To Marry an Heiress
Hooray! Just after Robin’s fascinating ATBF on the subject, here’s an American-in-England historical that goes beyond stereotypes and makes the inevitable culture clash a major focus of the story. When an impoverished Earl marries a Texas heiress, the greatest challenge they face is reconciling their conflicting worldviews. Although the story occasionally lapses into cliché, in the end the Forces of Originality triumph – with fascinating results.
Devon Sheridan is desperate. Thanks to his father’s poor management, the family estate is crumbling into ruin while his tenants decamp to factories. His only hope is to catch the eye of an heiress with a status-hungry father. Georgina Pierce and her father Nathaniel fit the bill exactly. Nathaniel, a Texas profiteer with the golden touch, yearns to heal the hurt his daughter suffered from New York society snobs by outdoing them all. Though Nathaniel is uncouth, he has Gina’s best interests at heart and has settled on Devon only after investigating his fitness as a loving husband.
Nathaniel sets several conditions, insisting that Gina must believe that Devon loves her. Despite his bemusement Devon agrees, only to find that Gina sees through the ploy instantly. Still, she’s willing to make her father happy, and hopes that she and Devon can eventually find contentment. However, although they quickly reach an amicable understanding, several unexpected bumps in the road test their resolve.
Gina is an absolute dear – hardworking, unpretentious, rather Sarah Plain and Tall. In her acceptance of her father’s wishes Gina seems very much of her time, yet she is not at all a weak character. Her lapses into aw-shucks dialect seem artificial, yet bearable because they seem to be her private joke; Gina only turns to dialect in times of stress or sarcasm.
Devon is both more intriguing and more problematic. He’s absolutely committed to his notions of proper decorum – particularly the dictum that it is deeply shameful for any aristocrat to work for a living. He labors ferociously to save his estate and yet cannot forgive himself for doing so. Although it is known far and wide that he cherished his selfish first wife, in Devon’s view no woman can ever love him so long as he is forced to betray his class. At his best, Devon’s struggle to preserve his cultural mores is both interesting and sympathetic. He isn’t always easy to like, but his desperation is understandable. Unfortunately, at times Devon degenerates into a cliché. It’s one thing when his obnoxious behavior seems clearly rooted in his anxieties, quite another when it comes out of the generic Tormented Jerk playbook. Still, his struggle to preserve a vanishing way of life is oddly affecting. I can’t remember another aristocratic hero who has made me sympathize with such a plight.
The conflict here is my favorite kind: it grows naturally from the cultural differences between well-intentioned people, not the machinations of a mustache-twirling villain. While the book gets off to a slow start, it takes an unexpected and much more interesting turn once the action moves to Devon’s estate. The story is very carefully constructed to fully explore Gina and Devon’s culture clash. Neither character is a stereotype; they seem to come from specific places and been shaped by specific experiences. If you’re intrigued by a “when worlds collide” conflict, To Marry An Heiress is well worth a look.