REVIEW: Blame it on Bath by Caroline Linden
Dear Ms. Linden:
Before I get too far into this review, I want to say right up front that I found Blame it on Bath quite likeable. I do so because the series that includes this book – The Truth about the Duke — is based on a legal issue that, even to my limited knowledge, seems kind of squirrely. That did not ruin my enjoyment of the book, but for those who require scrupulous historical realism, this series might be a challenge.
Captain Gerard De Lacey, the youngest of the Duke of Durham’s three sons, has always respected his father and the care with which he raised his sons after his wife’s death left him with three small boys and a guilty conscience. The source of the guilt was not revealed until the duke lingered near death, at which point he confesses that he was married as a very young man – before he took his title – and separated from this woman without divorcing before he married the duchess. And while this secret has remained unearthed for more than 60 years, in the months before the duke died he was receiving letters from a supposed blackmailer, who, strangely, demanded money to keep quiet but never actually tried to collect it.
Thanks to middle son Edward’s insistence that they confide in his then-fiancée, who promptly broke off the engagement and feed the gossip papers her story, the “Durham Dilemma” has imperiled the inheritance and the passing of the title to the eldest son, Charles (apparently there is a vile distant cousin who would inherit should the sons be declared illegitimate). And since Gerard does not have the patience to wait on the work of the solicitors (I’m not even going to explain this bit, but my understanding after asking a gazillion questions of people much more educated about the historical context of the novel is that there are numerous problems with this whole set up), he decides to pursue the alleged blackmailer himself in the hopes of disproving whatever claim this person might have. He also decides to find a rich woman to marry, in the event that he has to survive on a thousand pounds a year for the foreseeable future.
Katherine Howe has spent nearly a year in mourning for her husband, although it’s less out of love and more out of a desperate attempt to postpone what seems an inevitable marriage to his younger, handsomer, but humorlessly devout nephew, Lucien Howe. A relatively plain woman of thirty, Katherine does have one substantial asset: an inheritance of more than a hundred thousand pounds that her father left to her outright. Katherine’s late husband borrowed a large portion of money from her father, with the Howe estate as collateral, and because he died before Katherine’s father, which means that Lucien, who has inherited the estate, must repay the loan soon or lose the estate. His own lack of financial plentitude means that marriage to Katherine would bring him the greatest profit.
Katherine is no romantic when it comes to marriage, but the thought of marrying the dour and dominating Lucien is more than she can stand. Her mother, a great beauty who is thrilled at the idea of marrying her daughter off to such a handsome young man, is pushing hard for the marriage, as well. But neither knows of the youthful crush Katherine has carried for a young army captain who once showed her a relatively small kindness that represented a level of solicitous concern Katherine had never really known in her life. And years later, when she finds out that the very same captain is now in danger of losing everything he has been raised to expect and work toward, she sees her only chance of escaping the life her family is planning for her.
Gerard has no memory of Katherine, but when she covertly approaches him in the middle of the night at an inn outside of London, he is both surprised and intrigued by her proposition: a marriage of convenience that would, Katherine insists, solve both of their dilemmas. Gerard does not mind that Katherine is not a great beauty, hoping that perhaps she will be a good wife in other ways, and the same chivalrous concern that made him do that kindness for her all those years ago impels him toward seriously considering her proposal, not just for his own sake, but for hers, as well.
So here’s the thing: even as I’m typing that I can see how crazy it sounds. Why would a handsome young man (two years younger than his bride!) who has not yet lost anything marry a relatively plain woman he doesn’t even know? And the book does not, at least for me, manage to make his choice particularly rational, although I was glad to see that Gerard investigates Katherine’s family history to make sure she’s not trying to bamboozle him. I had to take a relatively big leap of faith here, especially since Gerard’s notion of marriage is that it’s for life and that fidelity is a reasonable expectation for both of them unless they truly don’t suit. So why was I willing to take this leap, especially on the heels of the squirrely legitimacy scandal? I think it’s because – in addition to marriage of convenience being one of my favorite devices — I sensed that both characters were honorable and likeable, and I was curious to see how their relationship would play out.
And, as I said at the very beginning of the review, I liked this part of the book quite a bit. First of all, both Gerard and Katherine are responsible adults who believe in personal accountability and understand consequences. Katherine, whose mother is incredibly shallow and vain and whose husband was an irresponsible, inattentive spendthrift, is quiet and serious, and uncertain of Gerard, who reacts to Katherine’s restraint with the fervent hope that still waters run deep, so to speak. When he surprises her with a kiss to seal their bargain, he senses that she’s not very sexually experienced and yet she seems open to the experience. Whatever Katherine’s expectations may be (and she fools herself a little on this point), Gerard is basically hoping for a woman who will be a good mother to his children and an enthusiastic companion in bed. However, Gerard also has his investigative mission to attend to, and as soon as he and Katherine are married, he needs to break the news to her family and get both of them out of London and on their way to Bath.
You would think, given the dramatic context of the marriage and the Durham Dilemma, that Katherine and Gerard’s relationship would be fueled by a relatively high level of drama. That it’s not is probably one of the reasons I liked it so much. What plagues these two is primarily a function of their lack of acquaintance. Katherine, despite the fact that she has been married before, has not had the chance to be sexually expressive — or expressive in any way, really, and therefore she is unsure of what Gerard expects of her. Gerard, who is not used to women being wary of him, sees Katherine as afraid, which makes him hang back a little, as he tries to puzzle her out.
He twisted in his chair to regard her with mild surprise. That rumpled wave of hair fell over his brow again. “We shall have to get to know each other, Kate. You’re always so nervous when I look at you.”
“I’m sorry.” Unconsciously she straightened, smoothing her expression.
He sighed. “There’s no need for that. Don’t shy away from me.”
Katherine didn’t know what to do. “I’m not afraid of you,” she insisted. “Do you think I would have proposed what I did if I feared you? No, I told you I esteem you very highly—”
“There’s a vast gulf between esteem and affection.”
Then, when she sees him arm-in-arm in town with the sister of a friend and fellow army officer, she naturally assumes he has a mistress, as her first husband did. And when Gerard doesn’t automatically open up to her about his investigative mission in Bath, Katherine gets frustrated, which in turn baffles and frustrates Gerard:
Katherine glanced at him. He looked tired but on edge. “Perhaps I can help,” she offered.
“Oh?” One corner of his mouth still curled. “I’m sure you can. Come here, m’lady.”
“No, truly.” She stayed in her chair even when he put out one hand to her. “If you tell me what you’re trying to do, I might be able to help in some small way.”
He dropped his hand. “I don’t think you can.”
She bit her lower lip in frustration. He was growing annoyed, when she was only trying to understand and help. “I don’t want to pry. Different people see things different ways. I feel unable to offer even sympathy and support since I don’t know what you’re trying to do.” “Does it matter?” He cocked his head. “Does one need to know all before offering sympathy and support?”
“It would be nice if you talked to me!” she exclaimed. “You have my sympathy, you have my support, and I have nothing from you!”
His eyebrows shot up at this outburst. Katherine felt her face flush deep, burning red as she realized how much she’d lost her temper. “Nothing?” he asked in a dangerous voice.
She looked at his expression, and the flush spread across the rest of her body. “Well, not—not nothing,” she stammered. “But . . . we don’t talk of anything.
. . .
He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Kate, I haven’t the patience for puzzles now. What do you want?”
I want you to take an interest in me, she thought.
How could one ask for that? “I want to be a good wife,” she said softly.
“Excellent. Come upstairs and show me.”
What a grand joke on her. She had hoped he would warm to her physically once they were acquainted and familiar with each other. Instead he took her to bed and made sweet, wicked love to her without appearing to care to be acquainted at all. She didn’t know how to respond to that. On one level she was deliriously happy with her marriage, but on another, she felt more and more distressed.
For me there was a real sense of relief in reading about two people who wanted to do right by each other but did not completely know how. Katherine soon understands that what she really wants from Gerard is something she might never get, while Gerard is so happy to get what he does from Katherine that he does not think more deeply about his own feelings, or hers, for that matter. She needs to learn how to communicate her emotions more directly, while Gerard needs to get more in touch with his, and that interdependent process creates some friction between them, not all of which kindles desire. The more deeply Katherine falls for Gerard the more embarrassed she becomes by her feelings, while Gerard, who has always enjoyed a kind of popularity and social ease that Katherine has not, becomes more comfortable with Katherine than she does with herself. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that — while not incredibly deep — has a nice resonance in a relationship that has to grow from the ground up. That Kate does not get a magic makeover and Gerard is a good man but not a perfect husband make the romantic progression of their relationship believable, and it made me want to root for their happiness as equals. It also allowed me to appreciate and enjoy the relationship as a separate entity from the whole Durham Dilemma stuff.
Which brings me back to the historicity of the novel. While I suspected a Regency setting, there was no date that I could find in the book, nor anything substantial locating the novel within a specific year. Linden does have a page online that allows the reader to discern the year in which the novel is set (1810), but this is not a book that I’d describe as historically rich. Still, because the romance itself (outside of the whacky circumstances under which the couple meet and wed) was kind of timeless in its focus on the very real and yet mundanely realistic issues that likely exist in every time period, for the most part Blame it on Bath worked pretty well for me. B