Recently someone suggested that Minerva by Marion Chesney was a good title to add to one of the Special Title Listings. Having read Minerva a long time ago, my curiosity was piqued, and I went digging through some boxes to find my copy of the book. I vaguely remembered liking the story, and, upon reading it once again, was surprised at what a different kind of Regency it was.
Miss Minerva Armitage is the eldest of the eight children of the Reverend Charles Armitage, and probably the least like him in temperament. Charles Armitage isn’t much of a parson. He’s far too wrapped up in his hounds, horses, and hunting to pay much attention to either his flock or his children. Minerva has all but taken over the household since her mother is a hypochondriac and spends most of her time dosing herself. In her spare time she writes her father’s sermons and sees to the needy in the parish. But Minerva doesn’t mind. She’s happy to be needed, and she gets a certain sense of accomplishment in molding people to her own moral code.
Unfortunately for Minerva, her father’s finances necessitate a change in the status quo. Charles wishes to educate his young sons as gentlemen, and that takes money, money he doesn’t have because he’s been shovelling it into his kennels instead of his land. He determines that Minerva should be the family’s savior. She must go to London and snag a rich husband. Balls and parties and routs do not sound very fun to Minerva, but she is willing to be the sacrificial lamb. If her family needs her, then she needs must answer the call.
But though Minerva is very beautiful, she doesn’t “take.” Her self- righteous attitude puts her suitors off and even sets men in several influential circles to plotting her comeuppance. Only Lord Sylvester Comfrey is amused and intrigued by her and willing to put some effort into making her a social success. But will Lord Sylvester be able to save her from social ruin, and will he be able to do it without losing his own heart?
Marion Chesney’s style of Regency storytelling, at least in this book which is one of her Six Sisters series, is fairly unique among Regency authors. Minerva is written in the omniscient point of view, which allows Chesney to make a number of witty observations about her characters and Regency society in general. In fact, considering the amount of lambasting Chesney does, this book could almost be considered a satire of the Regency sub-genre. The downside, of course, to the use of the omniscient viewpoint is that it’s a bit more distancing than either the first person or third person points of view. The characters remain characters and do not cross the reader’s mental threshold into real personhood.
Minerva is generous, forgiving, and genuinely concerned about those around her. I happen to be excessively fond of the prim heroine, and Minerva is nothing if not prim. She also happens to be proud, morally superior and more than a tad self- righteous. Chesney does nothing to pretty her up. She presents her in all her flawed glory and then revolves the plot around her flaws. Most of the story’s intrigues flow directly from Minerva’s (bad) behavior. And yet, she is still likable. It’s easy to see how her natural primness could morph into smugness given her situation in her family and community, and how that sense of moral certainty could express itself in horror when confronted with a different lifestyle such as that of London’s nobility.
Sylvester Comfrey is less developed as a character, but is nonetheless sympathetic. There’s not much to parody about him, so Chesney spends less time on him. Handsome, rich, attractive, and wellborn, he’s society’s darling, and yet he’s not in the least stuck on himself. He takes pity on Minerva and helps her recover her social status as well as gain some tolerance and is really quite gentle and patient with her. When Minerva confides to him that she has to marry for her family and she finds it all so mercenary, Sylvester tells her that that’s what the game is all about, many people around her are playing it, and not to be so hard on herself. What a refreshing attitude!
Those Regency readers who assume Mary Balogh introduced sex to the Regency might be surprised to find Chesney (among others) beat her to it. The sensuality here is very subtle, but it’s here. And in addition to the actual love scene, there’s some off-color talk mostly from Minerva’s chaperone, Lady Godolphin.
The book does have its flaws. Lady Godolphin constantly spouts malapropisms, which are amusing, perhaps, in small doses, but become less so as the book progresses. Most of the intrigues surrounding Minerva and her sister Annabelle aren’t all that intriguing. And more insight into why exactly Sylvester found Minerva to be amusing would have been welcome.
Minerva is a different sort of Regency experience, and I found those differences to be enjoyable. I far prefer character-driven stories to plot- driven ones, and appreciated how Minerva made most of her own messes and how she was different from the many, many too-perfect heroines I’ve run across in this sub-genre. Since reading Minerva I’ve skimmed a few of the other books in the series. I didn’t find them to be as good, but I would recommend this title to anyone that likes Regencies and is up for something outside of the norm.