|When I received the re-issue of My Darling Caroline to review, I realized somewhat to my surprise that I have never read a book by Adele Ashworth. I am surprised because she has published ten novels and most of her books have been well received. She won the Rita for the “Best First Novel” of 1998 and a 5 heart rating from TRR for this book. As someone who buys most of the “keepers” listed on our site, I checked my “to-be-read” mountain and there sat both My Darling Caroline and Ashworth’s second novel, Winter Garden. I fear that without this assignment, this novel would have languished unread until my poor heirs had to cope with the consequences of my onetime out of control book buying. That would have been a shame, because even though My Darling Caroline doesn’t quite achieve “keeper” status for this reader, it is an enjoyable and interesting story.
Caroline Grayson, the third of Lord Sytheford’s five daughters, has always been the odd one out. Small and dark, she is outshone by her tall, beautiful and blond sisters. But more significantly, Caroline does not comport with the expectations of womanhood in Regency England. Intelligence in a woman might be tolerated, but Caroline is more than intelligent. She is clearly a genius. Since her early teens, she has channeled her brilliance into the study of botany, especially into the breeding of roses. Now twenty-six, she has plans; she hopes to go to Columbia University to study with a renowned scientist, Professor Walter Jensen. She has been accepted to work with him by posing as a man. At this moment, she discovers that her father has arranged a marriage for her with Brent Ravenscroft, the Earl of Weymerth.
[Let me insert here one of my chief problems with this story. In her author’s note at the end of the book, Ashworth admits that she “took some liberty” in her portrayal of Caroline’s efforts to gain an education in early 19th century England. There are liberties and then there are liberties. Caroline supposedly spent five years at Oxford where she stood outside the lecture hall and listened to the famous botanist Sir Albert Markham lecture. Never, never, never could have happened! First, lecture classes were not offered regularly at Oxford at this time. Second, a gently born woman could have never have entered its hallowed halls. Third, even as supportive a parent as Lord Sytheford would not have allowed his daughter, however well chaperoned, to hie herself off to Oxford. I understand that Ashworth wanted to show how devoted Caroline is to her studies, but this gross departure from historical accuracy is both too much and unnecessary. Real science during this era was not happening in universities. (Heck, Columbia was still a college in 1816). It was mostly the work of gifted “amateurs.” Caroline did not need to go to Oxford or Columbia to pursue her field. Of course, without her plans to abscond to New York, much of the conflict that Ashworth introduces wouldn’t exist. So for me at least, the story did not work as well as it should have.]
To get back to the review, Weymerth is not a particularly willing suitor. While he was away serving his country, his cousin had used his position of caretaker to strip his estate of everything valuable, including his beloved Arabian horses. Sytheford had bought the horses and informs the earl that the only way he can get them back is to marry Caroline. For her part, Caroline does not want to hurt her beloved father. So she agrees to the marriage, but plans to refuse to bed her new husband so that the marriage can be annulled and she can pursue her dreams.
That this plan is doomed to failure is obvious from the outset (else there would be no romance). Brent, having served his country as a spy and having suffered at Waterloo, wants nothing more than to settle down on his estate, raise his horses, and create a family. He is surprised to find himself attracted to his petite but surprisingly voluptuous wife. He admires her intelligence and her wit and also her care for his illegitimate daughter. He is somewhat nonplussed by her refusal to perform her intimate wifely duties, but he sets out to seduce her into his bed.
For her part, Caroline is surprised by her own response to her husband’s advances. Learning his story, she comes to admire him. She realizes that, unlike most men of his class, he respects her intelligence and abilities. But dare she love a man who does not believe in love? Must she give up her own dreams? What might this cost her?
Given that I find the premise upon which the plot is based improbable in the extreme, you might wonder why I am recommending My Darling Caroline. Well, despite my problems with the premises of the conflict between Brent and Caroline, I really liked both characters. Each have troubled backgrounds, each is wounded in a way by their pasts. I wanted them to have their happily ever after. Also, I have to admit that Ashworth does sexual tension very well and her love scenes are first rate.
My Darling Caroline has some of the hallmarks of a first book (a few too many plot twists, a bit too much telling not showing) but it is entertaining and emotionally satisfying. I’m glad Dede assigned it to me.