by Clare Darcy
Walker and Company 1977, Signet 1978
[and other various reprints]
She had never thought a great deal about being in love before, not being romantically inclined and having read very few of the novels over which other young ladies at Miss Bascom’s had shed luxurious tears; but obviously, she thought, it was quite as uncomfortable a matter as those marbled volumes depicted it as being. [Eugenia, p. 231]
Clare Darcy’s Eugenia is a bit of a different confection than the usual Regency Romance. The Heroine is still the smart, feisty, quick-thinking, in this case tomboy-like young lady, and Our Hero is as expected, tall, dark and handsome, strong and muscular; but there are only rare moments of sword-crossing, none of the “they started off hating each other” – indeed, this Hero and Heroine are only occasionally found interacting on the page together, and barely ever alone – but it is quite charming all the same… and thankfully largely lacking the incessant “infant-brat-chit” talk!
We begin in Bath in May of 1811, and Miss Eugenia Liddiard, an orphan since her father’s death three years ago and schooled at the Miss Bascom’s Select Academy for Young Ladies, is finally returning “home” to the Essex seat of her cousin / guardian Lord Chandross. Lady Chandross, “not a proper guardian”, is to chaperon Eugenia in her first London Season, the goal to marry her off as soon as possible so she, Lady C, may return to to her own dalliances unencumbered. Eugenia wants none of this – she is practical and not romantic and has definitely made up her mind to propose marriage to her childhood friend Tom Rowntree, brother of her best friend Muffet, so she will no longer be a burdensome project, be able to settle on land adjacent to her former home Coverts in Kent [her “place of belonging” and now in the care of a hands-off elderly clergyman cousin], and to be free to just be, taking no orders from anyone.
Fortunately for all, characters and readers alike, the traveling chaise bearing Eugenia and her abigail is forestalled at the less than fashionable Kings Head Inn due to a raging storm and washed-out roads, and Eugenia, “who liked new experiences of any sort”, serendipitously runs into her cousin “Gerry” at the Inn, and the adventure begins. By page nine we have met our Hero, have a full understanding of the the Heroine’s character, beauty, love of adventure, and quite wild imagination with a penchant for concocting very tall tales when the occasion calls for it.
For “Gerry” is not Eugenia’s wild and reckless cousin Gerry at all, but the dead-ringer “Richard” [to wit, Jane Austen may not approve but he makes a fine Hero just the same!]. Richard is yet another cousin [isn’t is striking How Many Cousins there are in these Regency novels?!], also forestalled at the Inn and suffering from the lingering effects of a fever – and alas! he collapses in a dead faint in the Inn’s coffeehouse, Eugenia comes to the rescue and discovers the truth of his identity – he is the “by-blow” of her long-dead uncle Charles, thus not the true legitimate male heir to Coverts because he has only hearsay evidence, no written proof, of his parent’s marriage. Orphaned shortly after birth and raised by a clergyman in Ireland, Richard has returned to England to prove his birthright; Eugenia schemes for him to pass himself off as his look-alike cousin and come to her guardian’s estate to recuperate, offering her help to search the ecclesiastical records for the hoped-for marriage registry.
But, as all best-laid plans must indeed go awry or we wouldn’t have a tale to tell, real cousin Gerry is being sought by the Bow Street Runners for Highway Robbery and Murder – Richard must go into hiding until Gerry can be captured or he risks the gallows…
… so… her wondrous and fertile imagination madly at work, Eugenia sets up a new plan [she calls it “acting, not lying” ] – with much disguise, masquerading, outrageous fabrications to family and friends, and many a character entering her play – her old nurse Nan and her old groom Haggart to whom she confides Richard’s secrets; Lady Brassbororough [!], Lady B, the former “scarlet woman” famous for her stage past and various liaisons among the the rich of the ton, now a rather large woman covered in emeralds and diamonds, with a pug named Wellington who bites on command, with a resource of ready swears to send any man staggering into a corner, and who thankfully, in the end, saves the day.
I’ll tell no more – but Miss Darcy, like Heyer before her in False Colours, gives us an almost gentle tale of mistaken identity, complete with Regency cant, French sayings, and an abundance of Regency references [Stulz the tailor, the 1697 play “The Deceiver Deceived“, Hessian soup, Fanchon, ices at Gunter’s [though it is misnamed Gunther’s – her mistake or a typo?] are just a few examples … there are a good many more with the fun of looking them up!]; the two bumbling Bow Street Runners, Baker and Cartwright [perfect name for a TV show!]; dance requests and marriage proposals from all the wrong people; the “highest kick of fashion” described; the settings of Town and Country knowingly depicted; the ever-present cadre of servants, who keep “up a dignified pretence, for the sake of [their] positions, of being deaf and blind as well as quite uninterested” [p. 242]; the requisite pistols and grown men brawling; a charming and defiant Heroine who unromantic as she believes herself to be discovers “the joy of knowing love” and the pain of not having it returned; and finally The Hero, more Fitzwilliam Darcy-like – aloof and composed with a quiet, impenetrable reserve and decisive manner – and thankfully knows how to perform the proper Embraces and Crushing Kisses when so called upon.
Lady Chandross, “with her usual air of fashionable indifference“, sums it all up nicely with “so it seems that everything has turned out for the best in the end, quite in the manner of one of those dull little comedies where everyone reforms or is suitably paired off just before the curtain falls” [p. 224] – Miss Darcy may laugh so at her own little creation, but so do we, and again, though this is not Heyer, it is great fun – put it on your summer reading list!
3 1/2 full inkwells out of 5
[Posted by Deb]