If you think of this book as a Regency romance done by the Marx Brothers, you will get a sense of the appeal and fun of this story. [The genre of “Regency romances,” usually set in the period of the British Regency (1811-1820), involves romances with an emphasis on manners. There is generally a great deal of witty, fast-paced dialogue among the protagonists, and in terms of romance, more talk than action. While Jane Austen is perhaps the best-known author from this period, the genre remained popular thereafter, and Georgette Heyer (herself influenced by Austen), wrote over two dozen such novels.]
Although this book is considered a Regency romance, it is set a little early, in 1776. [Thus it is more accurately considered a “Georgian romance,” the Georgian era of British history spanning the reigns of the first four Hanoverian kings of Great Britain who were all named George: George I, George II, George III and George IV and covering the period from 1714 to 1830. The Regency Era is a “sub-period” this time.]
What I found especially delightful about this book is that the affaire d’amour involved two people who were already married to each other, in, as the title suggests, a marriage of convenience.
When the 35-year-old and wealthy Marcus, Earl of Rule, proposes marriage to 20-year-old Elizabeth Winwood (whom Rule barely knows), she agrees to marry him although she loves someone else (Edward Heron). But her family is desperate for money, largely owing to the gambling habit of Elizabeth’s brother Pelham, and a marriage to Rule would provide them with a large settlement.
The youngest Winwood sister, Horatia (called Horry), only 17, decides to “save” Elizabeth so she can be with her true love Edward, and goes to see Rule, asking in her stammer, “C-could you – would you m-mind very much – having m-me instead?”
Rule protests he is too old for Horry, but she assures him no one would think he was as old as he actually was. Laughing, he grows charmed by Horry, who promises not to “interfere” with Rule’s private life, and agrees to her plan.
The two marry, much to the titillation of society, and Horry soon takes up the occupations of the idle rich, viz., gambling and spending money on fashions and equipages, with relish.
Meanwhile several parties conspire to undermine the marriage. Lady Caroline Massey has been Rule’s mistress, and had hoped to snare him permanently for his money and connections. Baron Robert Lethbridge wants revenge on Rule for stymying his designs on Rule’s sister, Lady Louisa. Rule’s cousin, Crosby Drelincourt, heir-presumptive to Rule, doesn’t want any competition for Rule’s fortune.
The group convinces Horry that Rule “had been for years the [Lady] Massey’s slave.” Horry, who is beginning to love her husband, sets out to make Rule jealous by consorting with Lethbridge. Lethbridge turns out to be even a bigger rake than his reputation allowed, and Horry gets into serious trouble. Her brother, his good friend Sir Roland Pommeroy, and Edward Heron all try to help her out, to hilarious effect, not knowing that Rule is aware of their schemes. The zany build-up to the dénouement is counterbalanced by the tenderness of the resolution.
Discussion: I couldn’t help but fall in love with Lord Rule. He is patient, generous, humorous, tender, and most helpfully, smarter than anyone else around him. He is enchanted by Horry’s naivety and honesty, although she did indeed have a lot of growing up to do. (It’s very sad there is no sequel.)
I should add, that in order to enjoy this book, you’ll have to leave your social conscience on the shelf for a while. These are all rich white people spending money profligately which was quite possibly made from exploiting colonial subjects, and certainly with no regard for the hardships of the poor. But it can also be said that the author underlays her tale with a certain cynicism and irony that encourages the reader to regard the effete rich with a jaundiced eye, along with affection for those characters who make an effort to maintain morality and humaneness.
Evaluation: If you like the comical romances of Sophie Kinsella and you also like Jane Austin, you well might enjoy this confection of a story written in 1934 but none the worse for its age.
Originally published in 1934; Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, 2009