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Reforming Harriet by Eileen Putnam
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19493-4
***
I have watched Eileen Putnam's emerging career as a Regency author with real interest. As a devotee of the genre, I want the assurance that my comfort reads will keep on coming. Putnam is a most promising Regency author, but in the case of Reforming Harriet, there are a few problems with the plot and the characters that prevent me from recommending it unconditionally.

First, the plot. Lord Westwood has come to the village of Worthington to confront his late partner's wife, Lady Harriet. The widow, according to the story, is threatening Lord Westwood's business. Elias and the late Lord Frederick Worthington had been in the spice importing business together, but since Frederick's death, the widow has supposedly cost our hero 60,000 pounds. Which brings me to the problem with the plot.

Lady Harriet has been selling the shares that she inherited from her husband to fund good works in the village: improving the mill, draining a swamp, buying a farmer new livestock, etc. The problem is that it is not clear how these actions have cost the business any money at all. The only impact that the sale of shares would have would be a change in who enjoys the profits from the business. It is nowhere suggested that Lady Harriet has anything to do with the running of the firm. How then can her actions be losing the hero these huge sums of money?

I know, this may seem like a mere quibble. But if the whole premise of the story rests on Elias' determination to change (reform) Harriet's charitable impulses in order to save his fortune, well, I think there is a problem here

. Which is a shame, because there are many things to like about Reforming Harriet. Chief among these is Harriet herself. Raised in remote Cornwall by her reclusive father, the Duke of Sidenham, Harriet had fallen in love with Frederick Worthington's practiced charm. But Frederick had been interested in Harriet's large dowry. He had been a most unsatisfactory husband. But the innocent Harriet had come to believe herself a failure as a wife and had blamed herself when his excess had led to his early death.

Harriet had rationalized away her hurt and created a life for herself based on her intellectual salon, her good works and her love of creating marvelous breads and pastries. Her gradual awakening to her own attractiveness and her own passionate nature is one of the best parts of the book.

Elias is somehow a less well-developed character. His motives are self-serving; he wants to gain some kind of sway over Harriet to control her actions. But he finds her innocent response to his advances most intriguing and falls in with her plans for a pretend betrothal. But I felt it took him an awfully long time to come to appreciate Harriet's fine qualities.

Putnam creates a lively cast of secondary characters, especially the servants who interfere with events in the interests of their master's and mistress' happiness. And I certainly enjoyed the author's use of the sensuous delights of food to further the story.

So there is quite a bit to like in Reforming Harriet. Yet my problems with the plot and with the hero prevent me from recommending it with unambiguous enthusiasm. I still think that Putnam is one of the most promising of the new Regency writers, but she still hasn't quite reached her potential.

--Jean Mason


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