Can a circumspect gentleman and a young lady whose past attracts gossip fall in love? Since this is a romance novel, readers know what the answer will be. Mr. Jeffries and the Jilt explores the “how” in this intriguing scenario. While Joy Reed’s latest Regency offers much to enjoy, the characterization prevents the story from being fully recommended.
The book opens with Mr. Raymond Jeffries visiting his eccentric Aunt Mihitabel Jeffries in Shelton-on-Sea. While happy to spend time with his aunt, he anticipates little enjoyment from the local society. Soon, however, he hears about Caroline Sedgewick, who has jilted three fiancés, a fact that makes her an object of curiosity and gossip. It also makes her an object of considerable interest to Raymond. The more he hears, the more he wants to see her. He vaguely remembers meeting her and describes her as “rather plain —reddish hair, and nothing out of the ordinary for looks.” He decides to reacquaint himself with the lady he’s heard so much about.
When he meets her at the Assembly Rooms, he sees Caroline (and the gossip about her) up close. Caroline captures his interest in a witty conversation, and he wants to spend more time with her. He also wants to find out the circumstances regarding the three fiancés. Caroline returns Raymond’s feelings but worries that her reputation will taint him in some way.
We soon learn the basis for Caroline’s reputation. At age 17, she became engaged to soldier James de Vey. When he returned from battle, they both realized that they were more friends than love interests and therefore ended the engagement. Lord Scroggins was Caroline’s second fiancé. She refused his proposal, only to learn that her Aunt Emilia sent the announcement of their engagement to the papers. Caroline jilted Robert Cullen (fiancé number three) when she saw him embracing Signorina Verlucci, an opera-ballet dancer.
Raymond’s pursuit of Caroline becomes complicated by Robert Cullen’s appearance in Shelton-on-Sea in hopes of winning her back.
The best moments in Mr. Jeffries and the Jilt are the conversations between Raymond and Caroline. Raymond’s desire to help Caroline avoid Robert often puts him in Caroline’s company. Their conversation is at times lighthearted, serious, and fun, which helps the relationship evolve realistically.
Raymond is an interesting hero. At the start of the book, he seems a little self centered —an acquaintance uses the phrase “devilish exclusive”; his aunt calls him “spoiled”; Raymond sees himself as “discriminating.” His relationship with Caroline brings out a different part of his nature, one that is understanding and gentle. He’s a character that’s easy to like.
Caroline, on the other hand, is unevenly portrayed. She vacillates between confidence and uncertainty. In her first conversation with Raymond, she says, “I owe nothing by way of reparation to your sex.” And once readers learn of the circumstances surrounding her broken engagements, most would agree. But Caroline questions herself constantly as a result of these experiences, which makes her seem misguided at best and annoying at worst. Uncertainty is one thing; self-doubt taken to extremes is another. Take this description of Raymond, for example, which is typical of her thoughts: “He seemed hardly human in his elegance, a veritable Olympian among the commonplace dowagers and valetudinarians of Shelton-on-Sea. How could such an Apollo ever lower himself to be with her?”
I enjoyed reading Mr. Jeffries and the Jilt because of the lively conversations between the hero and heroine. But Caroline’s character makes what could have been a beautiful romance merely acceptable.