The Baron Next Door
This is the first in a new trilogy of books by Ms Knightley, in which the heroines are musicians. It’s a pleasantly light-hearted read, although I found it lacking in substance overall, and the romance is somewhat underdeveloped.
Miss Charity Effington has gone to Bath to stay with her grandmother following the scandal caused by her broken engagement (which happened in A Taste for Scandal). A very talented pianist and musician, she plans to enter the inaugural “Summer Serenade in Somerset” festival, and spends most of her time practicing for her recital.
Her next door neighbour, Hugh Danby, Baron Cadgwith, is not at all enamoured either of Charity’s playing or music in general. Having suffered a serious neck and upper spinal injury in the war, he has been left with a chronic condition (compression of the spinal cord) which can see him debilitated, in great pain and confined to bed for days on end. As this is a condition which can be brought on by loud noise, listening to music is one of the things he is no longer able to do, so being forced to listen to his neighbour practicing at all hours of the day for hours on end through the thin walls is a form of torture for him.
At their first meeting, Hugh is disparaging and sarcastic, making very clear his objections to Charity’s playing. Unfortunately for him, his words have the opposite effect to the one he had intended; Charity is not at all cowed by his comments about her music and instead plays even more instead of less. I can’t help but think that if he’d been reasonable enough to explain a bit and request a change to her routine rather than try to ride roughshod over her, the effect would have been more beneficial, but had he done that, this would be a much shorter book!
Charity is, of course, infuriated by her neighbour’s high-handedness, but that doesn’t prevent her from noticing he’s a hottie. Subsequent encounters reveal to her that there is something lurking in the depths of Hugh’s eyes showing that perhaps he isn’t everything he seemed at their first meeting. She also notices the signs of strain and fatigue that seem ever-present in his face, and starts to wonder what may have put them there in such a young and seemingly vital gentleman.
For his part, Hugh can’t help being intrigued by Charity, and the strange mixture of reticence and boldness he has seen her exhibit. He knows he shouldn’t allow himself to be charmed by her – he has long since determined that he can’t ask any woman to share the life of a broken-down invalid – but he can’t help himself.
The story is thus one in which our two protagonists are presented with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Music is an integral part of Charity’s life, while for Hugh, it’s something he actively avoids.
I appreciate the fact that Ms Knightley doesn’t trivialise Hugh’s condition by suddenly affecting a miracle cure for him. He is in Bath to ‘take the waters’, and discovers that his bathing sessions do actually help him somewhat. He ends the book still afflicted, yet with a new determination to live his life and to try to find a way to move forward.
As a musician, I always like reading books in which one or more of the principals is musical, and that’s what initially drew me to this title. Charity is a composer as well as a pianist, and there are a couple of very poignant moments in the story in which she pours heart and soul into improvising a piece of music that encompasses her feelings for Hugh. The problem with stories about musicians is that it’s an art that isn’t easy to translate into words, and to my mind, there is too much rhapsodising about “tinkling notes” and “dancing fingers”. And while I can understand the author’s need to at least attempt to convey the effects and sounds of the music, sentences like: ”The shapes elongated and narrowed, rounded out and stretched thin.” and ”She allowed each note to stand, to rise from the steel strings from which it was born, and roll out like ribbons from a maypole, caught in a night wind.” are rather too much waffle for my taste.
Something I found a little confusing in the book was in the naming of one of the secondary characters (who I imagine will be the hero of his own book at some point) – Lord Derington. He is introduced as such, but then someone called Dering appears and it took me a minute to realise they are the same person. I’m not sure if this is deliberate or a typographical error, but if it’s a shortening, it isn’t made clear.
Overall, The Baron Next Door is a quick, and enjoyable read. Ms. Knightley’s writing is deft and flows well, with Hugh’s character being the more rounded of the two protagonists. Charity is less well-drawn, and being almost wholly defined through her music makes her seem one-dimensional. The things we discover about her – such as her dislike of confrontation – are things we’re told rather than shown, and I’m not completely convinced that she would have been quite so forthcoming in making her interest in him known to Hugh.
But with those reservations in mind, if you’re looking for a light-hearted, clean romance as a pleasant way to spend a spare afternoon, this might be just the thing.