The Surrender of Miss Fairbourne
Have you ever met someone, listened to him introduce himself and talk for a while and then, suddenly, sadly, realize you’ve not registered a word he’s said? I had the literary version of that experience with Ms. Hunter’s The Surrender of Miss Fairbourne. I read the novel — twice — and both times, as soon as I’d finished it, was hard-pressed to remember anything significant about it. When I think how I’d define this novel, the word that comes to mind is bland.
The heroine of this book is unsurprisingly a Miss Fairbourne, first name Emma. The Fairbourne family owns a famous and successful auction house in London which, until his recent death, was run by Emma’s father. Emma, despite the expectations of society, wishes to keep the auction house open. Emma has a brother, Robert, whom everyone but Emma believes is lost at sea and now dead. Emma is sure Robert is alive and is adamant the auction house be kept running until Robert returns to take its reins.
The auction house, however, is no longer owned solely by the Fairbourne family. Three years ago, unbeknownst to Emma, her father sold a half share to Darius Alfreton, the Earl of Southwaite. Darius is determined Emma will sell the auction house. Not only does he think a woman couldn’t possibly run such a business (this is, after all, 1798), he believes that her father was engaged in shady business practices involving smugglers and he does not want his name to be associated with anything that would besmirch his reputation.
Emma wants to keep the auction house. Darius wants her to sell it. Emma tries several different tactics to delay Darius from taking any action that would gainsay her wishes. As Darius battles with Emma for control, he realizes he’s exceedingly attracted to her and decides that rather than trying to control her through argument, he’d be more successful and vastly more pleasured if he used seduction to get his way. Emma, who has had very little experience with men, finds Darius difficult to resist and soon their relationship is about both the fate of the auction house and whether or not the two will become lovers.
Ms. Hunter is a very good technical writer and she invests this book with historical authenticity. She effortlessly explicates the conflict between England and France and showcases the role smuggling played during this era. The class distinctions between Darius, an earl, and Emma, a woman from a family in trade, are portrayed credibly. Ms. Hunter has her doctorate in art history and her book is filled with details about art, the auction world, and the artists of the time. It’s all very accurate and not very interesting.
The love story proceeds slowly and indistinctly. Ms. Hunter uses vague, almost ambiguous language in her love scenes. The passion between Emma and Darius builds so subtly it feels almost subdued. I could sense the two were attracted to one another, but their attraction lacked power and conviction. In the entire book, only one scene between the two is memorable — it’s an amusing misunderstanding between the two early in their relationship. Emma and Darius are both complex characters but I didn’t find them compelling either apart or together.
The plot of the book — the part that doesn’t center on Darius’s seduction of Emma — is a frustrating one. Emma is sure her brother is alive without any evidence to corroborate her belief. Darius, as he grows more interested in Emma, investigates her father’s death and uncovers what appears to be criminal activity on Emma’s father’s behalf. The fate of her brother is entwined with the actions of her father in ways I found rather difficult to follow or care about. The novel lacks narrative tension, and by the time all was revealed, I’d lost interest in the resolution of the tale.
I have liked many of Ms. Hunter’s works and I’m not sure why I found this novel so uninspired. I can’t recall another time I’ve read a book twice and had it make so little an impression upon me. Readers who love Ms. Hunter might like this book — it has many aspects typical of her work. But for those looking for a compelling read, I’d advise avoiding looking elsewhere.