Barbara Metzger has a well-earned reputation for writing light and funny romances. Can one write a humorous Regency romance about a respectable woman - a vicar’s daughter and former schoolteacher - who finds herself the proprietor of a brothel? Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. In the case of Cupboard Kisses, Metzger doesn’t quite manage to pull it off.
Cristabel Swann, orphaned daughter of a vicar, has an unenviable life as music teacher in an exclusive Bath seminary run by a martinet. When she receives a letter informing her that her uncle has died and suggesting that she is a beneficiary of his will, she throws caution to the wind and leaves her post - harp in tow - and heads for London. Imagine her dismay upon arriving Harwood House that her uncle had left nothing but debts. Even worse, he had lost all his possessions at gambling the night he ended his worthless life. Cristabel confronts the unkempt, bandaged stranger who won the property, one Captain Chase. The captain, feeling a bit of remorse about her dilemma, gives her the deed to a
rooming house that her uncle owned in Kensington.
Captain Chase’s eyes are bandaged for good reason. He had gambled with Lord Harwood on the night before he was to undergo dangerous surgery to remove a fragment lodged in his head, a wound he had received while leading his ship in a naval action. Without the operation, he will die. With it, he may die or he may go blind or he may be fine. When he confronts Cristabel, the outcome of the operation is still in doubt.
Of course, the “rooming house” that Cristabel now owns is nothing of the sort. It’s a brothel, run under the auspices of Major Lyle McDermott, invalided home from the army, and the nasty Nick Blass. Cristabel, who is in the process of coming down with a bad cold, does not perceive the true nature of the establishment and it is in McDermott’s and Blass’s interest to see that she remains ignorant, even if it means dosing her with laudanum. A week or so of much needed rest, some feeding up, and some sprucing up by one of the tenants who has a talent with the needle, and Cristabel emerges with a much improved position.
In her jaunts around town with McDermott and other residents of the “rooming house,” the newly attractive Cristabel meets Lord Winstoke. Winstoke is much taken by the stately beauty whose behavior and demeanor is so much superior to the other women in McDermott’s “care.” Of course, he assumes that Cristabel - or Belle as she is called - is open to an arrangement. Cristabel has no idea that Lord Winstoke believes she is less than respectable. She also has no idea that Lord Winstoke is also Captain Chase. And, of course, his lordship does not realize that the harridan who upbraided him in his own home and whom he sent off to Kensington is the same person as the woman he now wishes to make his chere amie.
Cases of mistaken identity are often the stuff of which humorous novels are made. But somehow, the formula didn’t work here. Perhaps it was because the circumstances did not lend themselves to humor. Since many of the women at the “rooming house” were acting under threat from the nasty Nick Blass, the situation seemed nothing but sordid. Moreover, the machinations of McDermott, who, I believe was supposed to be a
charming, feckless rogue rather than an out and out villain were, well, villainous. I found nothing much humorous about the first half of the book and concluded that Metzger might be departing from form. But then, some of her typical humor did appear towards the end of the story.
Cristabel verges on being “too stupid to live.” I realize that she was raised in a country vicarage and secluded in a girl’s school in Bath, but there is naiveté and there is stupidity. This character came all too close to the latter quality. Lord Winstoke’s behavior was more acceptable and certainly the attraction that grew between the two, even if misconceived, was nicely drawn.
While the last third or so of the book, when Cristabel finally realizes the truth, had entertaining moments, by then I fear it was too late. The fact is that I didn’t much enjoy Cupboard Kisses.