Bliss Bennet’s Not Quite A Marriage, in her new series, The Audacious Ladies of Audley, was everything I would expect from Bennet: carefully researched, with nuanced characters, and a romance that builds slowly but surely towards a satisfying conclusion. I was gleeful with enjoyment for the novel’s first half, with shades of “worthy of Balogh” phrases dancing in my head as I considered what I would write for this post. Unfortunately, the second half wasn’t as marvellous and the reason was that Bennet left her romance to wander in and out of the narrative like a weakly-conceived secondary character, while exposition dominated the room. It was frustrating reading because I thought she did not focus on the novel’s strongest aspect, the relationship between hero Spencer Stiles and heroine, with the unlikely and unfortunate name of Philadelphia, thankfully shortened to Delphie.
I thought Bennet had a great premise and, in the first half, executed it beautifully. Spencer returns to the estate he had originally shared with Delphie, Beechcombe, after five years in Sierra Leone. His departure was precipitated by the death of their eight-month-old son, Henry. Spencer abandoned Delphie when she needed him most, when she couldn’t ask for his comfort, or support, given the state of their marriage at the time. Spencer married Delphie when his fiancée, her sister Anna, died of a fever. His father insisted on the second-best choice; it’s that father, the Earl of Morse, who figures prominently in the narrative, so much so and so vividly perniciously that he dominates it.
For the past five years, Morse browbeat and belittled Delphie. While they were married, Spencer was guilty only of neglect and indifference, lack of care, or tenderness. Delphie has certainly had a time of it and yet, she’s no doormat. She’s quiet, introspective, protective of her heart, and loathe to give her loyalty where it isn’t earned. Spencer returns from Sierra Leone a changed man, a prodigal husband ready to atone for the past and regain his wife and build a life and family with her. This change is due to his years witnessing the cruelties of slavery and, as a result, becoming an abolitionist. Spencer wants his return to be about reform: reformed husband, reform in Parliament, and a confrontation with his callous, mean-spirited father, a wresting of “his own man” rather than being vulnerable to his father’s emotionally cruel whims. (In the narrative’s course, we learned how Spencer too was browbeaten and belittled by the earl.) As a youth, his rebellion was anger and dissipation: unfortunately, he took Delphie in his wake and then left her.
You would think there is no redemption for Spencer and yet, Bennet convinced me of it, I’m not even sure how. Maybe because Spencer works so hard at it, maybe because he had a mentor, a pastor, and there’s a hint of a Biblical conversion, though it’s never explicit (by no means is this an inspirational romance). Nevertheless, there are tangible actions to Spencer’s contriteness and my sympathy for him grew. I think it also helped that Delphie, while proper and obedient, is a guarded, careful woman. She yearns only to have control of Beechcombe and shelter her beloved cousins in it. This seemed to be Delphie’s defining character crux, a home of her own, and yet, the desire diminished. Spencer’s desire is to confront his father and atone for his actions towards his wife and yet, this too diminished. About halfway through, the narrative was occupied by a plethora of secondary characters, none of them terribly interesting, and too many “drawing-room” conversations where characters debate abolition. I appreciated the historical detail, but would rather watch that great film, Amazing Grace, for the politics and struggle.
What happened to Not Quite a Marriage is that it became not quite a romance. I wondered was it historical fiction with some romance, or romance desiring to be historical fiction? Bennet started out strong, with two narrative thrusts: will Delphie achieve her dream of Beechcombe, will Spencer win her heart and soul by atoning of his past negligence? That’s it, that was more than enough and it was good. A great reconciliation scene does occur at the end and it brought Delphie and Spencer’s story to a convincing, compelling HEA, thank goodness, but the soggy middle and latter half could have used some romantic bolstering.
I am grateful to Ms Bennet for an ARC for the purpose of writing this review.