In landscape design, a garden folly is a structure whose only objective is to deceive. They have no purpose other than as ornament—to delight the eye and draw one to their door to evoke a romantic scene or time. How apt that author Candice Hern chose to name her Regency romance A Garden Folly, since her main characters are follies themselves.
Set at the Kent grand country estate of the Duke of Carlisle, two impoverished sisters impersonate aristocrats to entrap rich husbands, while the wealthy and titled owner of the dukedom, and the continuing custodian and creator of its grand landscape, hides behind the mantle of the head gardener to avert interaction with Society. Both hero and heroine have serious trust issues. How they will overcome their personal challenges is a serpentine path that teasingly twists, turns, and surprises the reader until the last page.
Catherine and Susannah Forsythe are down on their luck. Living in genteel poverty on the wrong side of London with Aunt Hetty was not what they had expected at this time in their lives. Their father, Sir Benjamin Forsythe, squandered their family fortune before he died two years ago, but they still have beauty and wits in their corner. A surprise invitation from Aunt Hetty’s childhood friend, the Duchess of Carlisle, for her annual summer house party at Chissingworth may be their only chance to catch rich husbands. Determined to pull off the deception that they are wealthy young ladies, Catherine, with the help of their servant McDougal, magically acquire all the tools needed to disguise their poverty: clothes, carriage, jewels, and servants. Now they must set their caps for the right man, steering clear of the wrongs sorts: “penniless younger sons, clerics, or half-pay officers.” Arriving in style, the deception begins.
Stephen Archibald Frederick Charles Godfrey Manwaring, Duke of Carlisle, is a serious gardener and devout bachelor. At two and thirty he has managed to avoid marriage and his mother’s annual summer garden party devised to introduce him to marriageable young ladies, for years. Since the enigmatic duke has succeeded eluding polite Society most of his life, he has been tagged an eccentric half-wit. He has, however, devoted his life to the management of his estate’s landscapes, collecting rare plants and avoiding love. Catherine, also a great admirer of rare plants is thrilled at the chance to be in the country again and happily strolls the gardens to drink in the verdant countryside and profuse flora of the magnificently landscaped Chissingworth gardens. When the young duke and young the masquerading fortune hunter collide in the garden, he is roughly dressed and she mistakes him for the head gardener. She is a passionate admirer of rare flowers, especially hybrids, which are his favorites too—so he lets the deception continue. They agree to meet again the next morning, and thus begins his infatuation with a new rare flower named Catherine. She, on the other hand, is deep into discovering the “right” husband for her beautiful but dim sister Sukey and herself, and with the help of McDougal, who runs recon to determine who among the 60 guests are listed on the top 50 bachelors under 40 in Britain, is totally oblivious to who she is actually meeting every morning to tour the gardens. Also among the guests is Stephen’s friend Miles, the Earl of Strickland, a recent widow who takes a shine to Catherine. There are many other eligible bachelors to pursue until nearsighted Susannah goes after the wrong green-coated man and all of the weight of finding a rich husband falls on Catherine. As she and the head gardener become more than friends, and an earl is courting her, Catherine must decide if she should marry for love or money.
The British are indisputably passionate gardeners. Setting A Garden Folly at a country estate at the height of August, the peak blooming season, allowed the author to take us on a fabulous journey through the gardens as they would have appeared in Regency times:
“With this in mind, she wandered through the surprisingly informal arrangement of gardens. In the dressed grounds nearest the house, high, clipped shrubbery hedges of sweetbrier, box, and hawthorn surrounded each garden. Moving through the enclosed hedges was akin to walking through the various rooms of a house, each room different from the last. One was awash in bright colors of summer, the gravel paths bordered with stocks, pinks, double rocket, sweet Williams and asters. The morning sun fell upon spires of delphinium sparkling with dew. Her artist’s eye was drawn to the glitter of the moisture on the indigo and royal peaks, and she paused to seat herself on a nearby stone bench. She pulled a pencil and a scrap of paper from her pocket and roughly sketched the familiar blossoms.” (36)
Hern is renowned for her Regency research and descriptions in her novels. Usually we are treated to vintage clothing fabrics and home interiors, but in this case, we are delightfully entertained with flora and folly. The landscape as an artist’s canvas can be formed and molded and admired. So can people, and I was not only struck by our journey through the gardens of a vast country estate but through the transformation of the characters.
Catherine was determined that she and her sister marry for money to save and protect their family. During Regency times that was not uncommon, but her mercenary motives eventually catch up with her as she reveals her true motives to the head gardener/Stephen as a fortune hunter of the worst sort. As her “veneer of perfection” to Stephen crumbles, he sees her fierce determination to bag a fortune—a large fortune—and is disgusted. Her heartless calculation repulses him and reinforces his trust issues. He is certain that no one can love him and not his title. He will not reveal that he is duke until he has secured her affection as a commoner; she will not let herself love a man who cannot provide for her in a grand style. Two people who have been forced by circumstances to be “follies,” destined for heartbreak.
I can’t honestly say that I admired Catherine and Stephen’s motives, nor their personalities, but by the end, things do evolve and their facades change. How we are taken down the garden path is a delightful excursion. This garden geek was not only entranced by the picturesque views and swooning fragrance of an English garden, but by the transformation of the characters by love. A Garden Folly was the perfect antidote to a dark winter of rain and snow. A refreshing journey of discovery and delight.
4 out of 5 Stars
A Garden Folly: A Regency Romance, by Candice Hern
Trade paperback (236) pages
Book cover image courtesy © Candice Hern 2012; text © 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose