In All a Woman Wants the hero tells the heroine that he could take her to Paris. She responds, “Paris? I don’t speak French. They would think me an utter ninny.” The French aren’t the only ones. I think she’s an utter ninny, too. She could step into the role of the Scarecrow (“if I only had a brain”) in The Wizard of Oz with the greatest of ease.
At the age of twenty-eight, Beatrice Cavendish has been left alone following the death of her father. As was unfortunately too common for females during the Victorian era, she was raised to be uneducated, uninformed, and utterly useless. Now she faces financial disaster and is absolutely clueless as to what to do. She has been relying on servants - particularly James, an enigmatic footman - to manage things, but she recognizes she needs the knowledge to take charge herself.
Lachlan Warwick MacTavish is an unpolished American. He is in England handling his father’s shipping business but has ambitions to establish his own business with new, faster ships. Before sailing back to Virginia, he goes to visit his sister who is married to an English viscount. To his shock, he learns that his sister had died in childbirth months earlier, and her drunken sot of a husband had failed to send notice to her family. Furthermore, her three-year-old son and infant daughter have been the subjects of obvious abuse and neglect by the servants.
Mac gets written permission from their father to assume their care, but it is quickly withdrawn. Mac takes the children anyway and goes in search of a nanny who can assist in caring for the children on the return voyage. He comes to the village of Broadbury only to be directed to Miss Cavendish who informs him the nanny he seeks has recently died.
When Mac, who has disguised himself as “Mr. Warwick” in order to hide himself and the children from their father, asks for her assistance in locating a nursemaid, Beatrice agrees in exchange for his teaching her estate management. Mac and the mischievous children move into her steward’s cottage and soon into her life and the lives of those in the village.
Mac has experience in land management from his father’s land in Virginia, but Beatrice blocks many of his suggestions because she is interested in protecting the traditional ways and the livelihood of her tenants and villagers. Beatrice is timid and resistant to the point of a near-pathological condition. She insists that she needs him to teach her, that she’s tired of being told not to worry her pretty head over things. Then she proceeds to hand everything over to him, ignore his advice, and conceal the extent of her problems. She won’t do anything. She won’t go anywhere. She refuses to entertain any thoughts of change.
Meanwhile, Mac has been unsuccessful in hiring a nursemaid to care for the children and so they’re often together with him and Beatrice. Beatrice believes herself to be too tall and ungainly, but Mac finds her increasingly irresistibly attractive. She thinks him very masculine.
Beatrice’s aunt arrives for a visit and determines that the way to resolve Beatrice’s problems is for her to marry and Mac looks like a good prospect. Will she have her way? Will the children’s father track them and Mac down? Will Mac carry out his plans for a shipping empire and sail back to Virginia? Will James’s true identity be revealed? Will Beatrice get an operating brain cell?
This isn’t the first time I’ve read a romance where I thought it could be vastly improved if one character were to be permanently consigned to the circular file and I doubt it will be the last, but it’s very disappointing to read the work of an accomplished author whose books I have enjoyed in the past and find such an exasperating character as Beatrice. She pushes the envelope when it comes to TSTL (too-stupid-to-live) heroines. It’s not only that she has been raised to be ineffectual, it’s that she’s stuck in a rut she seems to have no interest in altering regardless of her pronouncements about learning estate management. Her resistance to expanding her geographic horizons borders on the agoraphobic.
Mac is a much more admirable hero although there were times his patience with Beatrice was so inexhaustible I thought he was a little soft in the head. At the beginning of the story, he is represented as being awkward around women, but his treatment of Beatrice is far more considerate than she deserves. Moreover, in spite of his unfamiliarity with children, he assumes a hands-on caring attitude and does much to repair the damage inflicted on them after his sister’s death.
The book’s tone is uneven. Much of it deals with serious issues in a straightforward way, but occasionally the tone becomes quite comic while the ending degenerates into near-farce. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
And speaking of the ending, I have grave doubts that the question of the children’s care would be resolved in such a manner. This is the British aristocracy, after all, where nursemaids, governesses, and boarding school were the norm.
Patricia Rice is a talented author whose narratives are well-paced. I can recommend All a Woman Wants for the quality of its writing, but readers should be aware that between its covers abides possibly the most irritating heroine of the year.