The Devil Takes a Bride
Readers were introduced to the Cabot sisters in the first in this four-book series, The Trouble with Honor (review here). The two eldest sisters – Honor and Grace – are only a year or so apart in age, and have both had a couple of seasons. Although beautiful, witty, and much sought-after, neither has accepted a proposal of marriage, having found the chase to be much more fun than settling on one particular suitor.
But now their stepfather is terminally ill, and their mother is showing the first signs of madness (we would recognise this today as Alzheimer’s Disease) – and Honor and Grace are brought down to earth with a bump. When Lord Beckington dies, they will have nowhere to live and very little money – and once word gets out about their mother’s illness, their chances of marrying well will be practically nil. After all – what man is going to want to saddle himself with the expense of his wife’s sisters and insane mother?
Believing Honor’s marital prospects to be poor, Grace decides it’s down to her to make a match with a man wealthy enough to be able to support them all, and she has just such a one in her sights.
Lord Amherst is young, handsome, the brother of an earl and a man who has often singled Grace out as the recipient of his flirtations. He has recently removed to Bath, so Grace follows him there, her desperation to secure a home for her family leading her to plan a truly despicable act; she is going to trap him into marriage.
Grace’s plan works to a T – except that she entraps the wrong man and ends up having to marry Amherst’s older brother, the austere Earl of Merryton instead.
The story then follows these two very different people as they attempt to find a way to live together, an attempt that is hampered not only by Merryton’s knowledge of what Grace had intended and her guilt, but also by the fact that he is a very troubled man.
The wedding is hastily arranged, and afterwards, the earl takes Grace to his country estate near Bath. Deciding there is nothing to be gained by moping or cowering away from the rather saturnine stranger with whom she is to share her life, Grace sets out to try to make something of their marriage, regardless of its inauspicious beginning. In spite of that contemptible act, Grace turns out to be a strong and engaging heroine who genuinely wants to understand her husband and to be a good wife to him.
Jeffrey Donovan has lived rather a solitary life. Brought up by a cruel and authoritarian father to believe he had to be perfect, he suffers from a compulsive disorder and finds it very difficult to cope with the inconsistencies and the unpredictability of everyday life. He is also plagued by images of what he believes to be sexual deprativies; and he has found that the only way he can banish both them and his fear of losing control is by counting and doing mathematical calculations. To be honest, he’s not all that depraved (this is an historical romance, after all, not an erotic novel) – but I suppose it’s plausible that a young man who was brought up as Jeffrey was, and who has no close male friends with whom to get drunk and talk about girls could have come to see the idea of getting turned on by thoughts of girl-on-girl action or a bit of light bondage as abnormal and perverted (!)
While Jeffrey is at first rather starchy and stand-offish, he tries, in his own way, to understand what Grace wants, and his gradual unbending is rather sweet. Like Grace, his one driving principle has been to protect his family – and when he realises, towards the end of the book, that he is in danger of repeating his father’s mistakes, it’s very much to his credit that he decides to do something about it even though it is incredibly difficult for him.
The chemistry between Jeffrey and Grace is strong and their relationship is well-written. Jeffrey’s fear of losing control and Grace’s inexperience make their first sexual encounters awkward and a little uncomfortable to read, which, given their situation, makes perfect sense. Thankfully, this isn’t a story that relies on misunderstandings to create tension – it’s there because of the situation in which the protagonists find themselves and because of the fact that they both have much to learn about each other and big adjustments to make.
The book contains some elements that are perhaps a little darker than are commonly found in historical romance, and it tackles a difficult subject in what seems to me to be a fairly realistic manner. Lady Beckington’s dementia is presented sensitively, and the scene in which the entire family gathers for a meal is very touching, showing the normal chaos of family life as well as providing a bit of an epiphany for Jeffrey, who sees his wife’s family accepting their mother for who she is and treating her as part of the family, even as her illness progresses.
Jeffrey’s mental issues are also handled sympathetically, and I did appreciate that Grace didn’t turn out to be some sort of miracle cure for him. It’s clear that he is always going to have problems, although we see him begin to take steps to learn to live with them more positively towards the end of the book. I did think that perhaps there were a couple of things which fell into place a little too easily for him, but I’m not an expert on these things, so I’m not going to dismiss the possibility that he could learn to adapt.
I enjoyed reading The Devil Takes a Bride (although Jeffrey is not a devil – bedevilled perhaps, but certainly not a bad person), and while it may help to have read the first book, it’s not absolutely necessary as this works perfectly well as a standalone. While I can’t say I noticed any serious flaws, I did, however come away from it feeling as though it was a little insubstantial, even given the somewhat difficult subject matter. This is one of those times when I’m grading based on a gut instinct as to where this book sits in comparison to others I’ve read recently, hence the B-. Above average, but perhaps not a book I’ll be re-reading in the very near future, although I will probably continue to follow the series.