Widowed at 24 by war, Jeannie McVinnie wishes to free her father-in-law to join his old regiment for a Highlands fishing trip. She practices a small deception by accepting an invitation issued to another Jeannie McVinnie: a plea for help from Captain William Summers to his former nursemaid to oversee the London Season of his spoiled ward. Their chaotic household also includes the captain’s snobbish sister, a boy eager for adventure, and a desolate child. The task is daunting, but Mrs. McVinnie finds herself aided by her Scottish brogue, country-bred beauty, plain-speaking, and Beau Brummell himself, that supremely influential dandy of all dandies. Tempting as the Beau might be, Jeannie is drawn to gruff, quixotic Captain Summers. But what kind of future can a man so shackled to life at sea offer a woman who yearns for her own Scottish hearth? And how can she explain the secret she is hiding from those dear to her?
Originally published in 1990, Mrs McVinnie’s London Season tells the story of a young, Scottish war widow who, rather like a Regency Mary Poppins, joins the household of a troubled family and, with her very individual blend of kindness, practicality and backbone, improves the lot of each of its members.
Widowed little more than a year previously, twenty-four-year-old Jeannie McVinnie lives quietly in Kircudbright with her late husband’s father. When she receives a letter imploring her to come to London to become the companion of a young lady she has never heard of, Jeannie is mystified. It is signed by a Captain William Summers – whom she doesn’t know either – but Mr. McVinnie explains that his late sister had also been named Jean, and that she had been nanny to a family of that name, so the missive must have been meant for her. The letter tells of a spoiled young débutante, a petulant sister and a sickly nephew – and, reading between the lines, of Captain Summers’ frustration and annoyance at the situation in which he has been placed.
Even though she knows she is not the McVinnie for whom the letter was intended, Jeannie makes up her mind to go to London to see what can be done – partly to assuage her own restlessness and partly so that Mr. McVinnie can leave town for a few weeks in order to attend a gathering of his former military comrades.
Arriving at the Summers residence at a hectic moment, Jeannie is mistaken for a seamstress and bundled upstairs immediately in order to make alterations to young Larinda’s dress. Repaid by insult and ill-manners from both the young woman and her aunt, Jeannie decides straightaway that this is not the place for her and that she will head back to Scotland as soon as she can. Before she can turn tail, however, she is summoned to attend Captain Summers and a loose button.
She is immediately struck by the Captain’s air of stern authority, but decides he is too forbidding a man for comfort. He is short with Jeannie, but not rude, although she can sense he’s having trouble holding himself in check given the disruption to his routine and household caused by his niece’s upcoming début.
Summers’ anger is not merely due to disruption and his sister’s continual fits of the vapours. He is furious because, in time of war, he has been ordered back to shore by Lord Charles Smeath – his superior at the Admiralty and Larinda’s other uncle – simply because Smeath does not want to act as the girl’s escort during the Season.
When Jeannie owns the truth of her identity, the captain’s reaction is unexpected. Instead of anger or annoyance that she is not his elderly former nanny, he all but commands her to remain. Larinda must have a chaperone and companion, and Jeannie’s no-nonsense attitude is just what is needed.
Reluctantly agreeing to stay for a short time, Jeannie quickly makes her presence felt. She alerts Summers to the poor treatment being meted out to his four-year-old ward, befriends his nephew, Edward, and accompanies him on an outing to the Tower of London where a visit to the menagerie brings her to the attention of no less august a personage than Beau Brummell himself. Larinda’s determination to have nothing to do with this “nobody” lasts rather longer, but she eventually comes to realise the value of the friendship that has been offered to her and is grateful for Jeannie’s companionship and advice.
And the captain, a lonely man in an even lonelier profession finds himself, for the very first time, not as delighted at the prospect of returning to the sea as he has been in the past.
Carla Kelly fashions a charming romance between two ‘ordinary’ people, and also displays her customary eye for historical detail, especially in those scenes which detail the circumstances faced by the common sailor. She makes no bones about the precarious nature of naval life, often referring to it as the most dangerous of the armed services. Summers makes jokes about the smell and taste of four-month-old drinking water, and of his fondness for hard ship’s biscuits and simple food, but underpinning the humour are both his acknowledgement of the hardships of his chosen life as well as his abiding love for it.
Jeannie is clever and possessed of a healthy dose of common sense, things which attract Summers in no small degree, as does her affectionate, loving nature. She discovers an innate kindness behind the captain’s austere exterior, and, despite her avowed intention never to marry another military man, finds herself falling for him. While he cuts a dash, certainly in Jeannie’s eyes, Summers is neither young nor strikingly handsome, but he’s an attractive hero, possessed of considerable perception and a ready, dry wit. While their relationship does progress rather quickly, there is a depth to the connection between them that makes it believable, although a future together is not assured given Summers’ love for life at sea and Jeannie’s disinclination to marry another man who will spend months at a time away from home. There are some highly moving moments of acuity into the nature of loneliness and loss, and the secret in Jeannie’s past which is alluded to, while not dark or shameful, is tragic and pulls at the heartstrings.
Mrs McVinnie’s London Season is a quick, enjoyable read which possesses considerable insight and substance, despite its relative brevity. I do have a couple of reservations, however, one of which is that Jeannie is a bit too good to be true. I likened her to Mary Poppins at the beginning of this review, and she really is practically perfect in every way; befriending the younger children and getting through Larinda’s frostiness; winning the captain’s heart (perhaps I should be comparing her to Maria von Trapp!) and towards the end, putting others before herself, even when she receives a terrible blow.
The other is that there is a lot of disregard for convention when Jeannie and Summers are together. She might be a widow, and thus allowed a little more lassitude in her dealings with the opposite sex, but there is a lot of hand-holding and squeezing, and they have several conversations while alone together in her bedroom. This is a clean romance, so there is no hanky-panky taking place, but it still wasn’t the done thing for a man to visit a woman’s room unless they were blood relations.
At the end of the book, while Jeannie and Summers have decided they want to be together, they clearly have much to work out between them in terms of what they want from life and each other. And that’s why I’m saying that the ending is more of an HFN than an HEA. Jeannie knows Summers will not give up the sea, and he knows she wants a permanent home and children. Yet the relationship we have seen evolve is honest and open enough to leave the reader with a sense of optimism about their future. And this reader is certainly content to believe that they love each other enough to be able to make it work.