Shirley Kennedy’s latest Regency Romance has a wonderfully authentic feel to it. It also effectively works a lot of the elements of Gothic romance into its Regency setting. Although its romance wasn’t gripping, I did find The Selfless Sister hard to put down.
Lucinda Lindley’s father is having a hard time finding dowries for his seven daughters. Lucinda has no desire to marry, and has repeatedly allowed her younger sisters to marry before her, which means that she may not get any dowry at all. Refusing her latest suitor, she decides to go and be the companion of her invalid Aunt Pernelia’s – a drop in status for Lucinda, but one that allows her to put off the marriage decision.
Lucinda discovers that Pernelia’s family is haunted by the past. Everyone is burdened by a horrible tragedy that happened twenty-five years ago, and everyone lives in terror of Pernelia’s son, Edgerton Lindley, a sarcastic, cowardly tyrant. When Lucinda expresses curiosity about that huge medieval house next door, Edgerton goes into a frightening rage.
Because of that twenty-five-year-old tragedy, the Lindleys are paralyzed with hatred for the family of the Earl of Bellingham. The man who was earl at the time of the tragedy is now dead, but the Lindleys continue to loathe Douglas Wyndham, the current earl, and the entire countryside shuns the Wyndhams. Douglas is no less haunted by the past, even though he was only six when the tragedy occurred. Lucinda soon meets Douglas and discovers that she is fascinated by this man she’s supposed to hate.
There is so much stuff going on in this book, it’s hard to summarize. Every character in this book has been affected by the secret crime of the past. Lucinda and Douglas are star-crossed lovers, drawn to each other in spite of the rift between their families. Their romance is just a little bland – I’m not sure why, but it didn’t captivate me. Lucinda, who is rather in the position of an outsider looking in, begins to suspect that what she’s been told is not the truth, and investigates the crime. I found the mystery much more suspenseful and interesting than the romance.
There are several things about this book that work for me. For instance, Edgerton Lindley is a very believable villain. He doesn’t think that he’s a bad guy, and he’s got all kinds of excuses and justifications for his hateful behavior. To me, that made him much more threatening than your standard evil-for-evil’s-sake villain. We also get a delightful glimpse of Douglas’s mistress, whom I liked and felt bad for. I’ve never read a Regency with a courtesan as a heroine, and I’d love to see Kennedy write a romance for her.
These characters genuinely act as if they live in their time period. Lucinda seems like a real Regency woman: intelligent, strong-willed, yet brought up to be submissive and respectful toward the men in her family. Her fear of the cowardly Edgerton rings true, as does her struggle with the decision to defy her father. Few modern-day American women would even consider marrying just because their parents want them to, but a Regency woman’s duty was to obey her parents. The fact that Lucinda genuinely wants to comply with her father’s wishes makes her defiance of him much more poignant than if she just spunkily refused to obey.
The romance in this book didn’t make my heart pound, and I have a problem with the historical likelihood of one of the things that happens at the end (can’t tell – it’s a big spoiler). Nevertheless, I recommend The Selfless Sister for its exciting, Gothic-style mystery and solid characterization.
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