Even some of the best authors can occasionally turn out a clunker. In The Bride Hunt, the usually dependable Jane Feather has done just that. For those of us who have loved her books in the past – including A Widow’s Kiss, Velvet, and Virtue – this is a major disappointment. Even though Feather’s talent is evident in places – multi-dimensional character development and snappy dialogue – the central premise is farfetched at best, the characters are from central casting, and the legal details are a sticky wicket.
The story is set in London in the early 20th century. Prudence is the second of the three Duncan sisters. (The eldest sister Constance’s story was in the first book of the trilogy, The Bachelor List. Chastity, the third sister, will be the heroine in the final book.) The sisters publish a scandal rag and suffragist tract, The Mayfair Lady, started by their late mother. They also operate a clandestine matchmaking service where their at-homes are instrumental in bringing ideally suited couples together.
The purpose behind all this industry is to keep their financially foundering family afloat. It seems that Papa, Lord Arthur Duncan, is a spendthrift and completely oblivious to the true situation. (If it weren’t anachronistic, Papa could properly be termed an airhead.) Why has no one told him he’s got to economize? Because Mama protected him from such realities of life, and her daughters seem to think that means he has to continue in blissful ignorance till death.
Prudence is the most business-minded and levelheaded of the three. With Constance still on her honeymoon on the continent, it falls to Prudence to handle responding to a notice that a libel suit against The Mayfair Lady has been filed by Lord Barclay, one of their father’s closest friends. An item about him in the paper asserted that he was both a libertine who ruined the lives of young women as well as a thief.
Prudence needs to find a lawyer fast and moreover one who won’t ask for money up-front because they’re squeezing shillings until the queen squeaks. (Constance and Max return from their honeymoon fairly soon, but no one seems to think of asking the wealthy Max to contribute to the legal fees even though Constance actually wrote the article in question.)
Prudence seeks out Sir Gideon Malvern, a young but highly respected barrister. Sparks fly when she meets with him, and he initially turns her down flat. Ultimately, Prudence convinces him to take the case on her terms. Gideon is divorced and raising his young daughter alone. In lieu of legal fees, Prudence and her sisters will find him a new wife. There’s a problem: while they have evidence of their claim Lord Barclay has used and abandoned women, they’re only repeating a rumor about his financial wrongdoings. Can they find proof?
Gideon is intrigued by the feisty Prudence, and soon their affairs aren’t only law-related.
Gideon’s wife ran off with a horse trainer, and her actions are perfectly understandable: this guy is one self-absorbed, self-righteous, obnoxious jerk. It’s hard to believe that Prudence couldn’t do better. After the honeymoon glow has worn off and he’s reverted to type, Prudence may be tempted to let history repeat itself and seek out her own horse trainer. Of course, he’s tall and good-looking as any proper romance hero should be, but it’s too bad his personality is so unpleasant. He’s also decades ahead of his time – in addition to his professional qualifications, he’s also an exacting gourmet chef!
I am a fan of legal thrillers and found the combination of historical romance and legal thriller an appealing concept. Unfortunately, there are problems with the legal aspects of the story. In the United States, truth is an absolute defense to libel; under British law a libel plaintiff only needs to prove that his reputation has been damaged - truth is not necessarily a defense. Since it seems probable that The Mayfair Lady has damaged Lord Barclay’s reputation, the climactic courtroom scene might not save the day.
Another troubling aspect is that the sisters are charging hidden fees for their matchmaking. They tell clients that they are taking donations for a charity for women then use the money for their own purposes. This is fraudulent misrepresentation ... or, in other words, an outright scam.
“Isn’t this illegal ... something akin to fraud? Raising money under false pretenses?” Chastity asked.
I prefer my heroes and heroines to have some solid moral fiber, and I found the whole premise –they’ll lie and cheat just so Papa can stay an ignoramus – very uncomfortable. The legal issues of a woman’s right to own property and economic independence in that time period are never addressed at all.
“I’m sure it is. But what’s a working woman to do?” Prudence tossed her napkin on the table and pushed back her chair.
The Bride Hunt is the second in a trilogy and does not stand well on its own. Readers who started the series with The Bachelor List may be interested in this next installment, but others are advised to think twice.