|Mathilda Cavendish, Lady Winter, is informed by her uncle Lord Pemberton that she is expected to act as chaperon for her cousin Amelia at a country house party hosted by Crispin Malvern, Duke of St. Ormond. Tilda lived with her aunt and uncle before her marriage and was treated as the poorest of relations. They only gave her a Season because they knew that others would expect it of them. When Viscount Winter, who was three times her age, made an offer, her aunt and uncle forced her marry him even to the point of beating her until she agreed. The marriage was not a passionate one but not unpleasant. Now Lady Winter is a widow with a young daughter and a much greater fortune that anyone expected.
Tilda had danced once with St. Ormond during her Season and felt both comfortable and attracted to him. Later, however, she overheard him make a disparaging remark about her so she has a low opinion of him. Even though she is still treated poorly by her aunt and uncle, she is genuinely fond of her cousins. The purpose of the invitation to the house party is to provide an opportunity for the duke to propose. This is not a love match. Milly seems fearful of the duke and implores Tilda to act as her chaperon. Tilda is unable to refuse.
Crispin has only been considering Milly as his future duchess because it’s time for him to marry and she seems acceptable. But he soon realizes that Milly is too timid and uninteresting. Her widowed cousin is much more to his taste.
The three-heart rating assigned The Unruly Chaperon is something of an average – some of it’s good, some’s not so good. This is one of those books that start off well then begin an inexorable slide into tedium. In the first chapters the characters have vitality, the interaction is lively. Tilda has overcome her painful childhood and is determined to take charge of her life. Her marriage was satisfactory, but widowhood is far better. She’s the type of character we hope will find a happily ever after. After a promising beginning, however, Tilda descends into someone who too closely resembles a shrew. It’s clear that Crispin and Milly aren’t suited for each other, but there are lots of young women out there who’d love to catch a duke.
My reaction to the moment when Crispin realizes he loves Tilda was, “It’s too soon.” There’s been no foundation and not much more between them than mutual bickering. Moreover, he jumps to the conclusion that she’s having an affair with his cousin for the flimsiest of reasons. It’s just another excuse to extend the kiss-and-fight cycle.
I have occasionally thought that while having servants at my beck and call for any trivial matter would be very nice indeed, the everyday life of an aristocratic lady in the nineteenth century must have been frequently boring. It was composed of multiple opportunities to eat, change clothes, go to parties, socialize, and not much else. Take, for example, the country house party. It’s a chance to eat, change clothes, and socialize with the same people they’d see at parties in London only in a bucolic setting. The men shoot game and play pool. The ladies eat, change clothes, and socialize. Yawn.
In every romance with such a setting, the hero and heroine invariably fall in love. Is that because they’re so right for each other or because there isn’t anything else to do once they’ve dressed and eaten?
So if the country house party convention in The Unruly Chaperon seems dull, it may not be far from the reality. But when I choose a work of fiction, I’m not looking for something dull and boring. When I first met the Tilda and Crispin, they seemed to be vivid characters who struck sparks off each other, but by the end of the story, I was glad to pack my bags and return to real life.