Miss Winthorpe's Elopement
I found Miss Winthorpe’s Elopement somewhat tough to grade. It’s an original story with flawed, memorable characters, and much of the time it worked for me. Perhaps that’s why when I got to the end and discovered a common but unwelcome plot device, I was disappointed.
Penelope Winthorpe is a printer’s daughter and a cit, heiress to a large fortune. Well, heiress to a large fortune if she marries. Her single season was not particularly successful, and since that time she has secluded herself with her studies. Her brother manages her fortune – very inexpertly. When he forbids her to buy a new edition of The Odyssey (on the grounds that she already has several), something snaps. Penelope rashly decides to drive north to Scotland with the plan to meet some poor sap along the way who is willing to marry her. She figures she’ll keep him in liquor and women, and she’ll be free to keep herself in books. She finds what appears to be the perfect man: He’s drunk and lying in the street in front of an inn. She installs him inside her carriage and continues north, where they are married by an illiterate blacksmith. She’s more than a little surprised when he signs his name as Adam Felkirk, Duke of Bellston.
Adam was actually lying in the street drunk because he hoped to kill himself. A combination of bad luck and bad investments has left him virtually penniless, and his despair is such that he figures everyone would be better off if his level-headed brother Will became the duke. But Penelope corners him the morning after their hasty marriage. She of course never meant to marry a duke – just some biddable nobody. She is perfectly willing to throw their marriage certificate in the fire and let Adam go on his way. But Adam’s honor demands that he honor their vows, and of course Penelope’s money couldn’t have come at a better time. The two strike a bargain, and plan to continue their marriage as Penelope envisioned it (that is, separately).
Naturally, they soon discover that their marriage is more complicated than they realize. Adam is a very public figure, and news of his marriage spreads almost as soon as they set foot in London. As Adam defends Penelope to his friends, he becomes more serious about her. Both of them start thinking about consummating their union. What’s more, they find when they talk that they actually have much in common and enjoy each other’s company. But none of this is simple. Penelope doesn’t know how to trust Adam, particularly when one of his “friends” constantly whispers poison in Penelope’s ear. They also must contend with their families; neither of their brothers is all that pleased by the union.
On the whole, I would characterize this as a thoughtful, contemplative book. There is a slow nature to it; Merrill is willing to take her time as her characters get to know each other and make discoveries about themselves. They both carry baggage from their pasts, and both of them grow as they fall in love. We’ve all seen bluestockings and penniless aristocrats before, but these two are very three dimensional. They definitely bring something new to the table, and their characterization is really the strength of this book. That said, if you are looking for a fast-paced tilt-a-whirl of a read, this is definitely not it.
I came very close to recommending this book on the strength of the characterization alone, but I had two problems with it. The first was that Adam was so quick to consider suicide in the first place. I wondered for a moment if he was channeling some of my less-favorite “I must become a prostitute because I have no other choice” heroines. You know, the ones who have plenty of choices if they’d just think about it for a second. Adam, here are some choices for you:
- You have several homes, filled with expensive stuff – some of which you don’t even like. Have you considered selling some of your possessions? I bet all your homes are not entailed. Even if they are, maybe you could sell all those hideous figurines and a carpet or two. While that would not solve your problems, it would definitely help.
- Have you considered cutting corners, and looking at your controllable costs? It sure doesn’t look like it.
- Here’s the most obvious: Marry someone with money! I know you did that anyway, by accident, but any idiot could have thought of it beforehand. You are a handsome guy with pretty much the best title going, so it just shouldn’t be that hard.
My other problem was with the ending. While of course everything ends happily, it’s preceded by a misunderstanding that’s just lame – and completely avoidable. Since the characters had resisted hackneyed plot devices up to that point, the situation was probably more annoying than it would have been otherwise.
On the whole, though, Miss Winthorpe’s Elopement is a fairly interesting read. My quibbles notwithstanding, Christine Merrill writes well, and I would certainly try another of her books in the future.