To Seduce a Stranger
A kindly old duke married Charlotte Blakemore, but his death has left his son refusing to execute a will leaving Charlotte a significant independence. Charlotte runs away and finds herself in the company of Edward Cary, heir to the Earl of Beckley, who himself ran away two decades ago in the hopes of sparing his mother abuse. At least these two have inexplicable running away in common as they hide out and attempt to repair Edward’s childhood estate There’s a decent story here and good prose, but on the whole, there were too many plot devices in the second half for me to enjoy the book as much as I thought I would at the start.
I don’t rule a book out automatically because there’s a flaw in the premise, but the heroine Charlotte’s behavior to set off the plot events in To Seduce a Stranger is downright odd. When her stepson tells her he’s going to fight the will to avoid giving her any of her late husband’s estate, she runs away, because “[p]erhaps her disappearance would disrupt Robert’s plan.” Or, you know, make her look totally crazy and unreliable and therefore help Robert disinherit her. That’s not outside the realm of possibility, Char.
I let the premise go and read on contentedly for a while. Sure, it didn’t make sense why Charlotte was in the country, but in the country she was, and there was promise of better things to come. The sentence writing is generally engaging. Charlotte, while cleaning, looks “as if she had lost a battle with a tin of wig power.” At an inn, Edward orders “the worst beef-and-onion pie in the history of beef-and-onion pies, accompanied by another mug of ale unequal to the task of washing it down.” It’s not all that quality, though. I was annoyed by the description of Charlotte “clos[ing] her eyes when she swallowed” and “kiss[ing] the last crumbs” from her fingers – that is how cartoon characters eat, not real people. Charlotte’s ability to entertain children with stories is part of her character backstory, but when we see her with children, the author doesn’t share anything of the actual tales.
The best part of the story is the handling of Edward’s time managing plantations in the West Indies – which means handling slavery. Every memory he has of the place is brutal. He rejected sex with enslaved women because, as he rightly explains, there was no such thing as consent under those conditions. The author even brings a freed slave character, Mari, back to England with Edward for her own secondary plot. Here’s a local servant girl reacting to meeting Mari for the first time. I liked that the author confronted a believable reaction head-on.
“Lor’ bless us! It’s true!… There really are black folks. I’ve seen pictures of ‘em on those plaques,” she added in an explanatory whisper to Charlotte, as if she imagined Mari could not understand her words, “the ones again’ slavery… But I never -”
Unfortunately, it turns out that Charlotte’s running away isn’t the only episode of illogic-for-the-sake-of-plot. Edward ran away so his father couldn’t use him as leverage to abuse his mother; for some reason he concludes that her death from smallpox is his fault: “his mother’s blood was on his conscience, if not his hands. He should have been there to save her.” Because an 11-year-old could cure smallpox?
A deeply creepy man turns up, and Edward arranges for Charlotte and Mari to sleep away from the main house, much to their befuddlement. I didn’t buy a situation in which a man’s creep-o-meter has gone off but the women – especially a woman with a slave background and another woman who has already been cornered and harassed by said creep – had no idea why he could possibly be concerned. Eventually, Charlotte runs away again, and when she has the chance to leave a message for Edward, she is conveniently too “tired” and “anxious” to formulate one. Scene-to-scene, the book reads well, but when you put it all together, the holes become impossible to ignore.
My favorite part of the book was the postscript, in which the author talks to us about the historical writer Maria Edgeworth’s novel Belinda. First published in 1801 and 1802, the book featured a former slave in a secondary romance with an English farm girl and a mixed-ethnicity suitor for the heroine. Both storylines were scrubbed from an 1810 reissue. I had never heard of mixed-race romances being written alongside Austen. We have an awful lot of Austen adaptations floating around – I’d love to see what the BBC could do with Belinda!
But I would not tune in for To Seduce a Stranger.