The Penniless Debutante
Janice Preston concludes her Lady Tregowan’s Will series with The Penniless Debutante, about a lovely lady who may have the most difficult bequest of all to deal with after her benefactress’ death. Some stiff writing and predictable plot points keep this one from soaring too high, but it’s a nice romance with a likable hero and heroine.
Aurelia Croome is the final heiress who will benefit from the late Lady Tregowan’s will, and the bequest arrives just in time to stop her from starvation. Her own estate had been run into the ground by her greedy stepfather, and upon his death, her mother entered the workforce as a milliner and they both ended up broke. The inheritance will enable her to go from rags and hunger to riches and balls, loneliness to friendship (her two fellow benefactresses are also her half-sisters and she has bonded with them). All thanks to Lady Sarah Tregowan, who, in her final will and testament, hoped to right the wrongs of her philandering late husband, who got the girls’ mothers pregnant and then married those women off to money-hungry types willing to stay silent about their seven-month babes for a bribe. There is that classic only-in-romancelandia codicil attached to the bequest – all of the girls have to be married within a year of receiving their inheritance or default upon it, and all of them have to go through one Season in London before they marry. They are also all forbidden from marrying the new Lord Tregowan, who is a distant cousin of the dead Earl – doing that will also mean they will be forced to give up their share of the pot.
While on her way to the solicitor’s office to get her mail ticket, Aurelia is nearly run over by a rude yet handsome man to whom she is instantly drawn. This (surprise!) turns out to be the new Lord Tregowan, Max Penrose, the fourth Earl, who believes Lady Sarah was tricked out of her fortune by the three heirs, who colluded against him and the estate. But the money has been rightly distributed according to the law, and Max leaves the encounter disappointed, while Aurelia and her sisters keep both of the Tregowan estates and a sum of invested money, which amounts to five thousand pounds apiece per year.
Max is currently flat broke because he spent the inheritance he was expecting on revamping the tumbled down family estate in Cornwall, the only thing he has inherited after Sarah’s machinations besides his title. Unfortunately, there is no inheritance to be had, and now he has a title, a loan he cannot pay back, the responsibility of getting his twenty-five-year-old sister Letty married during the next season, and a fretting and wheelchair bound mother who wants to live in Cornwall after spending years in Italy. Max is under pressure. The only solution? Enter the marriage mart and land a rich heiress before it’s too late. And who does he bump into during his first attempt at finding a spouse other than nouveau-riche Aurelia?
Aurelia is deeply drawn to Max, but she knows if she marries him she risks penury. Max is deeply drawn to Aurelia, but knows he cannot marry her because if he does he will be penniless. Will love or financial matters win out in the end?
First things first. I really liked Aurelia and how hard she tries to make sure she won’t face poverty again should things go south as regards the inheritance by investing cash in a mine as a failsafe. None of her options feel attractive after she meets Max, but she’s a bright girl and I truly enjoyed her. Her friendships with her half-sisters and with the staff at her new home are delightful.
Max is a decent – if blustery – fellow, dealing with impossible circumstances. He does care about his family and is notably not the wastrel type.
Max and Aurelia tumble into a comfortable and touching forbidden love, eating apples with cheddar and having long snowy sleigh rides accompanied by large dogs. It’s a surprisingly tender romance, and Aurelia does not back down or give an inch, ever, to Max. He stands his own ground and they felt like intellectual equals.
But when the big enemy of the book is the inheritance system, you get pat morals like “Money isn’t everything” slung at you. I wanted something more interesting, more complex, and definitely more unique. Also the writing style does occasionally dip into dramatic use of italics and other irritating writing quirks that wore on me, sometimes to the point of pulling me right out of the story.
Those are the big reasons I downgraded The Penniless Debutante, but the book has enough charm to provide a nice fall evening’s entertainment. It’s definitely good enough for a once-through.