Alice Chetwynd Ley is an author whose name was completely new to me when I came across this book on NetGalley a while ago, but seeing it described as “an intriguing Regency romance, perfect for fans of Georgette Heyer and Jane Aiken Hodge” made me both curious and wary. I love Georgette Heyer and enjoyed the one Jane Aiken Hodge book I’ve read (Watch the Wall, My Darling), so I hoped the comparison would be accurate. My verdict, having now read The Jewelled Snuff Box, is that there are definitely some similarities and although Ley’s writing is not as good as Heyer’s, this is an entertaining novel in its own right.
Our heroine, Jane Spencer, is a young woman who has fallen on hard times since her beloved father’s death and, determined not to be a burden on her relatives, she has decided to find work and support herself. She is on her way to London to take up a new position as a lady’s companion when her coach is forced to stop during a snowstorm. Getting out to walk, Jane discovers a man unconscious in the snow and believing him to be the victim of an attack, she and her fellow passengers take him to the nearest inn to recover.
When he regains consciousness, the stranger claims to be suffering from amnesia and can’t remember who he is, the only clue to his identity being an ornate snuff box covered in jewels which had been found next to his body. After the weather improves and they can resume their journey, Jane, who is beginning to form a bond with the mysterious stranger, offers to see her lawyer in London on his behalf in the hope that he will be able to help. Once they reach London, however, Jane is disappointed to find that her new friend has disappeared, leaving her in possession of the snuff box – which contains a compromising letter from a lady hidden in a secret compartment.
Sorry that her relationship with the unknown gentleman has come to an end, Jane leaves the box with her lawyer and continues to the home of her new employer, the Earl of Bordesley, where another shock awaits her: the Earl’s young wife, for whom she will be working as a companion, is none other than Celia Walbrook, a girl Jane knew at school. Jane remembers Celia as a snob and a bully and it seems that nothing has changed. It’s through Celia, though, that the stranger comes back into Jane’s life – but not in the way that she would have hoped!
With a plot based heavily on misunderstandings, the reader is always one step ahead of the characters. I never doubted how the book was going to end – the question was not so much whether our hero and heroine would get together, as when they would get together and how. And as with most older romantic novels (The Jewelled Snuff Box was published in 1959) there’s an air of innocence surrounding Jane’s relationship with her mystery man – nothing graphic or explicit!
The pages of The Jewelled Snuff Box are filled with men with quizzing glasses and (obviously) snuff boxes, people riding in carriages, mentions of the Bow Street Runners and Beau Brummell, but on the whole I didn’t find the recreation of the time period quite as convincing as I do when I read a Heyer novel. The dialogue lacks the sparkling wit and humour of Heyer’s too, but the plot and characters feel similar – Francis, the Earl of Bordesley, made me think of some of some of Heyer’s ‘older husbands with younger wives’ such as Rule from The Convenient Marriage and Cardross from April Lady. Jane, however, is more like a Mary Stewart heroine: sensible, intelligent, brave and resourceful – and used to making her own way in the world.
The Jewelled Snuff Box was a short, quick read, written in a style I found very comforting and easy to read. It’s the sort of novel which sweeps you away into its world without requiring too much concentration or effort from the reader. It’s not a particularly deep or insightful novel and not a particularly original one, but not all books need to be, do they? I enjoyed it anyway and would definitely consider reading more of Alice Chetwynd Ley’s books.