Lily Maxton’s The Improper Bride is the fifth Regency romance in the Sisters of Scandal series. The scandal informing it is one of Miss Bates’s least favourite tropes, the cross-class historical romance. Least favourite because, at least in Regency or Victorian Britain where most of these romances are set, was as unlikely as it was scandalous. And yet, the fairy-tale-like mood of Maxton’s version makes it more palatable.
The Improper Bride possesses Eyre-like tendencies, as any cross-class romance owes its raison d’être to the near-bigamous fraught relationship between a dissipated aristocrat and mousy governess. Like Brontë’s Eyre, the hero’s near-death by fire changes him. Henry Eldridge, Marquess of Riverton suffers burns to his face and arm when one wing of his Buckinghamshire estate, Blakewood Hall, is set aflame. In his pain and delirium, Henry feels the soothing touch of an angel. Cassandra Davis, Henry’s housekeeper, seeing to his comfort, is seized by a compulsion to touch him; she’s always wanted to touch the “coldly perfect marquess”. When Henry recovers sufficiently to grow restless and jeopardize the use of his arm, Mr. Faulkner, his doctor, advises Mrs. Davies to keep him occupied. A poor but cultivated daughter of a country teacher who loves to learn, Cassandra asks Lord Riverton to spend some time each day teaching her German.
During their lessons, Henry is cold and impatient with Cassandra. However, in time, he discovers admirable qualities in his housekeeper: her intelligence, perseverance, wit, and her pride as she stands up to his ducally imperious ways. Noblesse oblige gives way to mutual understanding and liking. Not without its confrontations and banter, however. Cassandra is formidable and out-spoken. In particular, she cares about the servants under her care and confronts Henry with his indifference to their well-being, his treatment of them as nonentities. In turn, Henry’s near-death experience has wrought further changes in him. His cold heart responds to Cassandra’s admonitions where he wouldn’t have pre-accident and begins to show some concern for those in his keeping who serve him. Moreover, when he awakens recovered, he’s consumed with a sense of urgency to marry and beget an heir, the fire and his injuries bringing home the truth of his vulnerability and mortality. Henry calls for a house-party to look for a bride among the aristocratic women of his acquaintance, but the only woman he desires, the woman who rules his thoughts and calls to his body, is Cassandra.
While Henry envisions what should be a socially untenable marriage to Cassandra, Cassandra also has reasons to push her feelings for Henry aside. The widowed Cassandra loved her husband. She misses him terribly and has sworn she will never love or marry again. She’s been content at Blakewood Hall, but her staid anonymous existence and dormant heart are threatened by one fallen-angel-looking marquess. Like Henry and his occasional callous reminder of their different stations, Cassandra too cannot see their attraction as anything but untenable. Her bruised heart pushes Henry away. Her cynical disbelief in his proposal ensures that her traitorous body keep away from him – if she wishes to retain her respectability.
Maxton’s Improper Bride was an uneven read for Miss Bates, one of those romances that show promise but carry flaws. Maxton’s strengths lie in her writing, her smooth, lovely prose, ability to set and round out a scene, and her pacing. Miss Bates appreciated the succinctness of Improper Bride‘s pithy chapters. Miss Bates offers an early-in-the-narrative example and one of her favourite scenes. One night, when Henry’s house-party guests are in bed and he’s plagued with thoughts of Cassandra, standing in his snow-filled garden, he gazes on the night-sky. Equally restless, Cassandra wanders out only to encounter him. They converse in the solitude and intimacy that only the lonely, echoing night-time can bring. They also have fun, initiated by Cassandra indulging in snow-ball lobbing:
… in a quick motion, she lobbed the snowball at him in a gentle underhand throw. It hit the center of his chest and exploded, dusting his gold waistcoat with white.
“My apologies,” she said insincerely. “My hand must have slipped.”
He stared down at the place where the snow had hit and then glanced back at her, an incredulous expression on his face.
“Did you really just toss a snowball at me, Mrs. Davis?
“I did, my lord.”
“You look as if you enjoyed it,” he said.
She couldn’t help it. She grinned. “I did, my lord.”
“I should sack you,” he said.
At his continued incredulity, she wondered, with a thrill of unease, if she had misjudged. Had it been a mistake to be playful with him, to try to turn that blank calmness into something warmer? But then the corner of his mouth lifted and he scooped up a pile of snow.
What ensues is lighthearted, class-constraints-stripped-away fun. And yet, that moment of unease on Cassandra’s part: had she been too forward? taken their familiarity too far? Would he fire her? Miss Bates thought the scene (and there’s more to it to enjoy) a gem and indicative of Maxton’s promise. It’s witty and fun, but it also advances the relationship and highlights the cross-class trope’s theme, that class differences can be over-ridden. The more poignant scene that follows has Henry and Cassandra agree to call each other by their first name. Miss Bates loved the trajectory of these scenes: proving that the cross-class couple meet across the social divide in an elemental place, an Adam and Eve in a new state. The dark moment is still to come, personal and social blocks must be transcended. Nevertheless, the seedling promise is planted.
Despite what Miss Bates has lauded above, overall she found the characterization wooden. The novel read as if all the pieces were well-placed, well-chosen, well-rendered and yet, on the whole, something was lacking. Maxton couldn’t bring an organic wholeness to her narrative or characters. They never came alive for Miss Bates. There was a nagging disconnect between reader and creation. Miss Bates would say that Maxton’s characters felt more like intellectual constructs. Her recommendation of Maxton’s Improper Bride comes with these reservations. Even so, Maxton is a historical romance author of interest, with fine writing and ideas, someone whose promise is worthy of a following. With her reading sidekick, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Lily Maxton’s The Improper Bride offers “real comfort,” Emma.
Lily Maxton’s The Improper Bride is published by Entangled. It was released on January 25th and is available in e-format and paper at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Entangled for an e-ARC via Netgalley.