Desert Isle Keeper
In the Arms of the Heiress
The plot of In the Arms of the Heiress can be summed up fairly succinctly, thus: Young heiress engages complete stranger to act as faux husband for one month to help deceive her overprotective and disapproving family. Romance and hi-jinx ensue.
Put like that, the book might not sound like all that promising, but I guarantee it’s a thoroughly entertaining read with plenty of humour, romance, sexy love-scenes and the aforementioned hi-jinx; together with some shrewd observations on the changes taking place in society in turn-of-the-century England.
The book’s cover proudly proclaims its appeal to fans of Downton Abbey, even going so far as to boast a photo of what looks like Highclere Castle (the ‘real’ Downton, and family seat of the Carnarvon family). Speaking personally, my heart sank when I saw that, because my immediate reaction was to see a cynical marketing ploy and it actually made me put it a few books down my TBR pile!
Thankfully, however, I was persuaded to move it back up again and all I can say to those of you who think the same way I do and hate that sort of obvious marketing strategy, is – don’t be put off.
Louisa Stratton is a wealthy young woman in her early twenties who lost her parents when she was a child and was brought up by her austere and starchy Aunt Grace at the family home, Rosemont. Being the type of woman to push her boundaries, at the age of seventeen, Louisa engaged in an affair with an older man, and when discovered, was more or less kept under lock and key by her aunt for several years. At the opening of the book, she has inherited her fortune and escaped (with her trusty maid, Kathleen) to Europe, where she has been travelling around for the past year. In order to allay any fears as to her safety, she has told her family that she has recently married the handsome, rich art-collector Maximillian Norwich (I can’t help wondering if the name is an homage to the historian and writer John Julius Norwich). The problem is that Louisa has to return home to see to some business affairs – and her husband is no more than a figment of her imagination.
So she enlists the help of Mrs Evensong’s agency to find her a man who can act as the suave and sophisticated Maximillian for the month she plans to be at Rosemont.
Mrs Evensong engages the services of Captain Charles Cooper, a former cavalry officer and decorated war hero who has fallen on hard times. Or, rather, has thrown himself upon them, preferring to keep his memories of his time in South Africa at bay with gin. Charles is the son of a factory owner and was fortunate enough to have attracted the attention of a wealthy patron who sent him to Harrow and then purchased his commission. As a result, he’s one of those people who falls “between” classes; educated with the sons of the nobility and then an army officer, he’s acquired enough polish to pass for upper class, but his background puts him most definitely in the lower – and as any student of the English class system will know, in the eyes of the society of the time, it doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished; where you’ve come from is still the be-all and end-all of who you are and where you belong.
At first, it seems to Louisa as though the deception will never work. She first meets Charles when he’s a complete mess, living in a hovel and partially inebriated, but even in that state, he shows he’s quite capable of playing the part of a toff, donning an upper class accent and bearing in the blink of an eye when he needs to.
Once Charles and Louisa have their stories straight, they head off to Rosemont, where Charles is immediately horrified at the way Louisa is spoken of and treated by her relatives. His initial impression of her – as was mine – may have been that she’s a spoiled, empty-headed, rich brat who talks too much, but he has sense and intuition enough to realise that there’s more to her than meets the eye. As the story progresses, I started to like her more and to admire her spirit, because she certainly did have to put up with treatment that would have crushed someone less determined and stubborn.
Charles is a wonderful hero. Traumatised by his experiences during the Boer War, he’s full of self-loathing and feels the only way he can escape his nightmares is to remain in a gin-induced stupor. He’s pretty much reached rock-bottom and his reasons for taking the very well-paid job as Louisa’s “husband” are truly affecting. But cleaned up and sobered up, he’s attractive, charming and quick-thinking; and once he sees what Louisa is up against in the form of her domineering aunt, his sense of justice and honour won’t let him leave her to deal with the situation herself, even when he becomes the target of a number of unexpected attacks which threaten his life.
While the events of the book take place over just a few days, nothing in the story feels rushed or unlikely. The jeopardy into which Charles and Louisa are thrown never feels melodramatic or over the top, and I never felt as though their relationship developed too fast. Perhaps because the book is set in 1903 rather than 1803, Louisa and Charles are able to be somewhat more familiar with each other in their interactions, which helped to convince me that they could know each other well and fall in love in such a short space of time. The sparks fly between them from their first, inauspicious meeting, and their romance evolves slowly but very satisfactorily, being by turns very sexy and charmingly tender.
I thought the element of suspense was very well handled, too, and although I did have a good idea as to the identity of the ‘villain’, I only formed it shortly before the reveal, and I certainly had no idea of that person’s motivations. If I have a complaint though, it’s that those motivations felt rather flat inconsequential after the way the author had so successfully built and maintained the sense of peril throughout the rest of the book.
There aren’t many historical romances set in this period, so kudos to Ms Robinson for that, and for the way she has subtly incorporated such a lot of detail about the changing times. The increasing popularity of the motor car, women’s suffrage, women going out to work, the way that the younger generation was becoming less class conscious (as exemplified by Louisa) were all starkly contrasted with the attitudes of characters such as Aunt Grace who remains a stickler for propriety and the settled order of things.
The thing which really made this book a stand-out for me was the humour, which comes thick and fast. At times, I felt like I was reading the equivalent of a 1940s screwball comedy with Charles and Louisa as a raunchier version of Nick and Nora Charles!
But In the Arms of the Heiress is so much more than a joke-filled romp. The horrors that Charles saw and suffered during his time in South Africa are not sensationalised and neither are the things that happened to Louisa when she was younger. If anything, their feelings of horror and despair are understated and I think had much more of an impact because of it. Louisa and Charles are both engaging, fully-rounded characters who reveal themselves by degrees to be other than they at first seem; the story is well-paced and the dialogue truly sparkles. There’s a teaser chapter at the end for the next book in the series, featuring more of the mysterious Mrs Evensong, and I, for one, am really looking forward to reading it.