Her Grace in Disgrace by Claudia Harbaugh

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Reginald Aiken, Duke of Warwick is dead and his young widow is not grieving…until the will is read. Isobel Kennilworth Aiken, Duchess of Warwick spent 6 years of her young life in a loveless marriage. Now, at the age of 24, Isobel is a widow. As Isobel awaits the reading of her late husband’s last will and testament, she feels no grief, but in fact is quite hopeful. She is eager to start her life anew. But, as the droning of the solicitor’s voice washes over her detailing the bequests to various servants and family members, a shock awaits her. The “other woman” was not his mistress, but his lawfully wedded wife and together they had a son. Six year old Reggie was now the Duke of Warwick, displacing Reginald’s brother Charles. There is a collective gasp as the revelation is made that instantly displaces Isobel and Charles and dashes their hopes for the future. Isobel must indeed start anew, but not as a titled, influential and wealthy widow, but as plain Miss Kennilworth, tainted by scandal. Can she get past the disgrace and humiliation she has endured and fight her way back into society? Will she find love again with her childhood sweetheart, Andrew Stafford, former vicar, now Lord Saybrooke? Or perhaps she will rekindle the flame with Jeremy Ingles, Lord Westcott, who had caught her fancy at her come out six years earlier, but had not been ready to be leg shackled. But before Isobel can find true love, she must come to grips with her past mistakes and the people she has hurt along the way. She must discover who she is without the title of duchess to her name.

Rating: C

This traditional Regency from first-time author Claudia Harbaugh shows a lot of promise. Her writing style is restrained and displays an elegance reminiscent of Heyer, although sadly without so much of the wit and sharply observed social comment.

The story concerns Isobel Kenilworth, Duchess of Wawrick, who discovers at the reading of her late husband’s will that she was not his wife at all as he had a wife at the time of their marriage. Isobel is naturally shocked and dismayed; not because she had had any love for her husband, but because of the scandal which will see her cast out from much of polite society, and because it means she will no longer have access to her late ‘husband’s’ wealth and property.

Her long-time friend and former sweetheart, Andrew Stafford, Viscount Saybrooke, is the one person who continues to associate with her once the scandal had broken, but their relationship is strained. Andrew is a former clergyman who had to abandon his calling when he unexpectedly inherited his brother’s title and responsibilities, and I have to say that he frequently comes across as somewhat priggish and condescending. While Isobel’s motives for refusing him in order to land herself a rich husband were certainly mercenary and her methods in attaining said husband were, at best, underhanded; Saybrooke’s self-righteous manner is unhelpful as all it does is cause Isobel’s hackles to rise and increase her unwillingness to make any changes in her attitude and behaviour – or to admit to herself that she never stopped loving him.

Isobel does not come across as an especially likeable young woman in the first part of the book. She trapped her husband into marriage, and got what she wanted – social position, fortune and a man who would leave her alone. As a result, the past six years have changed her for the worse – she has become calculating and rather cold, and her thoughts following Warwick’s death are filled with rage and self-pity.

She is forced to leave her former home and retire to a smaller house in Bloomsbury (in Woburn Place) where she lives with her perspicacious aunt, Lady Whitcomb. Lady Whitcomb is of the opinion that Isobel is too much occupied with the past and needs to move forward and get on with her life – but in order to do that, Isobel is going to have to face up to some hard truths, something she is not yet ready to do.

In some ways, Isobel reminded me a little of Jane Austen’s Emma, a character “whom no one but myself will much like” – because she is managing, manipulative, and frequently blind to her own best interests. But she also shows signs of having a ruthless streak which Emma does not possess, which serves to make Isobel a less attractive character while at the same time making the fact that she manages to overcome it in the end more of an achievement in terms of her character development. And later, I was reminded of another Austen heroine because of Isobel’s persistence in attaching herself to a young man whose designs upon her turn out to be less than honorable.

Following this betrayal and subsequent gossip, Isobel begins to take a long, hard look at herself and finally decides that she wants to make a change in her life. I did feel that Isobel’s – literally – overnight transformation from wronged woman to cheerful do-gooder was rather fast, but I can accept that, having decided to make a change, she would want to get on with it as soon as possible. The second half of the book became suddenly peppered with half-a-dozen secondary characters, many of whom are clearly destined to feature in future titles in the Widows of Wouburn Place series. On the positive side, the addition of these characters and events involving them led to a welcome change of pace in the story. But as a result, it gave the book an unbalanced feel overall.

The romance in this story seems to me to be almost an afterthought, as the hero is relegated to the sidelines for the bulk of the story and is sadly underdeveloped. Because Saybrooke and Isobel had been romantically involved years earlier, there is no need for introductions, but even in a story which features a second-chance relationship, the romance needs to progress and the two characters need to rediscover each other in ways which they had not perhaps done in their youth. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in this story. There is no romantic tension between the couple and the few kisses they share on the page are somewhat passionless.

Isobel is by far the most well-developed character in the book, so what we have is essentially the story young woman who has lost her way coming to terms with her mistakes and then making herself a new life. There are elements of that in Saybrooke’s story, too – he has to accept that his previous life has perhaps made him too likely to proselytize and that, even though his calling discouraged such a thing, that he is often too quick to judge others. I can’t remember if this was billed as an “Inspirational” romance, but Saybrooke’s former profession allows for several quotations from scripture and the odd invocation of the almighty.

Ms Harbaugh’s use of language and her writing style are good for the most part, although I feel that the novel needed tightening up (and perhaps some judicious pruning) and the pacing in the first half of the book left something to be desired. There are sudden changes of POV – especially in the earlier part of the story – which are jarring and unnecessary. In one scene, for example, we’re in Isobel’s head when suddenly, we switch to her maid’s POV for a couple of paragraphs and then back to Isobel. There were also instances of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’, such as when Serena Parrish is telling Sophia the story of her disgrace. The whole thing is told in the narrative which slows the story down and is, quite frankly, rather dull to read.

As I said at the beginning, I think Ms Harbaugh shows definite potential as a writer of traditional regencies, but I think Her Grace in Disgrace falls far short in the romance department. Perhaps some more stringent editing in future would also help to tighten up on those areas I’ve mentioned as regards pacing and balance.

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