How can I find the words to express my deep disappointment with this book? I tried and tried to find something to like in it, but alas, I searched in vain. To the contrary, I found the plot contrived, the characterization flat, the dialogue inane, and the quality of the writing abysmal. My wall is lucky that the version I read was a photocopy, since throwing loose sheets of paper at the wall has much less impact on the structural soundness of a room than flinging a bound book.
At the tender age of seventeen, innocent orphan Daphne Hightower traipses into the folly of her brother-in-law’s estate, only to find him cavorting with a distant female relative. The sight is enough to induce her to run away, to the safety of her widowed grandfather’s protection, where she passes the next ten years in quiet seclusion. Daphne divides her time between The Cedars, Grandpapa’s estate, and Hightower Court, his London residence. She remains secluded, however, rejecting a come-out and taking no part in social activities of any kind, save for occasionally acting as hostess when Grandpapa entertains his cronies, and she records her every thought and action in her diary. A chance encounter in the park with a mysterious man threatens her world, however, and reinforces her notion that all men want only one thing from women.
Lord Alexander Heathercott, second son of the Duke of Wexley, takes great pride in collecting beautiful women. When he runs across a ravishing creature in the park, he proclaims her The Most Beautiful Woman in England and vows to add her to his list of conquests. He sees her again, at the opera, in the company of some old gent, probably her current protector, and figures he can win her away from the fellow. Imagine, Dear Diary, his consternation upon discovering that she is the granddaughter of the Earl of Stanford! Alex learns of a rumor, though, that the chit just might be illegitimate, the daughter of an illicit liaison between the Earl’s black-sheep second son and an unfortunate young lady, so he decides to pursue Daphne anyway.
A tortured and tedious series of events leads to the forced betrothal and marriage (on the same night!) of Alex and Daphne, who are wed on Grandpapa’s deathbed. Daphne’s uncle Gideon, the afore-mentioned black sheep, tries to make trouble, and her brother-in-law (referred to by Daphne as Him) enlists her sister Sophy to try and wheedle some cash out of the now-wed-and-wealthy Daphne, but Alex is there to protect her. There’s still the question of those rumors of Daphne’s potential bastardy – and how ever is the poor woman going to overcome her deep revulsion to men, and the notion of close intimacy that comes with marriage?
My biggest problem with this book was Daphne. Today, a psychiatrist would probably diagnose her as pathologically neurotic. Hers is a case of arrested emotional development; she’s stuck at the age of seventeen. Allowing one five-minute event, which she only witnessed, to color everything that comes after it is clearly not healthy (and the implication is that she caught him and his partner in the opening stages of The Act). Soon after she meets Alex, Daphne wonders whether he’s just after her to “turn her into a beautiful sex slave, obedient to his every lascivious whim.” Then, of course, she immediately feels guilty for such a shameful thought. Just as annoying is her habit of constantly asking herself questions whose answers she already knows. If they’d had psychotherapy in Regency England, somebody would have made a mint off her.
And you know what else, Diary? For a woman who doesn’t go out into Society, she knows an awful lot about social customs and men’s fashion, to say nothing of the lower-class cant that is sprinkled into her speech. Alexander is no more appealing. He proses on and on about how only the most beautiful women are good enough for him, and he can’t wait to entice Daphne into moving into the little house in Mount Street where he installs his mistresses; he’s arrogant and insufferable. Not enough happened for me to believe that either of these characters would change into someone remotely approaching admirable, and I definitely did not accept that they fell in love.
The other characters suffer from the same lack of development. They’re all cardboard and could have come out of Regency Central Casting: the Unscrupulous Uncle, the Bad Brother-in-law, the Spineless Sister, the Happy, Happy Heathercotts, and so on. The last quarter of the book takes place at Wexley Abbey, home of said Happy, Happy Heathercotts, where all the young ladies are on the point of delivery and Alex’s mother keeps dropping hints to Daphne to get on with sleeping with her husband. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural: at one point Alex asks, “Has my father, the duke, arrived?”
So many things, Dear Diary, kept pulling me out of the story. There were minor inconsistencies, like getting a title wrong, or the time when the Earl says to Daphne that he knows Alex’s eighty-year-old aunt, then adds, “I thought for a while your [Daphne’s] father would offer for her” – a young man offering for a then-fifty-year-old woman? I think not. A number of key scenes take place only in flashback, which presents a problem in that there are inconsistencies in verb tenses throughout the book (are we in the present, or the past?).
Diary, you know that I’m a great fan of a well-written Regency, and have several on my keeper shelf. Never fear, for Daphne’s Diary isn’t coming anywhere near that hallowed place. A neurotic heroine, a stuffed-shirt hero, inane plotting, and a distracting writing style have seen to that. I finish this entry with a quote from Daphne’s own diary: I record my criticism here, since the story had ceased to make sense.