This holiday-theme Regency is a variation on the Cinderella story complete with wicked stepmother, two self-centered stepsisters, a ball where the heroine makes an early exit, even a collection of worker “mice” to remake her ball gown. The story sails along in entertaining fashion for the first two-thirds of the book, and I anticipated giving it a four-heart recommendation. Regrettably, there’s a downward lurch on the way to happily ever after, and what began so promisingly ends up solidly in three-heart territory.
Lovely Fanny Fowler tearfully informs Madame Nicolette, the owner of a Bath millinery shop, that her engagement to Edward Brydges, His Grace the Duke of Chandrose, is over. She made the mistake of telling him the truth, and he broke it off. She will no longer need the lovely trousseau Madame has prepared for her, and her father refuses to pay the cost. Let the duke pay.
Madame Nicolette is in reality Miss Jane Nichol. Jane’s mother died when she was four, and her father later married a woman with two daughters from a prior marriage. Jane has tried to live her life based on advice given by her dying mother. Her father has also died leaving her under the authority of her stepmother.
Facing a forced marriage to a repulsive baron arranged by her stepmother, Jane ran away from home. Disguised with a wig, spectacles, make-up, padding, and a fake French accent, she has established herself as a modiste. Her dear old crippled governess is a patient at a hospital in Bath, and Jane is a frequent visitor.
Jane cannot afford to absorb the cost of Fanny’s gowns so wearing one of the ball gowns, she attends a Bath Assembly ball and confronts the duke. She informs him that she is representing her friend Madame Nicolette and demands repayment.
The duke senses a mystery. He encourages his three sisters to patronize Madame Nicolette’s shop in order to inquire further into Jane’s identity. He soon uncovers her secret. The duke is both attracted and intrigued by Nicolette/Jane so arranges opportunities to meet and spend time with her.
The patronage of the duke’s sisters brings the shop increased business, but Jane is forcefully aware of the difference in the duke’s and her station in life even though she is a baron’s daughter. She is afraid to believe there’s a future for them. Further disaster threatens when her stepmother Lady Nichol and her two stepsisters arrive in Bath and visit her shop.
This rather frothy tale begins to falter when Jane is forced to flee the ball. The duke’s cousin propositions her in what is a decidedly discordant scene, the duke becomes uncertain and indecisive, and Jane caves in to pressure.
Jane starts out a spirited heroine - she’s not afraid to stand up for herself and would rather work for her living than be forced into an unwanted marriage. It came as something of a disappointment when she suddenly changes into a weak-willed victim unhappy with her fate but seemingly helpless to stop it.
The duke is a likeable beta hero. He quickly shifts his interest from Fanny to Jane - too quickly in my opinion, it makes me wonder how long before his interest shifts again. He’s still somewhat under his mother’s influence and very concerned about his sisters’ standing in society if he makes an alliance with Jane, who has worked in trade. His reason for breaking off his engagement to Fanny seems slightly anachronistic and more twenty-first century than early nineteenth, but of course there’s got to be a reason that Jane’s stuck with the trousseau leading to her meeting the duke.
There are a number of technical errors that weaken the narrative. A millinery shop is a hat shop, and Jane makes gowns not hats. Jane’s mother was the illegitimate daughter of a duke; her father married her to obtain a fortune, land, and title. Titles were almost never passed down the female line and never through illegitimate offspring. Jane’s father was Baron Orday (the correct form of address is Lord Orday, as in Lord Byron) so her stepmother should be Lady Orday, but she’s referred to as Lady Nichol throughout the story. Jane’s stepsisters are not her father’s daughters so they should have a different surname, but they’re presented as Rose and Lily Nichol. Hospitals in the early nineteenth century were primarily places where the dying were taken. Jane’s governess - along with a collection of apparently healthy but aging fellow residents - lives in a hospital that seems remarkably similar to today’s assisted living facility.
As long as it maintains its up-beat tone, Sugarplum Surprises is a pleasant tale, and there’s a lot to like in this Christmas-theme regency. Readers who are looking for a light, seasonal story might want to check it out.