The Disgraced Marchioness
by Anne O'Brien
(Harl. Hist. #770, $5.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-29370-4
Henry Faringdon returns from a two-year stay in New York to learn that his brother's widow is none other than the woman he once loved. Surprised and angry, he cannot believe that Eleanor, now the Dowager Marchioness of Burford, would blame him for forsaking her. After all, she ignored the letter he had written, inviting her to join him in forging a new life, and opted instead for a more socially advantageous marriage.

This set-up might be interesting were it not for the fact that most of the subsequent romantic conflict depends on a Big Misunderstanding and the rather worn-out device of purloined letters. Both Henry and Eleanor claim they have sent a declaration of their undying love (or at least some version thereof), and both swear they have not received any such thing. Rather than investigating their claims (star-crossed lovers take note and save yourselves - and us - a lot of trouble!), they stomp off, each furious about the other's betrayal. They continue to blow hot and cold for the rest of the book until the truth comes out. Not because they have finally decided to look into the missing letters (which at least might have suggested they are willing to trust each other), but rather because someone else intervenes.

Nor are the lovers' letters the only (unconvincingly) missing ones. How else are we to understand Henry's initial surprise when meeting his sister-in-law? Yes, in 1816, the United States was far, and yes, postal services then were not as reliable as today. But even without jet planes and e-mail, information did cross the Atlantic. I find it hard to believe that Henry never heard about his brother's bride and heir, even though he did about his death.

The time-old device of purloined letters is all the more unnecessary because there are other sources of conflict that could have been given more depth. No sooner has Henry met Eleanor than another couple arrives and announces that the woman is the real marchioness and her son the new heir. Octavia had married the Marquis of Burford, but for reasons that remain as unclear to the characters as to me, they had decided to keep it a secret. Now, however, her brother wants her to have all her legal rights and entitlements as the Marquis's widow. If his wish comes true, Eleanor would not only be left out in the cold, she would also be labeled a whore and her son a bastard.

Despite his own anger and distrust, Henry stands by Eleanor and, with the help of his family, looks into the allegations. The initial investigation leads nowhere, but after more probing, everything is quickly resolved. I have several questions about this speedy and contrived resolution, but to go into them here would reveal too much. Suffice it to say that the villain's motives, actions and cover-up are neither the most realistic, nor the most plausible.

We might think that once Eleanor is restored to her rightful place, the hero and heroine can have their happy-ever-after. Well, no. There's still the Big Misunderstanding to deal with and the Other Woman (Henry's not his brother's this time) to dispense with, not to mention a more serious legal problem. As Anne O'Brien points out in a prefatory note, in Regency England, as sister- and brother-in-law Eleanor and Henry would not be allowed to marry. The solution to this final conflict is the only really engaging part of the romance, and it is a shame it is not given more weight throughout.

The Disgraced Marchioness is the first in a series about the Faringdon family. The next is to be devoted to Henry's younger brother Nick. Though he seems less prone to melodramatic flights, I'm not sure that outweighs my overall negative impressions about poor plotting and stiff prose enough to continue reading.

--Mary Benn

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