An Uncommon Courtship
There is a difference between reviewing a book and just reading it and I have never been quite as aware of that difference as I was while pondering the review for An Uncommon Courtship. There was so much I enjoyed about this book, there were so many times I was simply delighted by the author’s adept skill at turning certain tropes on their head – but there were moments of frustration too. I had to find a grade that fell somewhere between “I absolutely loved it” and “It was thoroughly enjoyable but”. Hopefully, the B+ I have given it lets readers know that this is a wonderfully charming – but slightly flawed – novel.
Lady Adelaide Bell loves mushrooms. Loves them so much in fact that she on occasion risks life and limb (mostly limb) to hunt for them in the old ruins on the Duke of Riverton’s estate. Her hunts had always been successful and accident free– until one fateful day.
Lord Trent Hawthorne wouldn’t call himself overly curious but when he sees a horse at the old ruins on his brother’s estate he stops to investigate. While the floor had handled Adelaide’s slight weight quite successfully the same could not be said for his and the two were plunged into the cellar with painful consequences. Forced to spend the night in damp discomfort with only mushrooms to eat, they emerge with tarnished reputations. Trent, sprained ankle notwithstanding, hobbles into Lord Bell’s study and offers for Adelaide, determined his careless actions not destroy her future marriage prospects. The betrothal contract is agreed upon between the men, the banns are read and a short time later two near strangers find themselves celebrating a wedding.
This is where I think the author makes her first mistake. We hear this backstory in snippets from the conversation that takes place between Trent and his brother, Griffith, at the wedding breakfast, because having experienced the actual event would have given readers much more insight into the characters. As it is, our first introduction to them as a couple is after they are already married and leaving the wedding party for Trent’s townhouse. We have no clear understanding of how they passed the night of the accident, we just know they didn’t have sex. But did they talk? It seems not, since Adelaide feigns sleep on the carriage ride to London unable to think of anything to converse about with her new husband.
The next day doesn’t go much better and that’s because the two spent the wedding night apart. Adelaide wakes up very embarrassed, wondering just why that was and blaming herself for it. What had he thought when he came to her room and found her sleeping with the blankets pulled all the way to her chin? Nothing actually because he had never been to her room. He had hoped, expected in fact, that she would simply go to sleep, as he did, and now the two find themselves facing breakfast after a non-starter wedding night. It’s as awkward as they both feared it would be.
Concerned that “This marriage (might) ruin every breakfast for the rest of his life” and being a man very fond of his morning repast, Trent stumbles upon a plan to save his marriage: He will move to his brother’s house and court Adelaide, much as he would do if they had just met. He packs his bags, promises to be back to take her for an afternoon ride and leaving behind a very bewildered bride, heads to Griffith’s.
One of the things I absolutely loved about this novel was the author’s attempt to show us just how tricky and uncomfortable a marriage between two strangers can be. Trent and Adelaide do not know each other at all. Given that marriages contracted for reasons such at this were not uncommon in this era, this reader very much appreciated the effort take to show how disconcerting and difficult such a union would actually be.
While the couple might have courted in the weeks leading up to the wedding, that doesn’t happen because Adelaide’s mother found it more important to buy her daughter a trousseau than to let her get acquainted with her future husband. Adelaide allowed it because the one term that could be used to define her is “dutiful daughter”. That sounds contrived but the author does such a fabulous job of developing her characters that you realize that each of them is behaving in precisely the manner their personalities lead them to. Adelaide’s mother is a social climber who puts appearance and rank above relationships; it is no stretch to think she would give her daughter’s coming marriage no thought beyond the clothes needed to impress in her new role. Adelaide has spent her whole life accommodating the rest of her family and it makes perfect sense that she would agree to the scheme. Trent is so easy going that he essentially lets life happen to him and is surprised by how that laissez-faire attitude winds up working against him in his new life situation. It takes both him and Adelaide a while to find their footing, backbone and wits and begin to take charge of their situation.
Fortunately, they are such cheery, congenial and captivating characters that their naïveté and occasionally spineless and dunderheaded behaviors are made up for by their growth. It helps that the author gives us good cause for some of the more slap-sticky moments, such as Trent’s cluelessness about sex. He is fatherless, with an unmarried older brother and had apparently learned all he knew about the subject by listening to conversations in school and in his clubs. While it borders on unbelievable that any man would be that oblivious regarding conjugal relations, his devotion to his faith, his obvious curiosity regarding the subject, and his desire for his wife keep the situation from being completely ludicrous.
I should point out that this tale contains more sexual details than most inspirational novels. We are there at the beginning of Adelaide and Trent’s first time, stay for the brief portion when they start undressing and hear some mild details regarding how the evening went afterwards. It’s very, very tame stuff and totally appropriate given we are dealing with a couple already married many weeks at the time of the consummation.
Two other things kept this comedic tale from being farcical: the secondary characters and the author’s clear understanding of historical norms. Trent moving out of his marital home within a week of the marriage places Adelaide in a very awkward social situation. Fortunately, his mother realizes that and takes steps to correct the situation as best she can. His sisters also come to Adelaide’s aid and having the family acknowledge what is peculiar and work to rectify it helped me to accept it as a plausible situation. I also appreciated how the author takes pains to show us how some of the things in the life of the Hawthorne family are unusual –from familiarity with servants to an insistence on love matches – and how the family adheres to enough societal rules to allow their eccentricities to be socially acceptable. It’s always a problem for me when I read a romance where standards of an era are ignored and everyone just accepts it. The author does a good job here of acknowledging what’s off kilter, how that affects the characters and why it might have happened and been tolerated.
The love story is best described as sweet and slow. The two principals are so very amiable and endearing that it is a forgone conclusion that they will have no choice but to love each other once they know each other and that is precisely what happens. I also really appreciated that the characters, once they became a couple, were the sort that brought out the best in each other and supported each other. That kind of relationship helps me believe in the HEA.
An Uncommon Courtship was a pleasure for me to read, often bringing a smile to my face. While I felt the writing could have been a bit smoother and some of the issues within the tale pushed my suspension of disbelief, it was a fun, enjoyable read overall. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a lighthearted romance with a genuine love story at its heart.