To Marry a British Lord
by Judith O'Brien
(Pocket, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-671-00039-X
*****
If someone had told me that one of the best romance books I'd read this year would not contain any steamy love scenes, I'm not sure I would have believed them. However, To Marry a British Lord made a very happy believer out of me. This is a wonderfully-written romantic tale: sweet, funny, warm and wise.

Constance Lloyd has lost everything to the Civil War: including her fiancÚ, her family, and her home. But Constance is a survivor and with assistance from distant relatives, she leaves for England to take a position as a governess. Years later, Constance is favorably noticed by the Prince of Wales. Society quickly embraces her and Constance receives and accepts an offer of marriage from a man she has long admired from afar, Lord Phillip Hastings.

Lord Phillip is sure that marrying Constance, a favorite of the Prince, is a good political move. However, he is too busy planning his campaign for Parliament to escort Constance to his family home so he asks his best friend, Joseph Smith, to make sure that Constance arrives safely.

Joseph Smith is a self-made man of questionable birth who has made his fortune as a chemist. Although he always knew he wanted to be a scientist, Joseph pretended to be an aspiring cleric in order to receive his education at England's finest schools -- including Eton, where he met Lord Philip. He believes that science is the key to making life better for everyone and not just a privileged few.

Constance and Joseph's journey together is equally funny and touching. Although they quickly come to understand and respect each other, and there is a strong physical attraction between them, neither Constance nor Joseph acts upon these new, life-complicating feelings. After their journey is cut short, Constance continues to Hastings House knowing she has lost something precious but uncertain about what to do.

Getting acquainted with her quirky future in-laws keeps Constance busy until an offer of a weekend party, issued by the Prince and Princess of Wales, places her back in the company of Joseph Smith. Constance knows that chemists, no matter how successful, are usually not included as guests in weekend parties given by the Prince of Wales and she begins to suspect that there is more to Joseph Smith, and his scientific investigations, then meets the eye.

Constance and Joseph are wonderfully intelligent and complex characters. They are also kindred souls. They complete each other; filling in the holes that life has dealt each of them. Joseph is a very human hero, he has insecurities about himself because of the way he's been treated by English society. Despite his achievements and his fortune, his profession is not considered acceptable -- chemists are considered hopelessly middle-class.

After reading the following beautifully-written paragraph, which occurred early on during their journey together, I was hooked and ready to root for these two soul mates to find a way to be together.

"Although he smiled at her as he spoke, Constance felt an odd pang at his words, a deep sadness. He had been hurt in life and whether he realized the depth of his pain or not, she most certainly recognized his ache. She knew him she realized. Perhaps not the details of his life, the names and events that lead him to where he was now. But still she knew him intimately, and she felt she would always know him."

Ms. O'Brien is very, very good at introducing and developing characters; you understand what makes these people tick. And she does this not only with the main characters but also with the minor characters. No one is stereotyped; every character is given his own, unique, strengths and flaws.

Even Constance's future mother-in-law -- a woman so terribly embarrassed by her eccentric husband's antics that she regularly sends death notices to the newspapers in the hopes that society will think he is dead -- was not allowed to simply be the typical, overbearing mother-in-law. She was given her own identity and her own past, and her reactions to events were not always what you would expect.

This kind of extraordinary attention to character background and development is not very common in romance books. It should be. Simply put, as a reader, it's difficult to care for characters that seem either too perfect or too much like strangers. And it's difficult to stay interested in a story where the characters are stereotypes and therefore totally predictable in their actions and reactions to events.

Extraordinary attention was not only lavished on the characters in this book, it was also lavished on the facts pertaining to the historical period and the settings. When Constance visited the royal homes of Sandringham and Balmoral, I felt like I was there -- not because the author gave me a lengthy, detailed description of the homes and how the respective residents and servants lived, but because she personalized the experience, and all the fascinating historical facts, through the reactions of Constance to the settings and the people.

Notwithstanding the fact that To Marry a British Lord was set in Victorian England instead of Regency England, this book is very much in the best tradition of the late, great Georgette Heyer. Like Ms. Heyer, Ms. O'Brien creates humorous, wonderfully developed, complex characters and has them hobnobbing with the rich and famous of the period in a story that never contains a dull moment. I give this intelligent, warm, funny, Cinderella/fella story two romantic thumbs up. Way up!

--Judith Flavell


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