Beaton wrote a lot of Traditional Regencies under the Chesney pseudonym, and this series is unusual in that the recurring characters are the servants who live and work in the epomymous house, and because we get to spend time with them as well as with the above-stairs characters, who change from book to book.
67 Clarges Street in Mayfair is a most desirable address, but thanks to a series of misfortunes (the previous owner, a duke, killed himself there, the subsequent tenant lost all his money, the next lost their daughter) the place has a reputation for bad luck and has proven very difficult to let. The small group of servants who reside there do their best to keep the house in order in very trying circumstances; the current Duke of Pelham delegates all matters relating to the house to his agent Jonas Palmer, a liar, thief and bully who pays them a pittance because he knows that none of them can find other positions without a character (written reference), and he isn’t about to provide them. A good tenant for the house is their only hope of earning a decent wage and possibly getting such a reference – but they know full well that the chances of a tenant being found are slim.
Jane Hart first laid eyes on the handsome Lord Tregarthan when she was just ten and has dreamed of him ever since. Eight years later, he’s still her ideal, but she has never really believed she’d ever see him again – until her mother announces she’s taken a house for the season in London in order to bring out Jane’s beautiful older sister, Euphemia. It’s a complete surprise; Mrs. Hart is a penny-pincher of the first order, but a friend tells her of a house in a prime location that can be had very cheaply, and it’s too good a thing to pass up. She starts planning Euphemia’s wardrobe, where they will go, who they will meet… and doesn’t intend to even take Jane until her normally quiet and unobtrusive husband puts his foot down and insists that Jane goes, too. Mrs. Hart isn’t pleased, but reasons that as Jane will manage with Euphemia’s hand-me-downs (as she always does), it won’t merit too much extra expense – and Euphemia, vain, selfish and often spiteful, likes the idea of having her much plainer sister with her as it will show off her own loveliness to greater advantage.
Well, of course, the staff at Clarges Street take to Jane, liking her sweet nature, sunny disposition and lack of artifice, and the French lady’s maid works wonders making over Euphemia’s old gowns, dressing Jane’s hair and teaching her many of the things a well-bred young lady sould know, such as how to curtsey, use a fan and flirt a little. When Jane meets Lord Tregarthan at last, she’s a little disappointed – he seems to be all good looks and no substance – but even so, she’s still very much smitten. She’s delighted when he asks her to go driving with him the next day, and moreso when he takes her seriously when she expresses her interest in the unexplained death of Clara Vere-Braxton, the daughter of a previous tenant who was found dead in Green Park, and suggests that they should look into it. Tregarthan, of course, tells himself that his interest in Jane is not romantic, but can’t help being drawn to her good-humour, warmth and sense of adventure.
The story moves quickly, with Jane’s romance with Tregarthan being a mix of Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and murder-mystery, and there’s a romance or two brewing below stairs, too. The trouble is that it’s a lot for such a small page count (under 200 pages) so it all feels rather superficial. I was far more interested in the servants’ stories than in the main romance to be honest – not only is it a refreshing change for these characters to have such prominent roles, they also feel more rounded and real, possibly because there is clearly more to be said about them. I liked that they’re so clearly a family unit, and that they look out for each other, despite their faults and disagreements – they deserve a decent master who will treat them well and I hope that they eventually get one! There’s no question the author knows her stuff when it comes to the period she’s writing about, whether talking about the weather or the lives of the servants or the workings of high society, and there’s plenty of wry humour and sharp observation. I’ll also point out – as Caroline did in her review of book one, The Miser of Mayfair – that there’s something that modern readers might not be happy with; in this case, it’s the use of the word “gypsy” in descriptions. Jane has “tough, coarse, gypsy hair”, she’s told later that she looks like a “gypsy princess” for example. There’s a whole argument around to revise or not to revise older books; I’m not going there, and I just wanted to flag this up.
In the end, Plain Jane was a quick, fun read, but it’s a comedy of manners more than a romance. I enjoyed it, but it lacks the kind of depth and romantic development I generally look for these days.