Traditional Regency Romance has had its ebb and flow in popularity over the years. This subgenre of romance novels was made famous by English writer Georgette Heyer with its roots deeply entwined in Jane Austen’s novels of manners and courtship. By 2005, trends were shifting and readers preferred the freedom of the Regency Historical which allowed more intimate relationships and daring plots. In the past few years, I have seen a resurgence in popularity of the Traditional Regency Romance and credit authors Candice Hern, Carla Kelly, Julie Klassen, Julianne Donaldson and Sarah M. Eden for its renaissance. Now, I am very pleased to add one more author to my list of favorites, Christina Dudley.
I first became aware of Dudley’s talent when I read The Beresfords, a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. She had successfully transformed Austen’s dark horse into an interesting and thoughtful contemporary novel receiving such accolades as “brilliant,” “masterful,” and “endearing” from reviewers. Truly amazing. Imagine my delight when I discovered that her next novel, The Naturalist, would be a Traditional Regency, and, it was the first book in a series!
While many modern Regencies revolve around the Ton (London Society) and aristocrats, The Naturalist is set in the wilds of Somerset among the landed gentry, harkening to Austen’s fondness for three or four families in a country village. Joseph Tierney, a budding naturalist, has arrived at Pattergees the estate of Lord Marton on assignment with the Royal Society to conduct an exhaustive natural study of the realm. Lady Marlton and her daughter, the Honorable Miss Birdlow, are more interested in studying HIM and soon realize that the neighboring families will think Mr. Tierney is “the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” They immediately set about discrediting the competition including neighbors Elfrida and Alice Hapgood. Mr. Tierney, who has no designs upon marrying anyone, only wishes to find an assistant to help him discover and collect the local flora and fauna.
Alice Hapgood, also a budding naturalist, is hiding her passion for the out-of-doors from her disapproving father by disguise and stealth. When shortly after his arrival Mr. Tierney encounters a local lad poaching trout on Lord Marlton’s property, he is none the wiser, thinking he/she would make the perfect assistant for his project. Alice immediately thinks he would make the perfect husband! Spinning the persona of Arthur Baddely she deftly shows Mr. Tierney all the treasures of woodland and meadow while learning all she can from him. Their friendship soon grows until a cousin of the Birdlows publically exposes her as an imposter, scandalizing the community and forcing Mr. Tierney’s hand. As a gentleman, he is honor-bound to save her reputation by marrying her even though it means putting aside his dream of becoming a naturalist. To support a wife he must return to his family in Buckinghamshire and become a clergyman, the profession and living that he previously refused. Ashamed and humiliated, Alice does not want to be forced into marrying anyone, especially the man she loves.
A literary feast for any Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer fan, The Naturalist is a wonderful escape into the verdant countryside and the lives of two young lovers of nature who learn that truth and respect are the most important foundations of any relationship. The final outcome of their romance is never in question, but their winding path of discovery for science, and their hearts is a memorable journey. Dudley’s plot was so reverent to the Traditional Regency genre filled with original, quirky characters, witty repartee, layered secrets, blundering misunderstandings, and laugh-out-loud humor. I just cringed as heroine Alice dug herself deeper and deeper into her deception of lies to impersonate Arthur. You just knew it was going to backfire on her at some point, and when it does, the reaction of the two main characters, their families and the community was not a surprise, but how Dudley worked both of their inner struggles and points of view around to the happy conclusion was very clever.
My only quibbles are totally selfish. I saw a resemblance of the Hapgood family, with their four daughters and no male heir, to the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice. Why no fifth sister? Maybe we will meet a pedantic Hapgood cousin in the future? I also craved more time with the hero and heroine as themselves, and also as Tierney and Baddely. The contrast of their personalities together in the ballroom or in a woodland forest was well crafted and worthy of further development.
If you read one Traditional Regency this year let it be The Naturalist – and save a place on your to-be-read list for the next in the series, A Very Plain Young Man: Book Two of The Hapgoods of Bromleigh, releasing this spring.
4 out of 5 Stars
The Naturalist: Book One of The Hapgoods of Bromleigh, by Christina Dudley
BellaVita Press (2013)
Trade paperback (286) pages
Cover image courtesy of BellaVita Press © 2013; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com