Rowena Harcourt-Spence has a secret known only to her diary. She loves Laurence Radley, the brave and cultured eighth Earl of Conniston.
Their shared pleasure in watching her half-sister Amabelle dance through her first London Season has deepened her love but his inexplicable offer for Amabelle shatters her dream. When her sister indignantly refuses him, their irate father orders Rowena to make her accept. Fearful the Earl might withdraw his offer he further orders Rowena to maintain the Earl’s interest at her aunt, Lady Tiverton’s summer ball.
Burying her sorrow, Rowena determines to obey. She is horrified to find a fellow house guest, the exotic Araminta Neave, daughter of a wealthy East India merchant attracting his attention. Then news arrives that Amabelle has run away.
The Earl’s fury alarms Rowena but worse awaits her at home. Endless questions arise. How will she survive another blow? Will Amabelle be found and relent or will the Earl transfer his affections to Araminta? Is there any hope for her own happiness?
Caroline Ashton was a new author for me, but I am so glad I took a chance. This was one of the better dramatic (as opposed to rompish) traditional Regencies I have read in a long time. Ashton has an authentic voice that has some nuanced differences, but is a welcome addition to the list of writers producing quality traditional Regencies.
It’s a longer novel, with the pace slowed down by lots of scenes showing the interactions between servants and others which don’t necessarily add to the action or plot, but definitely help set the tone. I found it a bit confusing at first (where was this going, I would ask myself), but soon understood it as the authors way to enrich the landscape for her characters.
Its obvious that Ashton has some sensibilities for the relationships between Regency era households, and I felt that rang through in these snippets. Although subtle, the differences in language and power struggles give us a peak into a day in the life. I also felt that so many of the historical details were spot on, but not “announced” so as to be distracting. More than anything, I appreciate the delicate attention to those details which help a reader become immersed in the story and the era.
The heroine, Rowena, is twenty but for all intents and purposes on the shelf. She is essentially the mistress of her father’s household, despite the elder relative who was brought on to fulfill that role. When we are introduced to her, we learn she is being forced to encourage her younger sister to marry the man Rowena, in fact, fancies. Her sister Amabelle, a young and immature beauty, is dead set against the match–mostly because she finds Conniston old, ugly and she is afraid of being homesick.
Throughout the book, Rowena reveals herself to be an elegant, dutiful daughter struggling against her own hopes and dreams. She isn’t the typical spunky, hoydenish heroine from romps…instead she is much more akin to an Elizabeth Bennett or Anthea Darracott. Her slow and steady grace under pressure is shown time and time again, and is what ultimately makes her a wonderful, strong heroine.
Conniston is a bit more of a mystery. He is a war hero, filled with compassion, but obviously a bit dumb when it comes to his love life. In many ways he is the perfect Regency hero…well built, filthy rich, handsome (in an unconventional way), and with a good sense of duty. If his motives don’t make a ton of sense initially, I think the author does a brilliant job at closing those threads at the book’s end.
There are also some wonderful secondary characters, including two battling Grand Dames, a nabob and his Incomparable but a bit vulgar daughter (I can’t wait to read her story, Araminta), and the aforementioned servants which provide insight into some of the nuanced differences in class. This is not a book, however, with a secondary romance or that belabors the set up for the next book in the series (a personal pet peeve of mass market trending).
The ending is, like Heyer, very abrupt so those not well versed in the traditional Regency may find that jarring. For myself, I could’ve used maybe (at least) another couple of paragraphs, but that was just due to the fact that I really liked the characters and wanted to revel a bit in the HEA. Because the ending is abrupt, and the romance is very subtle, some readers may not find what they are looking for. In other words, this isn’t a face sucking or melodramatic chest beating love proclamation type of book.
Rowena is also not a book that is based on a popular Regency plot type, so those expecting to hold on to the rails of formula will be surprised. Much more akin to Inspirational historical romances with an exploration of relationships, Rowena weaves elements of marriage of convenience, house party, and long suffering spinsters together.
There are no kisses, so it’s very clean, and the adult subject matter is pretty light. There are, however, a few accidents and one very serious, indeed, so there is a fair amount of dramatic material that may not be appropriate for younger readers or those looking for just laughs.
I found once I got started, it was hard to put down, so I finished it in just a few days.
I definitely can see myself re-reading at some point and look forward to reading more by this talented author. Rowena is definitely a great addition to your readers stack if you are looking for something slightly different from the norm.
5 out of 6 A dramatic traditional Regency with a soft, subtle romance
*A review copy was provided by the author’s agent. No other compensation was provided.