Candice Hern has made a name for herself as an author of traditional Regencies. Like many Regency authors, she is leaving the subgenre to write the more lucrative single title historicals. The Bride Sale is her first “big” book. While it is not without flaws, it is nonetheless an interesting romance novel.
The Bridal Sale plays off a practice that, while not commonplace, did exist among the lower orders in England. Since divorce was absolutely impossible for ordinary people and since marriages were every bit as likely to be unhappy then as now, the custom of selling an unsatisfactory wife arose as a solution to this dilemma. The wife was taken to the market and “auctioned off.” Usually, prior arrangements had been made with the wife’s paramour to “purchase” the woman. Thus, the husband received some compensation for the loss of his wife’s services and the wife’s new relationship was recognized, at least among her neighbors. In short, this was the poor’s way of divorcing.
When James, Baron Harkness follows the excited crowd to the market square in town of Gunnisloe, Cornwall, he is surprised to find a bride sale underway. But it is clear that this is not a typical sale. The woman is clearly of gentle birth and just as clearly, this is no arrangement. Her husband is willing to sell her to whomever offers the highest bid. To his own surprise, he steps in and offers £100 for this woman who has so bravely faced this horrible humiliation.
At first, Verity Osborne is hopeful that this gentleman will call a halt to this abominable travesty. However, her fear grows when she observes the fear with which the townspeople view this man and hear them call him “Lord Heartless.” When he carries her off to his forbidding castle, Pendurgan, through a desolate Cornish landscape, her anxiety level rises sharply. She can imagine only one fate that can await her.
To Verity’s surprise, she is escorted to a pleasant room and introduced to the small staff as his lordship’s “cousin.” When she tries to flee into the night, she is accosted by Lord Harkness who warns her that she is safer remaining at Pendurgan rather than trusting her life to the dangerous Cornish coast. So Verity remains and soon becomes a part of
this strange household, where the master eschews company and his strange mother-in-law warns of his evil.
Hern certainly creates a menacing setting and an aura of mystery and danger. Gradually, Verity makes herself welcome among the local people and learns the reason why Harkness is feared and hated. But she simply cannot believe that the man who has saved her and treated her with respect is truly a villain. So she begins to try to rehabilitate him in local eyes. Meanwhile, the attraction between the two grows.
Harkness is a tortured hero whose war experiences have left him with a traumatic condition that has led to tragedy. He believes himself responsible for the death of his wife and son and has suffered deep guilt for years. When Verity comes into his life, she sets in motion events that will lead to the discovery of the truth.
I was somewhat surprised by the tone of The Bride Sale. Hern’s Regencies, while not exactly light and frothy, were not dark and angsty. This book is. Hern has created an interesting relationship between Harkness and Verity. He is riven with self-hatred and doesn’t feel that he has any right to happiness. Her traumatic experiences with her husband have left her insecure about her own attractiveness.
The weakness in the book centers on the motives and actions of Verity’s husband. He appears more pathetic than evil, yet this is a man who sold his wife to a stranger. This action is never well enough explained; we are never quite sure what he hoped to achieve. Yes, thanks to Lord Harkness, he received a considerable sum of money for Verity, but had his lordship not intervened, he would have sold her for much, much less. The £20 that he otherwise would have gained seem too paltry for such a horrible act. Thus, the whole premise of the plot seems shaky.
One strength of The Bride Sale is Hern’s careful and loving recreation of the people and land of Cornwall. Both the villagers and the countryside come to life via her talented pen.
I am recommending The Bride Sale with some reservations. Hern has used an unlikely plot device and her failure to make it make sense detract from the story’s success. Still, the book did hold my interest and I do so like to read about the redeeming power of love. Hern should make the transition to single title successfully.