A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting by Sophie Irwin

This was a gamble for me; I don’t usually read Regency romances other than Georgette Heyer’s and I was worried that this book might be silly and derivative. However, I’m pleased to say that I found it entertaining, intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable. Although some elements of the plot undoubtedly draw heavily on Heyer and Austen and we have a heroine who in many ways resembles Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Sophie Irwin still manages to make the story feel fresh and engaging.

Kitty Talbot is the eldest of five recently orphaned sisters whose father has left them with a mountain of debt and in danger of losing their home. Having just been jilted by her wealthy fiancé, Kitty decides that the only solution is to find another rich man to marry – but unless she can do so within the next twelve weeks, Netley Cottage will be repossessed and the family thrown into poverty. So, accompanied by her sister Cecily, Kitty heads to London for the Season, determined to launch herself into society and find a suitable husband as soon as possible.

Once settled in London at the home of her mother’s old friend, Aunt Dorothy, Kitty sets her sights on young Archie de Lacy, who quickly succumbs to her charms. But just as Archie seems to be on the verge of proposing, his brother Lord Radcliffe arrives from his country estate – and sees straight through her plans. This is going to make finding a husband much more difficult than Kitty had expected!

Although I could predict from early in the novel how it was going to end, that didn’t make it any less fun to read. Sophie Irwin throws just about everything into the story that you would expect to find in a Regency romance: balls, dinner parties, trips to the theatre and the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, carriage rides, notorious gambling dens, elopements to Gretna Green and encounters with highwaymen. There are also plenty of interactions between our heroine and the man we can quickly guess is going to be the hero, allowing us to watch their relationship develop over the course of the novel.

Kitty is unashamedly open – at least to her family and friends – about her plans to marry for money. She’s ruthless and manipulative, yet it’s clear that everything she does is for the sake of her younger sisters and she is not motivated by greed or personal comfort. Even though you know that what she is doing is morally wrong, you can’t help hoping that she succeeds. I also hoped for some happiness for her sister, Cecily, who at eighteen is just a few years younger and has accompanied Kitty to London at their Aunt Dorothy’s suggestion. The bookish, intellectual Cecily is more comfortable reading poetry or visiting a museum, but she reluctantly tags along with Kitty to tea parties and dances and almost ruins her sister’s schemes by making one faux pas after another.

I noticed one or two words and phrases that don’t belong in a Regency novel (‘misgendering’ being the worst example), but the language is generally appropriate and the period is brought to life quite vividly. The book does have a lot of interesting things to say about wealth, the class system and why some people should be denied the same opportunities in life as others just because they come from a less privileged background. This gives the novel some extra depth and makes it more than just a light romance.

This is Sophie Irwin’s first novel, but I’m already looking forward to her next one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 23/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer – #1954Club

This is the first of two reviews I’ll be posting this week for Simon and Karen’s 1954 Club, one of their twice-yearly events where we all read and review books published in the same year. Georgette Heyer was such a prolific author I find there’s usually a book of hers to read for any year that is chosen! The Toll-Gate is her 1954 novel and one I hadn’t read before.

Like many of Heyer’s novels, this one is set in the Regency period. Our hero, the ‘overpoweringly-large’ Captain John Staple, has just returned from the Peninsular War and is finding it difficult to settle back into the monotony of civilian life. During a particularly tedious dinner party celebrating his cousin’s engagement, John decides to escape the next day and travel north to visit an old friend. Setting off alone on horseback, he becomes lost in the dark and rain and stumbles upon an isolated toll-gate somewhere in the Peak District. A frightened ten-year-old boy is collecting the tolls in the absence of his father, who has disappeared without explanation, so John decides to stay overnight to keep the boy company in the hope that his father will be back in the morning.

When the gatekeeper fails to return the next day, John finds himself helping to man the toll-gate for much longer than he’d expected, encountering highwaymen, thieves and Bow Street Runners. This is so much more exciting than one of cousin Saltash’s boring parties and John soon discovers that he’s in no hurry to leave, particularly when he meets Nell Stornaway, attractive, intelligent and, most importantly, tall – nearly as tall as John himself! Nell lives with her dying grandfather at nearby Kellands Manor and the old man’s heir has recently arrived, accompanied by a disreputable friend. But is it just the inheritance that has drawn them to Kellands or could they be mixed up in the disappearance of the gatekeeper?

Like The Quiet Gentleman, this is a Heyer novel where the focus is on the mystery rather than the romance. The romance is still there, but in a more understated way than usual. However, even though it’s love at first sight, it’s a romance I could believe in, because the hero and heroine seemed perfect for each other. I liked both of them – they are two of Heyer’s more sensible and mature characters, despite John’s love of adventure. And he certainly finds plenty of adventure when he chooses to spend the night at the toll-gate! The opening chapter set at Lord Saltash’s engagement party really doesn’t fit with the rest of the novel at all – it feels as though Heyer is setting up an Austen-style comedy of manners in that chapter, but once John sets out on his journey that aspect of the novel is abandoned and none of the characters we’ve met appear again. I was interested to learn that Heyer wrote the first chapter before deciding on the rest of the plot and had originally intended John’s family background to play a bigger part than it eventually did.

The dialogue is peppered with Heyer’s usual Regency slang, as well as the thieves’ cant used by characters such as Chirk the highwayman, and this adds colour and authenticity to the story. However, although I did enjoy this novel, it hasn’t become a favourite by Heyer; it seemed to lack her usual humour and I do tend to prefer her funnier books! Still, it was an entertaining read and a good choice for me for 1954 Club.


Other books from 1954 previously reviewed on my blog:

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by PG Wodehouse
Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell
Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier


This is also book 17/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is almost always a delight to read and I found this 1956 novel, Sprig Muslin, particularly enjoyable and entertaining. Set in the Regency period she recreated so convincingly, it has all the humour, adventure and romance I expect from her work and although the plot is similar in many ways to the later Charity Girl, the two books are different enough that there’s no risk of confusing them with each other.

It’s been seven years since Sir Gareth Ludlow lost his beloved fiancée in a tragic carriage accident but he is still sure that he will never feel for another woman what he once felt for Clarissa. At the age of thirty-five, he knows he can’t put off marrying any longer so, having given up hope of falling in love again, he makes the decision to propose to his old friend, Lady Hester Theale. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however…

Stopping at an inn on the way to Hester’s estate, Sir Gareth encounters Amanda, who is ‘very nearly seventeen’ and is running away from home as part of a plot to force her grandfather into allowing her to marry the young army officer she loves. Aware of all the dangers that could befall a young lady travelling alone, Sir Gareth insists on taking Amanda with him to Brancaster Park where Hester can take care of her until he is able to discover her full name and return her safely to her family. Furious at what she calls her ‘abduction’ and determined to continue with her plans, Amanda soon escapes from Sir Gareth’s clutches and our hero sets off in pursuit. The rest of the novel follows their escapades as Amanda does her best to stay one step ahead of Gareth, often with hilarious results!

I think the Heyer novels that take place on the road, like this one and The Corinthian, are particularly fun to read. There’s never a dull moment during Amanda and Gareth’s journey and they meet a selection of colourful characters along the way, including Hester’s lecherous uncle, Fabian Theale, the aspiring poet Hildebrande Ross and farmer’s boy Joe Ninfield. As for the main characters, I really liked Sir Gareth who, although he’s not one of my personal favourites, is everything you could want in a Heyer hero, and I also loved the contrast between the book’s two heroines. Amanda is a bit silly, admittedly, but she kept me amused with her imaginative stories and inventions and the way she stumbles from one scrape to another, while I warmed to Hester more and more as the novel progressed and an inner strength was revealed beneath her quiet, gentle exterior.

Now I’m looking forward to my next Heyer; I just need to decide which it will be!

The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer

When I posted my review of Friday’s Child a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I had a choice of three Heyer novels to read next and asked for some help in deciding which one to choose. The Corinthian received more recommendations than Faro’s Daughter and An Infamous Army so I knew it would have to be my next Heyer…and what a great choice it was! Published in 1940, it’s one of her earliest Regency novels and although I think she wrote better books, I did find this one thoroughly entertaining and fun to read.

Are you wondering what a Corinthian is? Well, it is defined in the dictionary as “a man about town, especially one who lives luxuriously or, sometimes, dissolutely”. The Corinthian of the title is Sir Richard Wyndham, a twenty-nine-year-old ‘Man of Fashion’ who, at the beginning of the novel, is under pressure from his mother and sister to marry the Honourable Melissa Brandon. Despite their insistence that she will make the ideal wife, Sir Richard knows that Melissa is only interested in his money – a thought which makes him so depressed he goes out and gets drunk (or ‘a trifle disguised’ as Heyer likes to call it).

On his way home, he looks up to see a young man attempting to descend from a window down a rope of knotted bed-sheets. Going to offer his assistance, Richard makes the discovery that the young man is actually a young woman: seventeen-year-old Penelope – or Pen – Creed. Like himself, Pen is being forced into a marriage not of her own choosing and has decided to escape by dressing as a boy and running away to the home of her childhood friend in Somerset. Because he is drunk and because it gives him an excuse to avoid Melissa, Richard finds himself volunteering to accompany her – but he is not prepared for the drama and adventure that awaits them on the journey!

I won’t say too much more about the plot, but you can expect a wonderful blend of comedy, action and mystery as Richard and Pen stumble from one farcical situation to another. Not only do they become entangled with jewel thieves, murderers and Bow Street Runners, they also have several encounters with various members of Pen’s family, as well as Melissa’s brother, the hilarious Cedric. As for Pen and Richard themselves, I found them both very likeable. Richard is sophisticated, bored and cynical, but also kind hearted, intelligent and competent, while Pen may be young and innocent but she’s not lacking in courage and is less silly than some of Heyer’s other very young heroines.

One of the great things about Heyer’s Regency novels is how fully they immerse us in the period. This one is no exception but it does have a different feel from the last Heyer Regency I read, Friday’s Child – that one was set mainly in London, in a whirlwind of masquerade balls, high-stakes card games, visits to the theatre and evenings at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, but this one takes us out of the city, with a lot of time spent on the road travelling towards Somerset. I loved the descriptions of what it was like to undertake a long journey by public stagecoach and the various coaching inns Pen and Richard stayed at along the way.

Having enjoyed this book so much, I am now about to start Faro’s Daughter and hoping it’s going to be another good one!

Friday’s Child by Georgette Heyer

This Heyer novel was published in 1944 and as it’s a particularly lively and humorous one, I expect it provided her wartime readers with some welcome escapism. It’s still an entertaining read in the twenty-first century too and although it hasn’t become a favourite, I did enjoy it.

“Friday’s child is loving and giving” says the famous rhyme and that is how the heroine of the novel, seventeen-year-old Hero Wantage, is described by her friends. As an orphan treated as a poor relation in her cousin’s household, Hero’s marriage prospects are not good and she is facing a future as a governess when she receives a surprise proposal from her childhood friend, Lord Sheringham. Hero is under no illusions that Sheringham – or Sherry, as he is known – is actually in love with her; she knows that he needs to marry in order to receive his inheritance and that he has already been rejected by the beautiful Isabella Milborne. It will be a marriage of convenience only, but even this is so much more than Hero could ever have hoped for that she has no hesitation in accepting.

Hero may be young and naïve, but Sherry is only a few years older and no more mature. He has no intention of changing his lifestyle just because he now has a wife, so he continues his reckless spending, gambling and womanising without considering the bad example he is setting for Hero. I don’t think it’s spoiling too much to say that Sherry does gradually come to love and appreciate his wife, but not without a lot of misunderstandings and ‘getting into scrapes’ along the way! And when he does eventually admit to himself how he really feels about Hero, will he have left it so late that he risks losing her to another man?

Although the relationship between Hero and Sherry is at the heart of the novel, with both characters slowly developing and maturing as time goes by, there is also a secondary romance which involves Isabella Milborne (known as the Incomparable) and George, Lord Wrotham, a passionate, hot-headed young man who is always ready to fight a duel. George, along with Gil Ringwood and Ferdy Fakenham, forms Sherry’s little circle of friends – and they become Hero’s friends too, providing most of the humour in the book as they give her some dubious guidance in the social etiquette of Regency London and try to help her out of the disastrous situations she finds herself in.

Friday’s Child has just about everything you would expect from a Heyer novel: duels, card games, gambling, balls and parties, elopements and attempted elopements. It reminded me of two of her other books, The Convenient Marriage and April Lady, which also have storylines revolving around a newly married couple learning to love each other. Although I enjoyed this book much more than April Lady, The Convenient Marriage is my favourite of the three, mainly because I preferred the hero in that one, the Earl of Rule. I do tend to prefer her older, wiser heroes rather than the young, irresponsible ones like Sherry. I also thought this book felt slightly longer than it really needed to be and the constant misunderstandings became a bit repetitive towards the end.

There are other Heyer novels that I’ve liked better than this one, then, but her books are always a lot of fun to read and this is no exception. There are plenty of funny moments, usually involving Sherry’s three friends (I particularly loved the hilarious Ferdy). I have The Corinthian, An Infamous Army and Faro’s Daughter to choose from for my next Heyer. If you have read them, which one would you recommend I read first?

Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer

I always love spending time in Georgette Heyer’s world; with duels, masked balls, elopements, high-stakes card games and lively period slang, her novels provide perfect escapism – and based on this collection, so do her short stories. Originally published as Pistols for Two in 1960, Snowdrift and Other Stories contains eleven of Heyer’s tales of Regency romance and adventure plus three additional stories not included in the earlier book.

I found these stories so enjoyable and so much fun, it was tempting to read them all at once, but instead I decided to just dip in and out, reading one or two at a time over the course of a few weeks. This was probably a good idea as many of the stories in the book are very similar, so better in smaller doses, I think! In particular, there are several that deal with young couples eloping with various family members in pursuit and a series of misunderstandings ensuing along the way – and also several involving duels, fought with either pistols or swords, and never quite going according to plan. Most of the stories have a twist or two, which are usually easy for the reader to predict, but come as a complete surprise to the characters!

I don’t want to discuss all fourteen stories here, but I can honestly say that I liked all of them – some more than others, of course. Some of my favourites included Bath Miss, in which a gentleman agrees to escort the daughter of a family friend home from school in Bath, but finds that the girl is not quite what he’d expected; The Duel, which follows a young lady who goes in search of the disreputable Lord Rotherfield to beg him not to shoot her brother; and Hazard, where a nobleman ‘wins’ a friend’s sister in a drunken game of dice and is horrified when he wakes up the next day and finds himself on the way to Gretna Green. Another which stood out, although it wasn’t one I particularly loved, was Night at the Inn. Unlike the others, which are all romances of various types, this one is more of a suspense story in which three guests arrive at a lonely inn one dark, foggy night.

As for the three extra stories – Pursuit, Runaway Match and Incident on the Bath Road (all from the 1930s, I think) – they are very entertaining too, although they suffered slightly from being placed at the end. Speaking as someone who is not usually a fan of short stories, I did really enjoy this book. I prefer her full length novels but, as I’ve said, if you just want a small dose of Heyer – or maybe if you’ve never read her before and don’t want to commit to anything longer – I would recommend giving Snowdrift a try.

Thanks to Sourcebooks for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

After reading Nicola Cornick’s time-slip novel The Phantom Tree earlier this year, I was hoping for an opportunity to read her previous book, House of Shadows – and my chance came when I spotted it on the shelf on a recent visit to the library. Although House of Shadows doesn’t include physical time travel in the same way that The Phantom Tree does, it still features storylines set in different time periods with several close links between them. It’s not my favourite of the two books, but I did enjoy it.

It’s difficult to know where to begin writing a summary of a book like this, so I’ll start in the modern day where we meet artist and glass-engraver Holly Ansell who has just received a desperate call from her niece, telling her that her father (Holly’s brother Ben) has disappeared. Heading straight for the old Mill House in Ashdown, Oxfordshire, where Ben was last seen alive, all Holly is able to learn is that prior to his disappearance he had been researching his family tree and had discovered the diary of Lavinia Flyte, a 19th century courtesan.

Hoping for clues that will lead her to Ben, Holly begins to read Lavinia’s journal and quickly finds herself caught up in the memoirs of a brave, resourceful young woman who once lived at nearby Ashdown House. But before we can understand the links between Lavinia and the Ansell family, we have to go further back in time, to the 17th century, to follow the story of Elizabeth Stuart, known as the Winter Queen. The daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Elizabeth was briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick V. However, it is her relationship with the soldier William Craven which provides the connection to the other two threads of the novel.

All three storylines are interesting and I’m sorry I can’t say too much about any of them without straying into spoiler territory. What I can say is that there are two objects which play an important role in each of the time periods – a mysterious crystal mirror and a priceless jewel known as the Sistrin Pearl, both believed to possess magical powers and said to have been used in the divination and prophecies of the Knights of the Rosy Cross. It seems that Frederick and Elizabeth really are thought to have possibly had some involvement with the Knights, so this aspect of the novel is not as far-fetched as it may sound – although I’m assuming the mirror and jewel themselves, or at least their powers, are fictional.

The Elizabeth sections of the novel were my favourites, partly because I know so little about her and partly because I enjoy reading about 17th century Europe. As far as I can tell, there is no real evidence to prove whether William Craven was romantically involved with Elizabeth, but they certainly knew each other and the story Nicola Cornick weaves around them is maybe not beyond the realms of possibility. Lavinia’s diary entries set in Regency England also held my attention – although they are quite brief, compared with the longer chapters devoted to Holly and Elizabeth, she is a vividly written character with a strong voice. I did also like Holly, but I found the contemporary storyline the least interesting – possibly because most of the action takes place in the historical sections, while Holly has more of a passive role, trying to piece together the stories of the other two women.

Ashdown House in Oxfordshire, the house at the heart of the novel and the one pictured on the front cover, really exists; it is now owned by the National Trust and Nicola Cornick volunteers there. It’s always nice to discover that the setting for a novel you’ve been reading is based on a real place – I’ve made a note to try to visit it if I’m in that part of the country.

Nicola Cornick has written several other books, but they seem to be more conventional historical romances, so I think I’ll wait and hope that she writes more that are similar to this one and The Phantom Tree!