A Foreign Affair

Fortune's Lady

The Gallant Guardian

Lord Harry's Daughter

My Lady Nightingale

A Lady of Talent
by Evelyn Richardson
(Signet Regency, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-21009-3
This book has some wonderful strengths, but it also has some weaknesses that jolted me out of the story. It’s that uncomfortable feeling of eating a tasty little treat, but occasionally biting down on something that doesn’t belong. Even if the experience is not painful, it’s not a welcome surprise.

Sebastian, Earl of Charrington, is entranced with the portrait of a woman hanging in his dressing room. Sebastian bought the picture on a rare impulse and, in the five years since, has been unable to discover anything about either subject or artist. The absence of concrete information has “left Sebastian free to imagine whatever he wished about the unknown woman in the portrait.”

As a result, he imagines that she is witty, intelligent, thoughtful, reflective, spirited, talented and possessing a “freedom and a joie de vivre that would have appalled any self-respecting English miss.” Sebastian secretly hoped that they would meet. Now, however, he’s finally begun to doubt that his imaginary woman exists and has agreed to marry Barbara, the beautiful, ambitious daughter of his friend and mentor, businessman Sir Richard Wyatt.

As a wedding gift, Sebastian decides to commission a portrait of his fiancée by C. A. Manners, a new painter recently exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Guess who? That’s right. Lady Cecilia Manners, sister of the Marquess of Shelburne, is both the artist and the subject of the painting that enthralls Sebastian.

Let’s start with the things I enjoyed most about this book. The language has a lovely, slightly formal cadence that rings true to the period. It’s elegant without being stilted and pulled me in with its sense of authenticity.

I also enjoyed Ms. Richardson’s elegant plotting. She used the situation and characters to excellent effect, and if the developments were not entirely surprising, they created an air of dramatic suspense rather than predictability.

The characterizations were, in general, quite good. Early conversations between characters reveal as much about the person speaking as about the person under discussion, giving the dialogue a sense of richness. As sometimes happens, the two secondary characters, Barbara and Neville (Cecilia’s brother) are actually more vivid and well-rounded – because they are flawed. The author did a particularly nice job with Barbara. It would have been easy to despise her, but the author does not judge her, allowing the audience to enjoy a sneaking sympathy.

If this were real life, Sebastian would have been rudely awakened by the contrast between his fantasy woman and the reality of Cecilia. Frankly, I think that would also have been a much more interesting book. Instead, Cecilia is an utter paragon of virtues. She is all that is warm, kind, understanding and sympathetic – right down to being a total doormat for her useless fribble of a brother. It was a bit difficult for me to reconcile that with her supposed strength and intelligence, but the author didn’t seem to consider it a paradox.

Sebastian is a good Regency hero of the beta persuasion. He is reasonable, good with money, and honorable. He’s also the sort of guy who’s been obsessed with a painting, but this slightly bizarre eccentricity is never reconciled with his conservatism. It does make a certain kind of sense that, on their second meeting, Sebastian would blurt out two pages of his entire life history to the woman he’s been having mental conversations with for five years, complete with Psych 101 self-analysis, but unfortunately it’s rather clumsy storytelling.

Even worse, when Cecilia responds with the equivalent of ‘there, there,’ Sebastian credits her with “rare understanding” and is elated that he’s found someone who truly understands him. It’s like he’s still talking to the picture. In fact, the least well-developed element of this story is the romance. The author keeps telling us that they’re soul mates, but it’s the story element she seems to feel least comfortable showing us. As a result, I felt a bit detached from the relationship.

In spite of these reservations, this was a nicely paced, readable book. If Ms. Richardson can warm up the emotional content, the next one might be a compelling romance as well.

-- Judi McKee

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