For more than half of Pride and Prudence, I thought that Malia Martin was a writer who had found her own unique voice…and a humorous, light-hearted voice it was, too. I found myself chuckling out loud more than once, a response that earned me some distinctly odd looks from the other passengers on the bus. Unhappily, once Ms. Martin’s lovers had the requisite falling out - can’t wind the book up after only 225 pages, can we? - Ms. Martin’s light touch vanished, and the Enjoyability Quotient of the book dropped to zero.
Pride and Prudence is, as it must be with that title, a Regency historical, set in the England of 1815. Captain James Ashley is returning to England after a victorious engagement with the French:
“Captain James Ashley stood on the deck of ship…and peered through his looking glass. It was like peering into the wrong end of a musket, darker than death. But James pretended like he could see everything and knew even more, including where the hell they were.
Nothing like a lost captain to provoke a mutiny.”
Now either Ms. Martin’s prose brings a smile to your face - it did to mine - and you are going to enjoy two-thirds of this book or it doesn’t, in which case, skip it. Plot is not Ms. Martin’s strong point.
James is about to discover that he is off the south coast of England, not too far from Brighton, and his ship is about to be sunk by the ever-present smugglers who operate in all coastal towns in Regency novels. No naval captain would be happy about losing his ship to smugglers, but his loss is particularly galling for James. He has counted on his military victories to counteract the ludicrous soubriquet given him by Lady Jersey, ‘The Most Delectable Man in England.’ James’ over-riding goal in life is to be accepted by the ton, and being sunk by smugglers is not the way to achieve that goal.
James arranges to be sent back to the village of Gravesly, where his ship was sunk, as an excise man, to shut down the smuggling. When he arrives, he finds he has been quartered with a charming young widow, Lady Prudence Farnsworth. Prudence is deeply involved with the smugglers and so has arranged for Captain Ashley to lodge with her, rather than at Harker’s Inn, in order to track his movements and divert him if necessary.
Both Prudence and James feel strongly attracted to each other immediately, and of course, there they are, in Prudence’s little house, chaperoned only by servants. They embark on a series of skirmishes, most revolving around James’ determination to move out of Chesley House, away from temptation, and Prudence’s determination to keep him where she can distract him from the smugglers’ activities. Inevitably James compromises Prudence, and they are forced to marry. As soon as they do, James begins to act very unpleasantly, with the result that the last third of the book makes for unpleasant reading.
Until then, I had quite enjoyed Pride and Prudence, mostly because of Ms. Martin’s sly and amusing insights into James’ mind as he finds himself succumbing to Prudence and to the charms of village life. Then James turned disagreeable - the man could give lessons in holding a grudge - and all my enjoyment vanished. And the third heart I had planned on awarding Pride and Prudence vanished with my enjoyment.
Really, Prudence should never have married James; we would have all been happier.
--Nancy J. Silberstein