The trade and the ton

I am partial to historical romance novels, and particularly fond of the traditional Regency romance. They are not a so-called “guilty pleasure” for me, as I hold them in high esteem, and delight in them openly. But I do admit that I am rather picky about the books of this genre I read—or of any genre, for I am a picky reader—and always pleased to find a particularly good specimen. Some of those are famous, classics of the genre, others are hardly known.

One of those hidden gems is The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sheri Cobb South.

I found it browsing a goodreads list, and added it spontaneously to the little collection of used paperbacks I bought with a valentine’s gift code from my favourite online book store. It arrived soon afterwards, and I immediately, actually rather randomly, picked it up and read it. And I loved every line on every page!

I expected it to be a pleasant read, nice and just generally good fun. It turned out to be brilliant. The little black volume itself looks good enough, though unassuming, if not a bit off, perhaps, as the type-setting is pretty but at times looks unfinished. As I found out, it was independently published in 1999, when indie and self-publishing was not quite as common as it is now, and the style in Regency romances differed from the older classics and the current revival of the genre.

The story itself is gorgeous. It is written in a far more traditional style, reminiscent of Heyer, yet not at all imitating her. Only a tad old-fashioned, fit to the period and without being stuffy, very funny and full of sparkling dialogue. The supporting cast is great, featuring everything a traditional Regency romance needs, such as a no-good but darling younger brother; a set of caring friends; loyal servants, prone to gossip; and a quite despicable villain. Unlike other books of its type, it also features a delightful group of cotton mill workers.

The hero, Mr Ethan Brundy, is simply amazing, and very unusual for the genre: an illegitimate workhouse brat turned super-rich cotton mill owner, who drops his aitches and dresses expensively, with little taste. He is genuinely kind and caring, responsible and confident. His accent and his earnesty, not to mention his appearance, cause people of the ton to underestimate his intelligence and quick grasp. Nor do they understand that he cares not in the least about their opinion of him—he stands by his background, his class, and his convictions, and he does so with a disarming friendliness. His unwavering strength of character, combined with his exceptional candour, and his controversial opinions, expressed so kindly, are a joy to behold. And so is his love for his reluctant bride.

Lady Helen, or ‘elen, as her husband calls her, is very much unlike him: cold, haughty, and supercilious. She hasn’t a kind word for anyone, except perhaps her brother, and she delights in shoving her numerous suitors away by mere force of rudeness. Though very beautiful, she makes her way through more seasons than her father could afford, because she is still waiting for a man who might not exist. Mr Brundy is, for her, a mere laughing-stock, hardly a real person.

“Mr. Brundy,” she said with a nod, making the most perfunctory of curtsies to her father’s guest.

He made no move to take her hand, but merely bowed and responded in kind. “Lady ‘elen.”

“My name is Helen, Mr. Brundy,” she said coldly.

“Very well– ‘elen,” said Mr. Brundy, surprised and gratified at being given permission, and on such short acquaintance, to dispense with the use of her courtesy title.

Now why does she marry him? Because Mr Brundy, as I have said before, is more than confident, and certain he to reach every goal he sets himself. The moment he sets eye on his ‘elen, he decides to marry her, and her father, a dept-ridden duke, pressures her to accept his offer of her hand. She gives in:

“Mr. Brundy, you are no doubt as well acquainted with my circumstances as I am with yours, so let us not beat about the bush. I have a fondness for the finer things in life, and I suppose I always will. As a result, I am frightfully expensive to maintain. I have already bankrupted my father, and have no doubt I should do the same to you, should you be so foolhardy as to persist in the desire for such a union. Furthermore, I have a shrewish disposition and a sharp tongue. My father, having despaired of seeing me wed to a gentleman of my own class, has ordered me to either accept your suit or seek employment. If I married you, it would be only for your wealth, and only because I find the prospect of marriage to you preferable –but only slightly!- to the life of a governess or a paid companion. If, knowing this, you still wish to marry me, why, you have only to name the day.”

Having delivered herself of this speech, Lady Helen waited expectantly for Mr. Brundy’s stammering retraction. Her suitor pondered her words for a long moment, then made his response.

“’ow about Thursday?”

And now, the (supposed) marriage of convenience slowly evolves into a love-match of misunderstandings. Only Mr Brundy’s friends are truly aware of his sincere feelings for his wife, and only one of them of her feelings for him. Because Lady Helen enters marriage not only thinking her groom a cit, but certain that he’s only after her social standing. He, in turn, takes all her insults to heart and believes that she only married him for money even as her feelings for him grow to fondness, and love.

All this is tricky to write, for has it been done with less grace and skill, both characters and their romance would have been insufferable. But Mr Brundy’s love for his wife and his way with her are wonderful, as lovely as could be, and her growth as a person, and the development of her feelings are plausible and well-written, gradually, yet with sudden, clear reason.

There are sudden, tender moments of a shy, reluctant couple; adorable scenes of the Pygmalion kind; dinners and balls and dress fittings and the refreshing contrast of trade and ton—and a significant trip to the industrial North.

And in the end, there’s a great, rather Heyer-esque adventure, which causes first more secrets and misunderstandings, and brings our couple to defeat the villain, and finally admit their mutual love to each other.

It is truly a gem, I promise. It is a Regency romance in the most traditional sense, and yet thoroughly original. It’s funny, but never silly. Sensual, but restrained. Romantic and sweet, but never saccharine. All in all, a true delight.

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