This book really was fun with a capital F! If you enjoy Jane Austen or Bridgerton then this is a book you’ll love. It has that clever ability to be frothy and witty, while actually bringing up some important issues, especially about the woman’s role in Regency society. It takes a look at class and what is really expected of those in the very highest society, or the ‘ton’ as they are dubbed here – I’ll be honest and say I’ve watched two whole series of Bridgerton and wondered what ‘ton’ meant, now I’ve finally looked it up! This brilliant debut rackets along at a fantastic pace, with glorious balls and luxurious fashions one minute, then adventurous rescues the next. Our heroine is Kitty Talbot, eldest of five girls who live in the Dorset countryside. As the book opens Kitty is responsible for her sisters, since both of their parents have died. Mr and Mrs Talbot were ostracised from high society before the girls were even born and the family have lived a relatively quiet life. Unfortunately, Mr Talbot had kept a taste for the gaming tables and while his debt grew he also turned to drink. On their death Kitty was left in charge of four sisters, a badly trained dog, a leaking roof and a threat from the debt collectors that payment must be made soon. Luckily, four years ago Kitty secured a proposal of marriage from Mr Linfield, a local squire with a reasonable fortune. Horrifyingly though, a few months before their debt is due, Mr Linfield withdraws his offer of marriage, leaving Kitty solely responsible for her sister’s home and their future. There is only one solution; Kitty needs a fortune and she needs it fast. So, she pawns the last of their mother’s jewellery for costs and decides that she and her sister Cecily will visit their Aunt Dorothy in London where they may be able to gain introductions into society. The season has begun and every eligible bachelor with a fortune will be in attendance. Can Kitty find her fortune before her time runs out, or the secrets about their parent’s departure from London are made known?
As with Austen, there are serious issues and themes underneath the glamour and witty repartee. There’s an absolute honesty in what Kitty is trying to do, both with her family and herself, if not with her potential suitor. She soul searches about whether she can live with the decision to marry purely for financial protection, but when she thinks of her sisters she finds she can live with it quite comfortably. She knows each of them so well, that she can imagine their future needs – the one who wants to learn, the one who needs to marry for love and the one who might never marry. She’s happy as long as her sacrifice means they can have what they need and I found that an admirable quality. Yet, polite society and certainly those of the ‘ton’ find this deceitful and vulgar. The author is highlighting the double-standard here, it’s only Kitty’s gender and class that make her actions vulgar. Men in high society can pick the most eligible woman based on her looks, her age, her child-bearing possibilities and even her fortune, should his be lacking. Should a society gentleman, even a Duke, chooses a young woman of a lower class to him then his actions are accepted. There may be gossip, but whether it’s for love, lust, money or breeding ability no one truly cares as long as she is of good character and virtue. Kitty is simply doing the same, there’s a commodity she needs and marriage is her only means of achieving it. In the ballrooms and salons of London, all young women in the act of finding a match are sparing with the truth. They are making the best of their looks, inventing accomplishments and laughing at awful jokes. They make themselves less: less intelligent, less witty, less feisty. They have to flatter, make the man seem superior in all these things. So, why is Kitty’s plan any different? Her class is the deciding factor, breeding being all important for men of the peerage particularly, it is desirable to meet a woman of a similar class and not marry down. It is Kitty’s dishonesty about her class and lack of money that condemn her.
Once settled at her Aunt’s house, they ‘accidentally’ meet the de Lacey family, one of the most respected families here for the London season. It is the younger son Archie that Kitty thinks might be a suitable candidate and since Cecily went to school with his younger sister Amelia they have a connection. However, it’s with Archie’s elder brother that Kitty can be truly open and honest. James is now Lord Radcliffe after the death of his father but has spent most time at their country seat in Devon. He is in hiding, alongside fellow officer Captain Hinsley, with whom he shared the experience of fighting at Waterloo. He’s superior, intelligent and doesn’t suffer fools, but he’s also holding a lot of emotions in check and felt he wasn’t ready to be the head of his family. Once alerted to the possibility of an alliance between Archie and a young woman who appears to have no breeding or family fortune, he rides back to London determined to sever the connection. He and Kitty’s exchanges are probably the most honest and equal in the book, as well as making me laugh. He can see her ability to charm and once they’ve been honest with each other they seem to relax in each other’s company and Kitty grows in confidence. She makes it clear that no matter what he may see her as – a fortune hunter – her only other choice is to let the family home go and for the sisters to look for paid work that will separate them. I admired her honesty and her ability to see the objections to fortune hunters as hypocrisy. The whole London season is about making matches, sometimes for very similar reasons to Kitty’s own.
I thoroughly enjoyed the ups and downs of her mission and her determination to become an integral part of the season. The setting is beautifully described, especially the culture shock of a dirty and sooty London as compared to the country. I loved the image of higgledy-piggledy buildings that are bowed or look ‘haphazardly drawn as if by a child’. The detailed description of the latest fashions and how the girls have to craftily accessorise so they look like they’re wearing something new. Even so, Kitty is outed in the mind of Lady Radcliffe who notices a shoe with a wooden button that marks them out as from Cheapside. There are also other plot lines that feed into the central premise that work very well too: the story of Kitty and Cecily’s parents and why they were unwelcome in polite society; the identity of Aunt Dorothy and her reluctance to follow Kitty’s forays into high society; Kitty’s insistence that Cecy isn’t looking for a husband while her sister has her own plans; Archie’s discovery of gambling clubs and the predatory lords who frequent the clubs looking for young, inexperienced men who are about to come into their fortunes. I felt the author had the balance just right between humour and frivolity and the darker sides of the story. It gallops along at a jolly pace and it’s very easy to keep on reading into the night. The excitement peaks one evening as two very different rescue missions are undertaken; one to save a reputation and the other to save a fortune. These missions are taken at a breakneck pace and it’s impossible to put the book down once you’ve reached this point – you will simply have to keep reading to the end. The author has written a wonderfully satirical and deceptively light novel, with plenty of intrigue and some darker undertones. I enjoyed the Talbot sisters and wondered whether we’d be seeing more of them in the future, if so they’ll definitely be on my wishlist.
Published by Harper Collins 12th May 2022
Meet The Author
Sophie has spent years immersed in the study of historical fiction, from a dissertation on why Georgette Heyer helped win World War Two, to time spent in dusty stacks and old tomes doing detailed period research when writing this book. Her love and passion for historical fiction bring a breath of fresh air and a contemporary energy to the genre. Sophie hopes to transport readers to Regency London, where ballrooms are more like battlegrounds.
A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting is Sophie’s debut novel and it has already sold in twenty territories worldwide.