More or Less a Countess
The second volume of Anna Bradley’s Somerset Sisters series continues with Violet’s story in More or Less a Countess. Many of the author’s hallmarks are on full display here, such as her sharp, witty writing and three dimensional characters, but the book struggles under the weight of its clichéd plot.
Violet Somerset is a book-happy bluestocking who is fascinated with subjects that are less than felicitous (like gory medical books), and is finding the Season she’s agreed to embark upon for the sake of her grandmother little better than tortuous. In truth, Violet has a frustrated and hopeless crush on Lord Derrick, who is happily married to her friend Lady Honora; because of this she considers herself a hopeless wallflower and has settled down to expand her reading interests into writing ones and has penned and self-illustrated a book called A Treatise on London for Bluestockings and Adventurers (sample chapter: “The Black Death: London Overrun by Corpses”).
At a society dinner, she meets the flashy Nicholas Balfour, Lord Dare, and she immediately spies him for the rogue he is – a fact that’s difficult to miss when she goes in search of fresh air and accidentally witnesses him lifting the skirts of the loose Lady Upland. When he sets his cap for Hyacinth, her shy and innocent younger sister, Violet is outraged.
Nicholas is very much a rake and shamelessly so; he’d been gallivanting happily about the continent when he was called home to assume the title upon the death of his father. Nicholas is not one for family life; ever since his older brother was murdered by a highwayman, he’s been at pains to keep his distance, feeling the loss and himself a pale copy of what his brother should have been. He isn’t looking for a wife, but his hectoring aunt, Lady Westcott, has forced the issue and wants him to settle down and secure the succession, preferably by marrying his late brother’s betrothed, but Nick refuses. He plans to marry the most biddable woman he can find, impregnate her, and dump her in the country before fleeing for the Mediterranean where he will continue frolicking with his Italian mistress.
Hyacinth seems like the perfect target for such a project. But what Nick doesn’t know is that her protective older sister, intent on simultaneously protecting Hyacinth from a rake and on securing her own freedom to write, decides that the best way to accomplish both those things is to pose as her sister. As Nick begins to fall for ‘Hyacinth’ and vice-versa, Violet must continue to the ruse – until she is unmasked in a most public way and Nick is left with no alternative but to demand she marry him. Can they make a happy marriage of their messy beginning?
Violet’s snarky, sharp tongue and presence of self is rather captivating, but sometimes she can swing too far into downright surly territory, and she does conveniently foolish things in pursuit of ‘stimulation’ – which end up with her having to be rescued and escorted by the hero, as many heroines have before her. She also swoons at the drama into which she’s been plunged, even though she’s a bit of an expert in gore and human trauma.
Nick will grow on you; initially cold, Bradley slowly reveals what makes him run and for most of the novel it works. His commentary upon the laborious courtship practices of the ton is amusing, as is his squeamishness about Violet’s rather unusual interests. He is haunted by his brother’s death and feels himself inferior, but unfortunately, the plot requires him to make some Really Silly Assumptions in order to bolster that opinion, which in turn forces him to look like a moron. When he later manipulates Violet into doing what he wants, he comes off as a complete asshole, although he does eventually give good grovel.
I enjoyed their banter as a couple, but Nick and Violet’s relationship works in fits and spurts, and far too much of it is based on the two of them avoiding communication. Both characters feel somewhat immature, and the convoluted twists of the plot force Violet to lie to him for half of the book, followed by pages of his being frosty towards her while she sits in a crying, depressed heap. There are moments of breakthrough but it takes Nick forever to get over the fact that Violet has wounded his pride by satirizing him in her book, while his transgressions are glossed over with ease. The best thing I can say for late-book Nick is that he knows how to unerringly find his wife’s clitoris while being blazingly drunk.
The worst part of this novel is its plot. Its machinations lean rather heavily on clichés; everything hinges on the Big Secret that Violet is not Hyacinth, and this requires characters not to say things and not to do things, that any normal person would do so as to keep the plot in motion. An example: Violet sees Nicholas dining with his sister and then the seduction of Lady Upland; in the next scene he watches the woman he supposes is Hyacinth from across the room and asks for a formal introduction. But…Nicholas sat across from Hyacinth at dinner; does the book expect me to believe that Nicholas was never introduced to Hyacinth, or never learned her name while he was flirting with her? How is it possible that they had an entire dinner conversation without an introduction or exchanging names?! The whole book floats on this supposition and Nick’s incredibly dumb mistake, and while all of the Somerset sisters catch on quickly, Nick does not. And oh, does he not. He is friends with Lord Derrick and yet the subject of Violet never, ever comes up and he doesn’t believe she even exists!
But it’s not all bad. There are some good moments of levity, and I liked the middle stretch of the book, as Nick comes to support Violet’s writing career – until, that is, the revelation of her satirization of him.
Ms. Bradley’s style is as smooth and engaging as it always has been, and her romances continue to be unusual and charming. I liked a lot of the minor characters, especially practical Iris and the droll, icy Gibbs, Nick’s butler. But she’s written more original, interesting books in the past – hopefully, her next release will see her return to form.