The Silk Merchant’s Convenient Wife is both a step in the right direction and a step down from the consistently creative Elisabeth Hobbes. This Harlequin Historical is rather more traditional than what I expect from her in light of the dozens of books she’s released which rebel joyfully against romancelandia’s trope constrictions. On the other hand, it’s nice to see a hero of common stock (a virginal one to boot) and an industrial world that’s seen from a fresh perspective.
Jonathan Harcourt decided to foreswear the institution of marriage as a child, and one cannot blame him for doing so. His parent’s loveless and abusive union ended with his mother leaving his father and pulling Jonathan from a planned enrollment at a distant boarding school, then settling them both into genteel poverty hidden from his disapproving father’s demands.
It’s a hard life for Johnny and his mother, and due to their strained finances, he goes to work in the silk mills as a child. But fate smiles upon him and he strikes up a friendship and later an apprenticeship with a silk miller, Edward Langdon. Langdon takes Jonathan under his wing when his mother sickens and dies, sponsoring him in both the company and society. Jonathan eventually works his way from the bottom of the ladder all the way to the top under Edward’s watchful eyes, and by the time he’s twenty-four he’s earned a partnership in the manufacturing company.
At twenty-five, Jonathan is nothing if not a mover and shaker. He hopes to expand the mills and factory, but to do that he needs more land. He enters into negotiation with his neighbor, Sir Robert Upford, to acquire it.
Sir Robert is in poor financial straits and Jonathan doesn’t look kindly upon his family’s eccentricities, from their collection of erotic Greek vases to their coterie of ill-mannered dogs. Jonathan is especially appalled when Sir Robert’s wife begins to press the suits of her three unmarried daughters -– the jilted determined bachelorette, Aurelia, feminist Dora and Cassandra, a flower-loving beauty whose fairy princess looks usually draw the lion’s share of male attention. Aurelia captures Jonathan’s attention, but when Sir Robert throws the parcel of land into the wedding settlement of whichever daughter Jonathan picks, he rages against the matchmaking attempt. It’s also Edward’s last wish to see Jonathan settled happily into marriage, and Jonathan doesn’t want to die a virgin. He thinks to set his cap for Cassandra, but ends up proposing to Aurelia.
Aurelia has been similarly disappointed by romance. The middle child, always in the shadow of her ravishing older sister, she was nearly caught up in scandal when she gave her heart to a man who was engaged to another. Aurelia has subsequently decided that love isn’t her bag at all, especially after her pseudo-fiancé married the other woman. A completely unemotional, just-for-the-heirs relationship with Jonathan seems an ideal solution that may allow her to spend time with her books.
But as we all know, the course of true romance does not go so smoothly. As Aurelia and Jonathan stumble their way toward love, will they manage to figure out how to accept the differences between them? Or will the re-emergence of Aurelia’s old fiancé tear them apart?
The Silk Merchant’s Convenient Wife has some truly wonderful and worthwhile story elements. A non-titled hero, and a virginal one at that, Jonathan is stiff but likable, and Aurelia – though she’s your typical bluestocking left on the shelf with more love for books than boys – is not simply a flighty drop of sunshine leading stern Jonathan into the light, but is her own reserved person. I liked her dotty family, and Aurelia and Jonathan’s romance is very sweet and tender. I liked flibbertigibbet-ish Cassandra, clearly set to be the next heroine in the series, and as always, Hobbes gets the tone of the times just right, with impeccable research.
Much of Jonathan and Aurelia’s relationship is formal-cum-fond, but light on conflict, so if you’re looking for long-term heavy angst, this isn’t the book for you. Together, they manage to resolve their issues fairly quickly, and their differences disappear for the most part once they get to know one another’s true aims and aspects.
That is, until a dreaded Third Act Misunderstanding sets in. It’s incredibly brief but also feels silly, a late act gesture of mistrust that need not be in the book, and dipped the grade down.
The Silk Merchant’s Convenient Wife’s sweetness – and its fresher points – make it a worthwhile read. In spite of its flaws, it earns a qualified recommendation.
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