Lady Semple's Secret

The London Belle by Shirley Kennedy
(Signet Regency, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19836-0
The London Belle is the story of a Regency heiress who is forced to grow up after being left penniless. I expect readers’ enjoyment of this book will be a direct result of their tolerance for immature heroines who eventually learn to act like responsible adults.

Lady Jane Sperling is the toast of London. In her third Season, she has yet to marry, though there are plenty of would-be suitors after her hand. Jane says she has no expectations of love, and she knows she needs to marry well, so her reluctance to name the lucky fellow puzzles her family. Her secret passion is for the Latin and Greek languages, and she has spent her private time attempting to translate a set of old manuscripts saved from a priory by an ancestor.

Anthony, Lord Dashmont, has just returned from his Jamaica sugar plantation. He needs to see to his young son, David, who has been left in the care of his maternal grandmother for over two years. Anthony is exasperated by the boy’s behavior since his wife’s death. David is quiet and withdrawn. Leaving him in England seemed to be the best thing. In fact, Anthony admits, he loves his son but can scarcely tolerate the sight of him.

Jane and Anthony are thrown together by a chance meeting at a ball and then in the park, where David seems to respond to her. David’s grandmother, a harridan, disapproves of Jane. Then Jane’s father gambles away the family’s home and possessions, and Jane is left destitute. Anthony offers her a position as a companion and tutor to David, and assures her that she’ll be treated like a guest at his country estate. Jane’s only other option is marriage to the loathsome nobleman who now owns her family home.

Off Jane goes to Fairfield Manor, Anthony’s country home. Anthony returns to Jamaica to woo a dour neighbor whom he feels will make a perfect wife. But he can’t forget Jane. Jane, who is finding life at Fairfield Manor to be difficult at best, begins to find some backbone.

The London Belle is well-written. But it just never struck me as being particularly romantic. Anthony and Jane spend two-thirds of the book apart, and his attitude toward his son is borderline reprehensible. Jane starts out acting self-centered and empty-headed, no matter her alleged intellect, and it was work to stay with her. Just when I thought she had her act together and had finally grown up, there is a huge misunderstanding and Jane reverts to shrill, childish protestations that made me long to smack her. This was not a couple in which I had any faith after the cover was closed.

The secondary characters were a mixed bag. Jane’s relationship with Anthony’s spinster sister-in-law starts out on a war footing, it is so hostile, but all is resolved in one scene. Too fast and convenient of a turnaround. I did enjoy the character of the grandmother, who never wavered in her nastiness. She was predictable, but true to form.

And the basic storyline was interesting. Any book in which a ruined abbey and a crusty, elderly relative play a part is bound to be intriguing. Here the relative is Anthony’s great-uncle, a relic residing at the manor who becomes Jane’s friend and mentor after the grandmother turns on her.

The London Belle will find an appreciative audience with some Regency readers. Lady Jane Sperling is not a heroine to my taste, but have a look for yourself.

--Cathy Sova

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