|The Penniless Bride features a nice hero and heroine but is hampered by an unfocused plot, coincidences that test the limits of credulity, and a preposterous ending. These two deserve better.
Robert Selborne, Earl of Selborne, has returned from the war on the Peninsula. He is informed by his lawyer that his late fatherís will has an unusual requirement: his inheritance is conditioned on marrying a woman who attends his cousinís wedding. Furthermore, his grandmotherís will states that in order for him to inherit he must remain celibate for one hundred days. Because Delaval, the earlís principal estate, is in such bad repair and he will need the funds to restore it, Robert decides he must comply with the requirements.
That there are very few guests at the cousinís wedding complicates things. One available cousin Agatha is a shrew Robert cannot envision marrying.
Following the custom of good luck for the bride, a chimney sweep and his son and daughter, dressed in traditional costume, are attending the wedding. Robert notices that the young woman is well-spoken and comports herself well.
As a child, Jemima Jewell worked as a sweep but in time was educated beyond her station. Her brutal father wants her to marry another chimney sweep, but Jemima knows that she will not be happy in the marriage so refuses. Robert arrives at her house in time to witness her father beating her. The next day he returns and proposes marriage explaining about the provision in his fatherís will. His plan is that they will marry but live separately. Jemima will have her own townhouse and funds to establish a music school.
Immediately following the ceremony, they run into Robertís other grandmother and a cousin who learn of their marriage. Now they cannot go through with their previous arrangement. Robert decides they will go to Delaval and use the time required by his grandmotherís will to get to know each other.
Can a chimney sweep make the transition to lady? Will a family secret jeopardize her reputation? Can their attraction survive the enforced celibacy?
Lately Iíve read several romances with this plot Ė sweet young thing of common origins marries well, very well. Iím starting to worry about well-born young ladies. With all those lords getting snatched up by housemaids and chimney sweeps, whoís left for them to marry?
What really bothers me about this particular plot is its extreme unlikelihood. Early nineteenth century England was not a socially-mobile society. Moreover, a mesalliance was not going to get the benign reception that Jemimaís and Robertís union receives. In actuality, Robert would be far more likely to challenge the validity of the will in court than to marry a woman of a much lower class. Robert is concerned that contesting the will could be embarrassing. ďI would be a laughing-stock.Ē So heís got a couple of batty ancestors ... big deal. Donít forget, the Prince Regent was ruling England at the time because his father was truly insane. Then thereís another time-tested solution he doesnít consider: marry money. A nice fat dowry would compensate for the loss of the inheritance.
It takes a full third of the book to establish the set up for the odd marriage of convenience and get Robert and Jemima wed. A less deliberate pace could have them facing the temptations that come with marriage much sooner. As in many previous marriage of convenience romances, itís obvious that Robert and Jemima will come to want a very different type of relationship. This plot dallies along the way to mutual attraction.
On the other hand, the plot begins to founder when Jemima settles in as Lady Selborne. A subplot about Tilly, Jemimaís niece, seems even less likely than a lord marrying a chimney sweep, and leads to unnecessary tension between Robert and Jemima. Agatha is like the proverbial bad penny, showing up time and time again to cause complications. And there is more more more yet to come. As the plot weaves from one problem facing the newlyweds to another, it becomes tiresome. Isnít it enough that they have to be married for one hundred days before nature can take its course?
Robert and Jemima are two nice characters, but the loose plotting dominates the book. Even so, readers who are looking for an undemanding story may want to consider The Penniless Bride.