The Ivory Dragon
This is the somnolent story of a lost ivory pin and the unfunny, inept attempts to recover it. Some 200 pages after the mystery of the pin is introduced, you’ll be asking yourself why you should care: the plot meanders along the same meaningless path as the characters’ unexciting courtship.
One afternoon Lady Harriet Dane is painting outdoors and runs for cover when it begins to rain. She takes cover at a storage barn and stumbles upon a little wooden box. She later meets Lord Philip Stanhope, an earl and a neighbor. Like Harriet, Philip arrives at the barn obviously seeking shelter – and something else as well, judging by the way he seems to be foraging around. Could he be looking for the box that Harriet has found?
It turns out that the box contains an exquisite pin shaped like a dragon, which happens to belong to an acquaintance of the Stanhopes. Philip suspects that his mother, a kleptomaniac of sorts, has stolen and stashed it in the barn. Thus he hopes to return it to its owner with only a minimum of embarrassment for his family. In this endeavor he asks for Harriet’s help, especially when – through some quirk of fate (or absurd plotting) – the two keep losing, finding, and losing the pin again.
Like the hunt for the dratted thing, the romance between the characters feels strangely uninvolving. Despite Harriet’s much vaunted boldness (“Your manner is such that I feel you are sure of yourself – that you know what you want in life,” the hero tells her), ultimately it’s Philip who decides if and when their relationship should progress. Throughout the book, readers, along with the hero, somehow recognize that Harriet would accept Philip when he ever gets around to pursuing her. Of course he’s attracted to her (truly he is!) but he wants to settle the business with the pin before courting Harriet in earnest. Obviously going nowhere, the search for the pin – and the characters’ non-relationship – rapidly become boring.
To complicate this non-conflict, Harriet erroneously thinks that Philip likes another woman, a Miss Nympha Herbert, whom it’s no secret to readers that he doesn’t care for. It’s hard to decide which makes your eyes roll farther back in your head: Nympha’s senseless role (and name, which could only have been worse had it been Jezebal or Chippie!) or Harriet’s equally senseless wait for Philip to stop dithering.
Which is a shame, because Harriet’s character shows initial promise. In the first few pages, she makes intelligent conversation with Lord Stanhope – never mind that it was nothing more than an exchange of clichés on the subject of women’s lot in life. When Philip says, “I suppose gently bred young ladies do not admit to deeper thinking,” Harriet replies, “You must know full well that a girl must not be considered a bluestocking sort…. were I truly seeking your interest and approval, I would be very demure and not venture an opinion on anything.” Yet despite her droll wit, her free-spirited flirtatiousness (she lets him get away with countless stolen kisses), in the end Harriet is a prisoner of convention. She’s the quintessential Regency Romance heroine who romanticizes an elusive beau, wrings her hands over some imagined rival, and waits for her happy ending to crawl around the corner.
Harriet is a faux hoyden, Philip is a bore, and the rest of the cast are one-dimensional caricatures. The hero’s family members are portrayed as eccentrics, but they merely come across as cartoonish stereotypes whose sick dependence on Philip the author keeps drilling into your head. (A chapter or two with this lot reduced me to mumbling, “Okay, okay – I get it.”) Harriet is also said to be a novelist, but her writing life is flimsily described and glaringly irrelevant.
All in all, the least of my complaints about this book is that the ending didn’t come sooner. With its pallid plot and characterization, The Ivory Dragon is definitely in the skip-it-unless-you-enjoy-being-bored-to-tears category. I, for one, was definitely bored. To tears.