Friday, May 27, 2016

A Bachelor Establishment by Isabella Barclay

My Experience: B
Synopsis:  Elinor Bascombe, widowed and tied to an impoverished estate, has learned to ask little of life. With no hope of leaving, the years have passed her by.
Lord Ryde, exiled abroad after a scandal, has returned to strip his estate and make a new start in America.
A chance encounter changes their plans, plunging Elinor and Lord Ryde into adventure and not a little peril until, finally, they are forced to confront the mystery of what happened on That Night, all those years ago.
Are they both so entangled in the riddles of the past that they are about to miss this one last opportunity for future happiness?

Overall the writing was excellent, the attention to details well done, and the dialog amusing. There were obvious errors of either auto-correct or conversion to kindle nature but just a few. Timelines didn't quite match up but I hand waved that since gossip presented events and we all know how reliable that is.  The omniscient narrator was delightful; secondary characters were fun, and the thirdary [is that a word?] were caricatures we know and love.  It was a bit predictable but I don't mind that when it is done well.  The prodigal and the managing widow woven with a bit of mystery kept me engaged.  Antagonism between hero and heroine wasn't overdone, fence mending and apologies were handled with humor, and the romance was believable in historical context, if a bit hurried for my taste.  I laughed out loud frequently.  Sniggered into my lace hanky more than once, and spewed my tea twice. Put aside the beverages as you read this one, you've been warned.

Are you going to brood? I believe that is the accepted form of behaviour for the badly dressed, melancholy hero who broods on dark disappointments, previous crimes, and nameless passions as he stalks his desolate acres. I’ve never seen anyone brood before. Do you mind if I watch?’

Mrs Bascombe, I no longer find myself amazed that you have been shot. My astonishment is now that you have only been shot once!’

***Spoilers Behind The Cut***
***You Have Been Warned***

From the minute Lord Ryde threw himself under Mrs. Bascombe's horse, he knew he was in trouble.  This was nothing new for him, trouble that is, but in this instance, he hadn't actually gone out looking for trouble, it had simply appeared.  Not like before, when he was caught in a compromising situation, called out by a husband, wounded and banished by his father.

Tripping all over Europe with his best friend, Charles; Lord Ryde lived up to his reputation for trouble every chance he got because, well, what else was there to do?  Join the Army and fight that nasty Napoleon?  He was too busy playing duck and dodge as the armies marched back and forth to seriously consider that option.

Twenty years of exile.  He never thought to make anything more of himself than trouble; didn't bother trying to mend fences with his father - who died tragically what seems to be 7 years ago.  Now the allowance has run out, and he's returned; deciding how every last penny could be wrung from his neglected estate.  His plan is to go off to America and find ... more trouble.

Why don’t I know this?’ 
‘Because, sir, you never pay any attention either to your estate, or your neighbours. Because your stated intention was to arrive, raise as much money as possible, in as short a time as possible, and be gone again before having to waste any time being polite to the natives.’ 
‘Did I say that?’ 
‘That was the abridged version, my lord. The original was a great deal more vigorously expressed.’

The connection between Lord Ryde and Mrs. Bascombe is more than being neighbors and collisions.  There was violence plus a great deal of jewelry and money absconded with on That Night so long ago when - Lord Ryde ambling across the continent - his father died.  It was also That Night that Mr. Ned Bascombe beat his wife to the point she lost a child and hurt two servants, one that still suffers to this day.  The magistrate and his cronies pride themselves on the fact they turned up every week to ensure Neddy behaved himself with regards to his wife; until the lout had a hunting accident and conveniently died.

It was his nephew, George Bascombe, that tried to intervene That Night and was pitched out the door and held back at gun point, who supposedly robbed Lord Ryde's father and stepped over the man as he lay gasping with a stroke.  So you see, these folks are tangled up ferociously by the past ... and yet they'd never met.

Elinor Bascombe, now in her forties, has finally brought the estate her lout of a husband drained as dry as Ryde is intending to his, to order.  Finally, Elinor and her estate agent are contemplating the near future, when there are actual profits to invest.  There isn't much to live on but at least they aren't promising one creditor while paying another these days.  Her companion and friend, Laura Fairburn has been there since the death of the lout, assisting and encouraging Elinor.

Needing to clear the cobwebs after the annual meeting with her estate agent, Elinor goes for a ride.  Returning by way of the lane, she again meets Ryde, and is introduced to his secretary/ best friend, Charles.  While they exchange pleasantries and barbs regarding age, manners, and the weather, Elinor is shot.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Shot.

And incredible was the only word for it. This was England. Not only that, this was, as he had frequently been assured, and knew from his own bitter experience, one of the safest and most sedate neighbourhoods in that safe and sedate country. People – ladies especially – were not publicly shot at. Not often, anyway.

Hauling Elinor back to Ryde House because it is closer, Ryde sends Charles to fetch the companion, Laura, and the few things Elinor might need.  He had no idea what real trouble was until his home was invaded by:

an enormous number of women [5]. Where the devil could they all have come from?  His lordship tried to imagine Charles, the third son of a respectable clergyman in Gloucestershire, losing his head and driving madly around the countryside, scooping up every woman he could find.... the most senior of the servants was directing the disposal of a number of cases, boxes, bags, and other impedimenta of unknown, but certainly sinister purpose.

Reaping the benefits of a real cook, Ryde mellows a bit with regards to the invasion, especially since it irritates his butler, Munch, even more than it does him.  Because it would take too much effort to fuss, he is even prepared to put up with industrious maids scrubbing and cleaning everything that doesn't move. While searching for clues with Charles, there is the first inkling of a romantic attachment forming between his friend and that companion, Laura.  Ryde isn't one to stand in the way of what might be Charles' last chance at connubial bliss but it does leave him feeling a bit bereft, pondering an adventurous life alone isn't as much fun as with a friend.

All those thoughts linger when he goes to check on his injured guest.  Elinor is hyper-vigilant, no doubt the remains of living with the lout, and prods Ryde to stir him from his gloomies.  This results in a very heated dialog where Ryde shoots off his mouth and Elinor is quite amused.  

There,’ she said in small triumph. ‘Much better.’ 
‘Mrs Bascombe, you are the most manipulative, infuriating …’ he paused, searching for words. 
‘My lord,’ she said softly, ‘I would so much rather see you infuriated than sad.’

He got a bit of his own before making a hasty exit with his dignity in tact, mostly.  Ryde probably should have enjoyed that victorious exit a bit rather than drowsing in to a brandy stupor for two days, but maybe it was better he shored up his booze and sleep quota before actually studying his steward's report and discovering there wasn't much left to siphon off the old home place.

Elinor left her sick room behind and joined her host and companions.  Lady Elliot, the magistrate's wife and another good friend, stayed for luncheon and to assess the situation.  When shots blew through the drawing room window, the ladies were hurled to the floor so the gentlemen could investigate at once.  When no villain was run to ground, they retired to the library and considered their options....

Who knows, by tomorrow, we may be under attack from all sorts of armed desperadoes and be forced to live under siege,’ said Lady Elliot, seating herself gratefully and accepting a glass of wine from Mr Martin.
'Oh, yes,’ said Miss Fairburn, enthusiastically. ‘We can hurl boiling oil on our attackers from the bedroom windows.’ 
‘We should arm ourselves,’ said Elinor with decision. ‘Where is your gunroom, my lord?’ 
‘I cannot remember,’ said Lord Ryde, quickly. 
‘Never mind,’ said Miss Fairburn. ‘This is an old house. There will be pikes and halberds – and swords, too, I expect.’ 
‘And armour. Do you have any armour? And …’
No armour,’ said his lordship with finality. ‘No swords. No pikes. And above all – no guns.’ 
There was a short silence. 
‘It’s very dull here, isn’t it?’ said Mrs Bascombe.

Lady Elliot decides she cannot leave her friends in such a situation without her close supervision - uh, support.  A note is dispatched to her home and before long another procession of carriages arrive one loaded with yet another maid and much baggage for Lady Elliot, another is loaded with Elinor's butler, Porlock and more baggage and boxes that her housekeeper is certain Elinor will need.  The procession is led by Sir Elliot who is not pleased, not pleased at all.  After examining the scene of the crime, he does not, as Ryde expected, plan to whisk his wife away to safety, he plans to join them.

Dinner is spent dissecting motives for being shot at while the Domestic Strife between Porlock and Munch simmers around them.  They contemplate Elinor and Ryde and then turn to Charles seeking answers.  Round and round it goes until Elinor offers a solution.

Perhaps we should split up,’ said Mrs Bascombe, slowly. ‘I could return to Westfield and see if the assailant follows me there. If I am shot again, you would then have a clear indication of how to proceed. 
‘Out of the question,’ said Lady Elliott. ‘You are not yet well enough to travel, my love.' 
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ said Lord Ryde, thoughtfully. ‘Am I alone in thinking Mrs Bascombe’s murder could be quite helpful?’ 
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Bascombe, shortly. 
‘I think,’ said Sir William, head of a large family and therefore skilled in maintaining focus, ‘that we should continue as we are for the time being. Nothing can be done until Mrs Bascombe is recovered.’

And thus, at the fifty percent mark, we have assembled before us a houseful of people, a mystery to solve, romance blooming, adequate chaperons, and domestic strife ... that's pretty efficient if you ask me!  The next chapter is a heart examining dialog between Ryde and Elinor that moves rapidly and, I think, much as mature people communicate.  They do not sink in to the weepies or spend every second with daggers drawn at each other's throat.  Harsh words are exchanged, hard truths are confronted, and really, nothing is resolved except they have opened up to each other and sifted through a bit of the past.  Neither feels much better but there is shift in their perception of each other that you can feel.  I liked this snappy transition for Ryde and Elinor.  I didn't quite agree with Elinor that Ryde wasn't a lout better able to handle his liquor and creditors than her dead husband, but I was willing to concede to the possibility he might not be, in time.

I confess, always in the back of my mind was the fact Ryde was 25 when he was caught with his trousers down and sent away.  He wasn't a boy even if he acted and was treated like one.  So, his behavior and attitudes for the next twenty years seemed more like affluenza than anything else.  Spoiled and self-centered, blaming others and circumstances for his misadventures, he hadn't really changed all that much at the beginning of the story.  It took an invasion by an enormous number of women and attempted assassination to bring that about.  There wasn't a monstrously large change - I would not call him reformed at all - and honestly, I think that suited Elinor just fine and therefore, it somehow managed to suit me.  I am very sick of reformed rakes suddenly becoming lapdogs because of twu lurv.

Elinor eluded me for much of the story.  We were told a great deal about her past, shown how she tangibly functioned, but how she felt, what it took to get herself out of bed every morning was as much a mystery as what happened between George and Ryde's father That Night.  I comprehended her diligence and limited expectations of life.  It made perfect sense, her dealing with a man that on first meeting threatened to beat her if she was his.  More than once she irritated Ryde so he would flee.  It was a risk, but she never did so without a means of escape or protection nearby.  Discovering he actually enjoyed being challenged - and what else was his sojourn in exile but one challenge after another - she also discovered it was stimulating to be the challenger with no sympathy for morose self-flagellation.  It made me smile, these subtle glimpses of their future.  Being bartered in marriage wasn't uncommon, she certainly held no bitterness about that, or even the result, but she never truly exposed herself, only facts and the duty of repairing what the lout had almost destroyed.  Even when she decided to seduce Ryde, Elinor "made sense" but it was a distant sense, not as complete as our glimpses of Ryde.

I was ... not thrilled with the seduction thaing, at least based on Elinor's rationalization.  For one thing, he was intoxicated and if it had been reversed, we'd be crying foul because readers don't like that get her drunk and take advantage plan at all.  Second, her motivation was usury, not affection.  Ryde wasn't really the person of her desire - the last chance for passion was. As things progressed [without euphemisms or bathroom wall words] I didn't really change my mind, but I was less judgmental...

They were equal in their need for each other. Two lonely people, whose lives had been blighted and had never recovered. He – going to the devil as fast as he could manage and she just wishing she could. No longer satisfied by his life, he needed to come home. She – no longer satisfied with her life, needed to escape. To spread her wings. To fly.

There was still a bit of coldness to the seduction but we often tell ourselves fibs without even realizing it.  Ryde and Elinor did that more than they were aware.  Of course, the next day is awkward and they struggle to meet each other as people that have been physically intimate without the mental or emotional intimacy already in place.  The squabble and anger that results was perfect for the situation.  Ms. Barclay hit the nail on the head with a resounding thud.

But a knock at the door halted their squabble that was racing toward exsanguination.  Distressing news obliterates the tension between Elinor and Ryde, the blood-letting-that-almost-was is totally forgotten.  A bit of honest exposure of heart and soul opens both their eyes to the fact there is more than a night of passion between them.  The tender scene near the jetty was absolutely perfect, imho, just the right amount of grief and commiserating humor.  Ryde's startling realization was second to his concern for Elinor and for that, I began to appreciate him.  He'd never reform, but as I suspected, she didn't really want him to and, for me, that smoothed the rough edges of the calculated seduction and Elinor's elusiveness.

Mayhem in the night, the assassins are revealed, and within a short time the mysteries are solved.  It is a frantic race to the end, breathless and riotous with great sorrow and great fun.  Tragedy, comedy, a bit of pathos, and yes, happily ever afters everywhere.

I am a lost man,’ he sighed. ‘I have fallen into the hands of a harpy who will stop at nothing to ensure my future happiness and prosperity. How shall I bear it?’ 
‘Courage, my lord. Given your self-admitted advanced age and decrepitude, the chances are that you will not live long enough to suffer greatly.’

No hideous epilogue, thank you Ms. Barclay!  Not tied up with ribbons and bows and detailed report of The Future; the reader is left with a lovely sigh and respect for the imagination.  I hope she writes more of these historical romances.

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