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The Unsuitable Miss Martingale (Signet Regency Romance) Mass Market Paperback – May 1, 2001
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I do NOT think it necessary to have read the prior title in this series to enjoy or understand The Unsuitable Miss Martingale.
I DO, however, find the 17 1/2 age of the h a difficult one to accept, even when I remind myself of two friends who married at that age and appear to be no more or less unhappy than most married couples many decades later.
In any event, Hazard deliberately makes this one of the themes of the story - with the privileged 28 year old H grappling with his concern about the age gap, his acknowledged selfishness in wanting to marry someone so young in age, albeit comprehensively educated, honourable, honest and, of course, stunningly beautiful. At the same time the h is grappling with the differences between their births - even though she espouses egalitarian principles - and is being blackened by mean-mouthed, lying gossips. And the final themes are that of the agonies of love and marriage - the unrequited love of the h's adopted brother; the sterile arranged marriage of the H's parents; parental love (and how that makes the H's mother and father behave in very different ways); the romantic love of the protagonists etc etc.
For some reason, Hazard's writing appeals to me. It won't appeal to lovers of more steamy HRs, but I think it has plenty of passion. Yes, aspects of The Unsuitable Miss Martingale are derivative. Yes, very, very familiar. In my view, she still manages to deliver a good 3 1/2 to 4 star read. That's probably because Hazard has her H brought to his knees by love, so that his pride in his heritage is blown apart and the unsuitability of his h becomes immaterial - in a convincing way. Romantic. Lovely.
The plot of "The Unsuitable Miss Martingale" revolves around that of its heroine, Lili Martingale, who was rescued from war torn France 4 years ago by Cornelia and Alaistair Russell (detailed in "The Wary Widow"). Since then, Lili has fulfilled the promise of growing up to become a very beautiful young lady. Lili's situation however is quite complicated. For while she is related to the aristocracy on her mother's side, her father was a nobody. And so while Lili can never hope to marry into many of the blue blooded families of the English ton, a humble farm hand is quite below her expectations as well. And when Lili's foster mother, Nancy Moorland begins to realise that many of the men in the vicinity of the Moorland Farm are proving themselves to be completely susceptible to Lili's charms, she becomes quite concerned and writes to inform Cornelia that it may be time to introduce Lili into London society. And so, like a whirlwind, Cornelia descends upon the Moorland Farm and sweeps Lili off her Hampshire home, where Lili will be taught all the necessary accomplishments and manners in order to prepare for her London comeout.
Lili's mind is in a whirl, and quite daunted about her new life. For while she longs for the excitement and the sophisticated entertainment that her new life will bring, she is also dismayed with all the admonishments that Cornelia keeps dropping. Apparently, Lili's easy manners leave much to be desired; also her early upbringing by the nuns has taught her to value actions and manners over rank and position, and that is obviously not done in London society; and then there is the matter of what kind of expectations she is allowed matrimonially speaking! Add to that the rather poisonous insinuations that Cornelia's mother-in-law has been sprouting, that Lili is actually Cornelia's illigetimate daughter, and the servants' scornful behaviour, and Lili begins to quite fervently wish that she was still back at the Moorland Farm! Things certainly don't look up when Lili upbraids the very eligible Viscoutn Halpern for what she considers as callous and arrogant behaviour, thus earning his dislike! And all this before she has even set foot in London!
Lili can only hope that things will become better in London. However her hopes are soon dashed -- because she lacks the right kind of family background, she finds few friends, and when Cornelia's mother-in-law starts spewing her poison, Lili soon finds herself the butt of the wrong kind of attentions as well. Except for Viscount Halpern: he has come to London to look for the 'right' kind of wife, and soon finds himself running into Lili quite a bit, and chivalrously rescuing her from a few uncomfortable situations. He finds himself being alternately charmed and exasperated by her. And it isn't too long before he realises that he is quite smitten with her as well. But Lili lacks the right kind of background to be accepted wholeheartedly by his parents. Can Halpern and Lili overcome all this snobbishness in order to find happiness?
I found myself being quite moved by poor Lili's situation. Barbara Hazard does quite a good job of depicting Lili's feeling of hopelessness about her situation. And her portrayal of Halpern was spot on as well: she completely captured his arrogance over his rank, and his feelings of exasperation toward Lili, and the moments when he was charmed by her. There were only a couple of things that puzzled me. One was why Cornelia never caught on until too late to the gossip that her mother-in-law was spreading; and the other was why she brought back the character of Alva Potter, a very colourful character last seen in "The Wary Widow", but under used this character completely. Other than that, "The Unsuitable Miss Martingale" was a very good read -- the heroine was far from 'unsuitable' but was rather immensely suitable and worthy, and it was satisfying to see her find happiness and love after all she's been through. I enjoyed reading this novel immensely.
First things first. There is no strong melodrama (apart from some nasty rumors circulating), no over-the-top villain, and no espionage/murder etc. This is a very traditional Regency, almost Heyeresque except for the very frank language used by the hero towards the heroine sometimes (and a few other situations). In fact, as I was reading this book tonight, I was comparing it in my mind to APRIL LADY (where the heroine is also very young, and the hero is several years her senior). If you always wondered how Cardross could have fallen in love with a much younger woman (or how Sylvester could have fallen for Phoebe in another Heyer story), this book might provide some hints. I strongly suspect that Lily's unconventionality is what appeals to the hero, the heir to a great title. In that, the plot is closer to SYLVESTER than to APRIL LADY. [End of comparisons with Heyer].
Now for some caveats. It helps, really, helps if you have read THE WARY WIDOW (and perhaps even its prequel THE SCOTTISH LEGACY) to understand many obscure references. Without these, the mystery about Lily's birth and how she came to be in a convent in France and then in a farm in England makes little sense. Almost as little as how a dowager countess marries a mere Mister for her second husband, or why her first marriage holds few happy memories. I won't spoil the surprises by telling you what happens in those books, but I do think that THE UNSUITABLE MISS MARTINGALE can be rather frustrating for the reader who has not come across at least THE WARY WIDOW, if not both books.
Secondly, many readers will be troubled by Lily's age (17) and by the age discrepancy between the hero and heroine (about 12 years). Some will find the references to her as a little girl also troubling. Unfortunately, the first (Lily's youth) is more troubling than others, in that it was somewhat unusual for a youthful 17-year-old to be presented, especially if she had come straight from a farm. The second - the references to her as a little girl - seem a bit more puzzling, except that she is called that mostly when she is "not out". Girls who were not out were relegated to the schoolroom, and placed in the care of their governesses (read Mary Crawford's comments in MANSFIELD PARK on this!); girls who were out were treated much as young women in their first year at college would be treated today. That is, they were expected to behave (decorously) in a certain manner and had considerably more restrictions placed on them, but were otherwise treated almost as adults. So, Lily who is not out could be considered a "little girl" by an elderly Marquess (in his late sixties), and then a young woman on the marriage mart as soon as she came out. Our modern sensibilities of course interfere with this approach. But it is true that many young women came out between ages 18 and 19 (most typically, apparently) and were married quite young. The Viscount's impassioned comments *do* step over the line, especially for his time-period.
I also agree that it is a bit hard to believe that the Russells had no choice but to take Lily away from the farm and immediately present her. That would not only have been untypical, but also short-sighted. Lily might have Beau Russell for a guardian, but she is also remarkably sheltered and naive for her age in some respects, and she knows virtually no one in society(apart from her guardians). Especially given her murky background, one would expect that the Russells would introduce Lily into society slowly, first by having some country parties at their estate and then making the rounds of other houses with Lily in tow. Instead, they bring Lily to town, and expect to storm London society. I am not surprised that the gossip begins immediately.
Alastair and Cornelia, the somewhat hedonistic and self-centered hero and heroine of THE WARY WIDOW, are in a different role, somewhat alien even to them - as guardians and chaperons of a very attractive and somewhat headstrong young girl. And they are not entirely comfortable in those roles, which is understandable. I particularly enjoyed the scene where the Viscount wants to pay court to Lily, and has to ask Alastair for permission.
Yes, Alastair and Cornelia have had no children in several years. Is that so surprising? In the Regency period (and today) not all couples were blessed with children. It is somewhat ridiculous to assume that a happy and passionate marriage automatically means that children will be born aplenty, almost as much as to assume that heroines jumped into bed with heroes without worrying about an unwanted pregnancy that would shame them. It was in fact curiously refreshing to come across a childless couple, whether deliberately or otherwise. I was reminded of the childless Castlereaghs, the childless Yorks, and so many other famous Regency couples (including the Prince Regent and Mrs Fitzherbert herself).
While I enjoyed reading the story from Lily and the Viscount's point of view, and seeing how they misunderstand each other (she worries about the disparity in rank; he about the disparity in age), the story did not satisfy me completely. I don't particularly care that Cornelia seemed relatively passive (especially when faced by that harridan mother-in-law), or that the colorful widow Mrs Potter played a minor role. What worried me was that the whole plot turned really on a failure on Cornelia's part to be frank about Lily's background with her and her fiance. Her parentage was hardly all that shameful, at least when compared to the damage done to Cornelia and Lily's reputation. For another, there was a throwaway reference to a Martingale family of tenants. Somehow, that thread was not woven back into the story, whether to disavow any connection or to make something of the mention. For a third, Lily's failure to recognize her physical attractiveness and to also recognize (earlier) her lack of birth and breeding as a major problem in society were both less than credible. Was she really *that* naive and sheltered? Possibly, but then her appeal to the Viscount seems even more puzzling. His being attracted by her refreshing candor and lack of pretense is one thing, his attraction to her because of her inexperience and naievete is something else.
Which brings me back to one problem that I have persistently with Barbara Hazard's plots. She has great plot devices and interesting characters; however somehow her books do not seem to have the space to develop the stories fully and for the characters to come alive in a multidimensional manner. This may be a problem of the page limit; it may be a different problem. [I seem to recall books by other authors who do just fine with even more complicated plots]. Like other readers, I felt that the couple really needed a year or more apart in which to grow and mature, and see if their attraction was solely physical.
While I enjoyed this book and gobbled it up happily, I have mixed feelings about it as I finish this review. In the end, I have decided to assign it a 3.7 rather than a 4+ grade. The major problem I have is not with the age discrepancy or the youthfulness of the heroines (I loved A LONDON SEASON by Joan Wolf, with very young lovers) but rather with the believability of the romance - and the plot device that gets the heroine to London fast.