Tempting Harriet is the final book in a trio which are all linked through the friendships between their heroes and heroines. It’s an older Balogh title (originally published in 1994), and there are elements within it that I suspect some readers may find problematic today; but the author’s emotional intelligence and insight into what makes people tick is operating at full force, presenting a couple of principal characters who are flawed and who make ill-advised decisions and judgements before they are able to reach their HEA.
Six years before this story begins, Miss Harriet Pope, daughter of an impoverished country parson, was working as companion to Clara Sullivan (heroine of Dancing With Clara) when she caught the eye of the young and handsome Lord Archibald Vinney, heir to the Duke of Tenby. Thrown much into his company because he was the best friend of Clara’s husband, Harriet fell head-over-heels in love, but rejected Vinney’s offer of carte blanche not once, but twice, even though she was terribly tempted to do otherwise. A couple of years later, she met and married a kind, gentle man in his fifties who wasn’t in the best of health, but whom she liked and came to love. Now aged twenty-eight and a wealthy widow with a young daughter, Lady Harriet Wingham has emerged from her mourning period and has decided to enter London society and experience some of the things she was never able to do before – go to balls and parties and musicales and perhaps find herself another husband… and she can’t help hoping that perhaps she might set eyes on Lord Vinney again.
That gentleman is now the Duke of Tenby, and being young, wealthy, handsome, titled and unattached, is the most eligible bachelor on the marriage mart. Like many gentlemen of his ilk (and many historical romance heroes!) he has eschewed marriage for as long as possible but now, owing to a promise he made to his grandmother following his accession to the title, is going to look about him for a suitable wife. His grandmother’s definition of ‘suitable’ is rigid; in addition to all the usual qualities a nobleman must have in a wife – she must be a gently-bred virgin with proper manners and the training to run a large household and estates – she must also be of appropriate rank, and in the dowager’s eyes, that means that no lady below the rank of an earl’s daughter will do for the Duke of Tenby.
But fate throws a spoke in the wheel of Tenby’s matrimonial plans when he sees Harriet again for the first time in six years, and finds himself utterly smitten all over again. Harriet has no idea that after she rejected his suggestion she become his mistress six years earlier, he’d been about to overturn all the things that had been drilled into him by his family and upbringing about his duty to the title, and offer her marriage. He stopped short, believing then that he was merely in the grips of powerful lust, although now he is fairly certain he was in love with her… and though he tries to deny it, still is.
The storyline is a familiar one – the hero has to court one woman while in love with another – but Mary Balogh doesn’t make it easy for Harriet and Tenby and examines their motivations and feelings with scalpel-like precision. The real meat of the plot is based upon a misunderstanding, and yet it’s one that I can’t quite classify as the ‘typical Big Mis’ so often found in romance novels. Yes, things could have been solved by a conversation, but that wouldn’t have been true to character for either Harriet or Tenby at the point in the story at which it occurs. Because while Tenby has decided he’s going to offer marriage regardless of his promise to his grandmother, Harriet forestalls him and, believing he’s going to offer carte blanche again, says that she’ll accept him as her lover. She knows he can’t possibly marry her, the widow of a lowly baron, but she’s unwilling to let the opportunity to experience passion with the man she’s loved for so long slip by this time. And while Tenby is pleased that he’ll at last have Harriet in his bed, part of him is really upset that she’s given in this time when she wouldn’t before.
This is just one of the things I referred to as being problematic. It’s obvious that Tenby has put Harriet on some pedestal labelled “virtuous woman”, and when she offers to sleep with him without marriage, she falls off it, he’s disappointed – and it’s a horrible double standard. Tenby is often cold and unpleasant towards Harriet – seeming to blame her for the fact that he’s attracted to her – and the terms of their affair are completely dictated by him. This is understandable in the circumstances, as is the fact that he has a house he uses specifically for the purpose of conducting love affairs – many an historical romance hero has a hidden love nest – and I wondered if perhaps it was the author’s intent to deliberately show Tenby’s bad qualities so she could eventually redeem him.
I’m not sure if she really managed that in the end. Her exploration of the emotions experienced by Harriet and Tenby during the course of their affair is incredibly well done, and nobody does this sort of relationship angst quite like Mary Balogh. Ultimately, neither character is happy about their relationship being based simply on physical pleasure, both want more but believe the other is content with things as they are. And thinking that all Harriet wants from him is sex, Tenby continues his courtship of an eminently suitable earl’s daughter while Harriet starts to despise herself because she’s compromised her beliefs.
It’s messy and complicated, and in spite of its problems, Tempting Harriet was one of those books I found myself quite glued to almost in spite of myself. It’s a difficult one to grade because on the one hand the writing is excellent and the characters, who are both flawed (Tenby moreso than Harriet, it’s true) nonetheless feel like real people who operate within the strict societal conventions of the time. On the other, Tenby can be unsympathetic, and sometimes Harriet’s internal hand-wringing gets a bit wearing. So I’m going with a C+ – not a universal recommendation, but will end with the suggestion that those who enjoy angsty stories peopled by imperfect characters whose motivations are skilfully peeled back layer by layer might care to give it a try.