I was intrigued by the premise behind My Fair Lord. As the title suggests, instead of Eliza Doolittle we have Lucas Davin, a thief from a London slum who must be transformed into a gentleman, quickly. Unfortunately for My Fair Lord, Lerner and Loewe's version of the Pygmalion story has a great deal more charm than Beard's.
Caroline Wainwright is one week away from her 25th birthday. Unlike many heroines of Regency novels, instead of coming into her inheritance on that date, her father's will dictates that she will lose her home and the tin mines that provide her income unless she marries before her birthday. Her brother, George, and his odious wife, Prudence, will take possession of everything Caroline now owns. Prudence is already redecorating Fallingate and planning a dreary life for Caroline as chaperone to her two daughters.
Lord Barrett Hamilton, dead for 300 years, is the reason Caroline is a spinster. Suitor after suitor, drawn by Caroline's wealth, has made the trip to Cragmere Moor, only to be driven off by Lord Barrett's ghost. Caroline is desperate, so desperate that she decides to recruit a husband from the local gaol, with the help of her honorary uncle, Theodore Cavendish.
Teddy is just back from Africa, and he has a bet with a crony that he can turn a man from the slums into a gentleman. Teddy bribes the local gaoler to free a horse thief for Caroline to marry before her birthday. Once the horse thief convinces Caroline's brother that he is a suitable spouse, he will be shipped off to India or Africa with the sizeable income of £2,000 a year.
The horse thief, Lucas Davin, dislikes the rich intensely and has strong reservations about obliging Caroline, but the £2,000 a year is persuasive. He and Caroline are married almost immediately -- a marriage in name only -- then the hard work begins for Lucas. Tutored by Caroline, Uncle Teddy, and Caroline's companion, Amanda Plumshaw, he picks up the attributes of a gentleman remarkably quickly. He also finds himself attracted to Caroline by her complete honesty, while she begins falling in love with the first man who has ever admired her.
So far, so good. However, after Lucas and Caroline consummate their marriage and Lucas acknowledges to himself that he loves Caroline, the trouble with the plot begins. Now that he loves her, Lucas decides he cannot go on with the deception. He plans to leave Caroline and return to the slums of London. Caroline begs him to stay, but Lucas is adamant even though her brother, George, has yet to meet Lucas and acknowledge the validity of Caroline's marriage.
Frankly, Caroline's arguments hold the most weight. She argues that if Lucas left her, she would be destitute, at the mercy of her brother's charity. Lucas argues that she would be poor but her reputation would be intact, whereas if the truth about him becomes known, she will be an outcast. Since Caroline lives year-round on the sparsely populated Cragmere Moor, I couldn't see that banishment from the ton would mean much to her, whereas life as Prudence's dependent would be sheer misery.
At this point, the ghost of Lord Barrett takes a hand in the lovers' dispute -- or is it a ghost? Perhaps there are natural explanations for what seems to be supernatural phenomena. Clues abound for either interpretation. Rather than adding an interesting level of complexity to the story, the mystery about the role of the supernatural merely brings more confusion to an already perplexing narrative.
Ultimately all the elements that Beard brings together -- Lucas' transformation from thief to gentleman, Lucas' and Caroline's romance, the mystery of the haunting of Fallingate -- never gells. Perhaps readers who can ignore My Fair Lord's logical inconsistencies may enjoy it more than I did.
-- Nancy J. Silberstein