Lady Hilary's Halloween

Step In Time

 
A Man of Affairs by Anne Barbour
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19693-7
****
I have always enjoyed Regency romances with heroes or heroines who are unusual, who are not the typical denizens of the ton. I think Carla Kelly’s books always appealed to me for this reason. Anne Barbour has created such a character in Seth Lindow, the Duke of Derwent’s man of affairs. Seth is the adopted son of the duke and calls him “father,” but he has never forgotten his humble roots as the son of the duke’s Sergeant Major. His devotion to his foster father is rooted in gratitude, for the duke saved him from a dire fate. He made a vow to serve the duke to the best of his ability, and no man could ask for a finer man of affairs.

If the duke’s adopted son is all he could want, his real son and heir is just the opposite. The Marquess of Belhaven is completely out of control. A desperate duke, fearful that his only son will die from his excess before he produces the requisite heir, charges Seth with finding Bel a wife.

The dutiful Seth calmly reviews all the prospects and decides that Zoe Beckett might fit the bill. Although her father is a baron, the Beckett’s are not members of the social elite. Zoe herself is beautiful and clearly ambitious to marry well. She might be willing to overlook the disadvantages of marrying a dissolute and perhaps dangerous man for the promise of wealth and high position. So he arranges a trip to Lord Beckett’s estate, purportedly to look over some horses, but in fact to look over his lordship’s youngest daughter.

Zoe soon demonstrates that she is capricious and spoiled and Seth is not sure that she will make a proper duchess. He is himself much taken with her eldest sister, Miss Eden Beckett.

Eden has watched three of her younger sisters make good marriages and now plays duenna to her youngest sibling. She is not too dissatisfied with her single state for she has an abiding passion for painting. Seth soon discovers that Eden is a marvelously talented artist. She is also an intelligent woman whose interests match his own. But although Seth is very attracted to this unusual young woman, he is convinced that his low birth precludes his courting her.

Despite his uncertainty about Zoe’s suitability, Seth arranges for the Beckett’s to attend a dinner at the duke’s London house. The duke shares his misgivings, especially when Bel makes an unexpected appearance and sweeps Zoe into a most improper waltz. But the duke concludes that Eden is the perfect woman to marry his son. Thus, Seth faces a painful conflict between his duty to his adopted father and his growing love for Eden.

Barbour has created a many-layered story in this short book. Seth is a man who has all the outward trappings of gentility. He is intelligent, well educated, and, thanks mostly to his own endeavors, quite wealthy. But circumstances have trained him not to overstep the rigid limits that society has erected against low born upstarts.

With Eden, Barbour portrays the stifling limitations that women faced in the patriarchal world of the time. Despite her advanced age, she is still under her father’s tutelage and he can prevent her from pursuing her art. She has no way of achieving the independence she dreams of.

Bel is a product of his time and class. His self-destructive excesses and manic behavior go unchecked because he is, after all, the Marquess of Belhaven. (Barbour's solution to the problem of Bel is ingenious if not too likely.)

Even Zoe has unsuspected depths, although her romance is mostly played out off stage. Yes, she is spoiled and demanding, but she is also young and she grows up quickly when the need arises.

The secondary characters -- the imperious duke, the social climbing Becketts -- are also very well drawn. Barbour even pays homage to Mary Jo Putney by including paintings by Kenneth Wilding and his wife in the pictures that Seth and Eden see at the exhibition of the Royal Academy!

Anne Barbour has a sure hand in her recreation of Regency society. In A Man of Affairs she uncovers some of its less attractive aspects, while at the same time providing a romance that charms the reader and characters who come alive on the pages. I have enjoyed a number of Barbour’s Regency romances, but I think this may well be her best.

--Jean Mason


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