When Lord Marcus Drelincourt, Earl of Rule, offers for the hand of the oldest and prettiest sister of the Winwood Family, he has no notion of the distress he causes his intended. Beauty Lizzie Winwood already is promised to Edward Heron, an also impoverished military, who she loves, but the wealthy Earl of Rule wants her as his wife. Lizzie’s younger sister Horatia conceives a dazzling plan to avert a nuptial disaster, and offers herself, since he really wants to marry into this family. He has lots of money but they have an old family line. Everyone knows Horry isn’t that beauty and has a stutter, but she’ll do her best to keep out of the Earl’s way and make him a good wife.
He agrees, and dazzling Horatia marries the powerful Earl of Rule. Theirs was a convenient marriage, she was only saving her sister from a loveless match, rescuing her family fortune, and providing herself with a life of ease. Hers was a marriage made not in heaven but in the coolly logical mind of a very self-possessed young woman. As her new husband’s attentions fall elsewhere, Horry begins to feel increasingly unhappy. Then she meets the attractive and dangerous Lord Robert Lethbridge and her days suddenly become more exciting. But there is bad blood between Horry’s husband and her new acquaintance, and as complications and deceptions mount, the social tangle grows ever trickier to unpick.
She suddenly finds — to her own tremulous surprise — she had fallen deeply in love with the man she had married for money. But was it too late, now that she was but a heartbeat away from betraying both him and herself? Her reputation was about to be ruined. But the Earl of Rule has found just the wife he wants, unbeknownst to Horatia, the Earl is enchanted by her. There’s simply no way he’s going to let her get into trouble. Overcoming some misguided help from Horatia’s harebrained brother and a hired highwayman, the Earl plans to defeat his old enemy, and wins over his young wife, gifting her with a love that she never thought she could expect.
Reading this book ahead of it’s republication it highlights just what current romance writers owe to people like Heyer, but also how they often pale when the books are compared to books like this.
Horry, the 17 year old youngest Winwood girl, she of the stammer and the peculiar eyebrows, hears that Marcus Drelincount is about to offer for her older sister, who is already in love with a man of limited means. The Winwood family have a “good” name (but also a bad turn for gambling, and heavily in debt due to Pelham, the only son). Drelincourt, 35, has the money but who could do with marrying into a “good” old family. To him, it is irrelevant which of the sisters he marries, so when Horry offers to marry him instead of Lizzy, he accepts.
Horry is not in love with her husband – both know it is a marriage of convenience, but she finds out that her husband gives his affections elsewhere. So in order to feel a little happier, she starts going out, spending copious amounts of money and gambling far too much. She falls in with Lord Lethbridge, who she continues to be friends with, despite Rule asking her to stay away – she doesnt know that Lethridge has a reputation and has already tried to ruin Rule’s sister, amongst others. He is also an inveterate gambler.
Things go too far when Horry goes to a party she’s agreed to not go to whilst her husband is away, and Lethbridge kidnaps her into his house in order to take advantage of her. Judicious use of a poker gives Horry the chance to escape, but in the preceding struggle, her bodice is ripped and an unmistakable brooch falls to the ground. The last third of the book is to do with the getting the brooch back before Rule finds out (which he does anyway, long before anyone else realises).
During the course of the book, there are duels, drunken gaming sessions, kidnapping, foolish siblings and their friends, misunderstandings, and highwaymen available to do anything for the right price. We also get to see a woman’s toilette, so we find out about different hairstyles, what they are called, and the beauty spots/patches that were much in fashion at the time.
Some of the story is a little predictable to modern readers, but that’s because many of the scenes have been reused in later books. Heyer keeps Horrie’s chatter to a minimum, knowing that the keeping up the stammer in print would lose her readers. Therefore we get to hear more about how Pel and his friends talk to each other than Horrie and Rule. Lizzie and the other immediate female family members disappear from the book almost immediately after the wedding and are only seen on occasion, and then from a distance.
It’s a tad more challenging than some of the modern day romances, but no less enjoyable for this!