“Hell is paved with good intentions.” ― Samuel Johnson
I just couldn’t resist throwing in this famous quote by the great literary genius, poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer of the 18th century, Samuel Johnson. His moral and literary influence on Jane Austen has been well documented by scholars. Austen’s inspiration on her beneficiaries including Georgette Heyer, the greatest Regency romance novelist of the 20th century, and now the next generation with Candice Hern gives her novel The Best Intentions six degrees of separation that writers dream about. The hero, heroine, antagonist and secondary characters all act with “good intentions” using moral judgment to rationalize their actions. What ensues is a social comedy of manners that takes a sly look at what motivates Society in the Regency era—and like Johnson, Austen, and Heyer, Hern gives us a dose of humor and romance to soften reality.
It is 1814. Peace is at hand in England after decades of war with France. Bonaparte has been exiled to Elba and British soldiers are returning home. Like Jane Austen’s novels, The Best Intentions is not about war or government politics. It is about two or three county families at a manor house in Northamptonshire and two people who do not want to marry anyone, but by social stricture must do so, and how the best intentions of their family and friends try to influence them.
Miles Prescott, the Earl of Strickland, has secretly put himself back on the marriage market after the death of his wife two years ago. After his failed first attempt to attach himself to a new bride two months ago at a country house party at Chissingworth, (A Garden Folly), he is dead set against a young romantic Miss and determined to find an older woman who has known love and only seeks security and comfort. He jokes that he will marry anyone who likes his two daughters, and, is young enough to give him an heir. His older sister Lady Tyndale is an unstoppable force. She is determined to see him married and arrives at Epping Hall with two cousins in tow: Lady Abingdon, a beautiful young widow, and her nineteen-year-old half-sister, bookish and unpolished Hannah Fairbanks. Presently acting as Hannah’s chaperone, Charlotte wants to “seriously pursue this fine lord without the added baggage of an unmarried, bookish bumpkin under her wing.” On the other hand, Hannah is not interested in courtship and marriage, at all. The only true pleasures in her life are books and architecture. The one reason she is being somewhat reasonable about this trip is to see St. Biddulph’s church near Eppingham, the most historically significant Saxon building in England.
Unpolished and impulsive, things pop out of Hannah’s mouth before she knows it, a bracing surprise to the earl and his guests at Epping Hall, but a humorous and enlightening for the reader! The contrast between this geekish colt of a girl and her calculating older sister is startling:
“Men were stupid creatures, Hannah decided as she watched the earl and Mr. Wetherby chatting with Charlotte on the other side of the drawing room as they waited for dinner to be announced. How easily they fell victim to her sister’s manufactured charm. They appeared completely captivated. Charlotte had their undivided attention as she spoke to them in her whispery for-gentlemen-only voice.” (50)
Like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Hern gives the reader the opportunity to question “what is the difference in matrimonial affairs between the mercenary and the prudent motive? Where does discretion end, and avarice begin?” Hannah may be straight out of the schoolroom, but she sees quite clearly the way of the world—the motivations of both men and women for matrimony—sex and money, and she wants no part of it. Lord Stickland has known love and lost it; he now is resigned to settle for an unromantic alliance. Will he choose the wife that his sister and his defeated spirit want, or the most unlikely of the two cousins?
Even though I guessed in the first chapter who would end up with whom, the character arch in The Best Intentions is one of the most memorable of Hern’s novels. Hannah Fairbanks is my favorite of her heroines: she is like a cross between Austen’s young, impressionable Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey and spirited and outspoken Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice; two heroines I greatly admire, who when combined cancel out their negative characteristics and blend to make one unique and delightful young lady. The reserved and practical Miles is a hunk to boot, so get ready for witty dialogue and swoon-worthy romance. I highly recommend it.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Best Intentions: A Regency Romance, by Candice Hern
Trade paperback (232) pages
Book cover image courtesy © Candice Hern 2012; text © 2013 Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose