Sir Richard Kenworthy has less than a month to find a bride. . .
He knows he can’t be too picky, but when he sees Iris Smythe-Smith hiding behind her cello at her family’s infamous musicale, he thinks he might have struck gold. She’s the type of girl you don’t notice until the second-or third-look, but there’s something about her, something simmering under the surface, and he knows she’s the one.
Iris Smythe-Smith is used to being underestimated. With her pale hair and quiet, sly wit she tends to blend into the background, and she likes it that way. So when Richard Kenworthy demands an introduction, she is suspicious. He flirts, he charms, he gives every impression of a man falling in love, but she can’t quite believe it’s all true. And when his proposal of marriage turns into a compromising position that forces the issue, she can’t help thinking that he’s hiding something…even as her heart tells her to say yes.
I’ve seen a lot of very mixed reactions to this book, which is the final novel in the author’s Smythe-Smith Quartet. All the negative comments I’ve seen concern the actions of the hero, the eponymous Sir Richard, who – it’s true – perpetrates a rather despicable deception on the heroine. But when I reached the end of the book, I found I was thinking of him as a decent man who had been backed into a corner and who made a very poor decision as a result rather than as a truly horrible person.
The questions as to the hero’s… well, hero-ness then struck me as being something that isn’t quite in Julia Quinn’s normal way. She’s known principally for deftly written romantic comedies full of sparkling wit and humour, but this book – this series, in fact – has employed some darker themes which haven’t always sat well in conjunction with her normally light, comedic style. There’s also been a tendency towards the melodramatic throughout the series (the dénoument of The Sum of All Kisses, I’m looking at YOU!) which I’ve found somewhat jarring when once again set against Ms Quinn’s usually more lighthearted fare.
Having said all that – I enjoyed The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, while recognising that those secrets – and actually, there’s only one secret – and the way in which Richard keeps them from Iris, may be what makes this book practically unreadable for others.
The annual Smythe-Smith musicale was first introduced in the author’s Bridgerton series (I believe), and is known throughout the ton for being the musical event of the season…primarily as one that should be avoided at all costs. It’s that time of the year again, the young women of the family are designated to perform – and their friends and family attend in a show of support while discreetly packing cotton-wool into their ears. The one member of the quartet with any real musical talent is the cellist, Iris, whom we’ve met in the previous books. With her pale hair, eyes and skin she’s used to blending into the background and most of the time, she likes it that way as it affords her the chance to observe the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of life among the great and good of society.
So she’s surprised and rather unnerved when she notices a rather handsome young man staring at her throughout the performance, and even more surprised when he angles for an introduction. He is Sir Richard Kenworthy, a baronet who resides principally in Yorkshire and even though Iris is rather suspicious of Richard’s eagerness to meet her, she can’t help feeling a little flattered by the attentions of such a charming man.
A week later, following several morning calls, walks and drives in the park, Richard proposes – and while Iris is tempted, she asks him for more time to get to know him. But what she doesn’t know – and he doesn’t tell her – is that he doesn’t have time to spend on a courtship. He needs a wife and he needs one immediately, so he manoeuvres Iris into a compromising position, knowing that will force the issue.
Iris is dismayed. She likes Richard very much and, had his proposal been less precipitate, is fairly sure she would have accepted him. But now, she has had her choices taken away from her, and doesn’t know why.
The fact that Richard likes Iris just as much makes him feel like the lowest of the low. He has come to London with the intention of finding himself a bride from the ranks of the veterans of several seasons whose desire to marry has turned desperate. Instead, he’s smitten with Iris’ pale beauty and her quick wit – although he can’t deny that he also chose her because he suspected her tendency to fade into the background would mean she was unlikely to be one of the ton’s most sought after young ladies.
The first half of the book is very enjoyable, and Ms Quinn keeps the mystery of Richard’s reasons for needing to get married sufficiently vague as to keep the reader hooked and wanting to know more. Her trademark humour and lightness of touch are much in evidence, and even though Richard’s actions are not of the best, he does genuinely care for Iris and shows her some lovely moments of tenderness and genuine affection.
The real problems start after the wedding, when Richard refuses to consummate the marriage, leaving Iris feeling undesired and unattractive. Arrived at her new home, she is surprised to see Richard utterly livid when he learns that his two sisters have departed to stay with their aunt. Her suspicions that all is not as it seems are only strengthened, but with no evidence to go on but a vague feeling, she decides to try to set them aside as she adjusts to her new life.
Reasoning that he might as well take advantage of his sisters’ absence to spend time alone with Iris, Richard decides to offer her the courtship he wasn’t able to give her before and hopes to encourage her affection for him before he has to come clean about his reasons for marrying her. And here’s another nail in the coffin of Richard’s “hero-dom” – he is so desperate to take his new wife to bed, that he’s completely unable to resist touching her affectionately, or kissing her passionately – only to realise what he’s doing and pull back, leaving her alone, unsatisfied and bewildered.
When Richard’s reasons for marrying Iris so quickly were revealed, I confess I thought it was a dumb plan. Then I thought about it some more, and realised that it’s not actually beyond the bounds of possibility – even though it’s still a dumb plan. It’s difficult to say much more without spoilers, but the whole thing was born of Richard’s desperation to protect his younger sisters. He’s their legal guardian as well as their brother, a responsibility that came to him after the death of their parents when he was still at university. Having no idea how to care for two young girls – and, being a young man, not very much interested in doing so – he palmed them off on their aunt, something for which he now feels very guilty and for which he is obviously trying to atone.
This book has clearly divided opinions, and I can’t deny I’ve got mixed feelings about it. Iris is a terrific heroine – intelligent, kind and ultimately a tower of emotional strength, and it’s much in Richard’s favour that he is well able to recognise what a treasure he has unearthed in her. He’s not such a well-drawn character though, partly, I suspect because readers have had three other books in which to become acquainted with Iris, and partly because of the necessity to keep his motives hidden for a large part of the story.
The ending of the book feels rushed, and the solution to everybody’s problems seems to have been arrived at too easily when compared to the desperation evinced by Richard’s shameful deception. The fact that the behaviour of Richard’s eldest sister is so unpleasant doesn’t help the readers to sympathise with his actions, and as with the last book, the melodrama of the situation overbalances the final chapters.
Ultimately, I have to write reviews based on my own enjoyment, and I did enjoy reading The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy, despite my reservations. Richard is terribly misguided but not the contemptible bastard he has been labelled by some. In fact, he’s affable and rather sweet, and as I said at the outset, seems to me to be a man with his back against the wall who makes a very poor choice. It’s strongly written and there is much to enjoy in the relationship between the principals in the early stages, but I can see that it might not be a book for everybody.