me, though I almost resented that it did.
But taken in the whole, this is a very good read and a refreshing one in terms of the setting, avoidance of clichés, strong characters and strong storytelling. I see that Feather’s last three books, the Edwardian Duncan Sisters trilogy, all got grades in the B range here at AAR. I think I’ll have to check them out, now that I’m back on the Jane Feather Bandwagon.