Review: A Secret Arrangement by Farida Mestek

Henry Chadderton’s father earned his wealth in trade, but he looks to elevate his son to the gentry through marriage into a titled family. And so it is that Edward Montford, the second son of an impoverished baronet, accompanies his twin sister Emma to London in order to introduce her to her future husband.

Henry neither appreciates being ordered around nor has any intention of marrying anyone. Then he meets Emma—and Edward—and falls in love with the wrong sibling, setting off a chain of events that will cause arguments, bloodshed, jealousy, and scandal. But Henry will endure it all if it will eventually lead Edward to him.

Review by S. Endicott

I’ve given this book two stars because it’s a remarkably good imitation of an antique style of writing. But its major virtue is also its major drawback, and shows why most writers don’t attempt a close imitation of period style. The author, who says her dream “is to build a Regency village, the aim of which would be to provide Regency-lovers from around the world with a veritable Regency lifestyle experience,” has immersed herself so deeply that she has written one hundred and fifty-nine pages of speechifying and run-on sentences and this makes for terribly dull reading.

I can appreciate the work this must have taken if Farida Mestek’s native language is not English (her bio says she lives in Ukraine), but it’s surprising that her editor at Dreamspinner didn’t encourage her to bring the language just a little more up to date and attempt to show, rather than tell. Many of the events in the story are seen only when the characters tell one another about them, and these people never use one word when fifteen will do. It was a struggle to get past the first chapter, and the going never got any easier—and this wasn’t helped by a prologue set in April 1810, two chapters in May of that year, and a third chapter that bounced back to April.

The story has a typical Regency plotline: the Montford family fortunes are on shaky ground due to the profligate habits of Sir Charles Montford and his equally improvident heir and namesake. Edward Montford, the younger of the two romantic leads, is the ingenuous younger half-brother sent to chaperone his sister Emma while she meets Henry Chadderton, the other m in this m/m. Sir Charles has arranged with Chadderton Senior that his daughter Emma will marry Henry and rescue the Montford fortunes, but Henry takes a gander at the two pretty young things, Edward and Emma, and decides Edward is more his type. Instead of honourably telling his father he’s not interested, he decides not to pitch woo to the lady, hoping that his abrupt retreat will give Emma a gentle hint. Unfortunately for him, Emma doesn’t take hints.

Poor Edward is stuck in the middle. He finds Henry quite charming (so we are told) but has no clue at all why the man won’t pop the question to Emma, since it’s supposed to be all arranged. His attempts to persuade the reluctant suitor to get back on-task don’t succeed, so Sir Charles sends his obnoxious heir to show his younger brother how it’s done.

Charles the younger is a complete ass. He seems to think that the way to fill a man with ardour is to threaten to put a bullet through him.

Edward looked from Emma to Charles, shocked. “Do you not find it extreme to duel with someone because he does not wish to court your sister?” he asked.

“He has to answer for the offence he inflicted upon our family,” said Charles frostily.

“What offence? His lack of interest in Emma?”

“His lack of honor! He broke his word as a gentleman and disgraced Emma in the eyes of society!”

“It was a private understanding between his father and ours, and if not for Emma’s vanity and conceit, which had her clamouring about their upcoming engagement at every gathering, no one in society would know of it!” said Edward, his breathing quickening. “He gave no word to break! Whatever bargain our fathers had struck between the two of them, it was done without his consent, and he had every right to excuse himself from the scheme that he found not to his taste!”

“He will answer for compromising Emma’s honor!”

“How in heavens did he manage to compromise her honor?”

“By withdrawing from the courtship he implied that her virtue was in question! He will take her as his wife or face the consequences.”

“This is ridiculous! A man should be at liberty to choose who he wishes to marry!” cried Edward.

He turned to his sister.

“Emma, I entreat you to be reasonable. Do not let our family’s obsessive gluttony for riches blind you! Chadderton should not be the one to pay for our indiscretions and squandering. Upon my word, this is hardly the best way to go about getting a husband. I should feel profoundly sorry for any young lady who could consider it a triumph to accept an offer of marriage that was enforced by her brother’s hand! Did Chadderton’s snubs and indifference make no impression on you?” he demanded. “How can you justify chasing a man who has made it abundantly clear that he has no interest in you? Emma! Where is your dignity? Your self-respect? Your pride?”

Emma either doesn’t have any or she turned Edward off halfway through that last speech, and who can blame her? Edward’s right, though—since Henry never proposed, or even asked Emma’s father for permission to court her, there were no grounds to challenge him to a duel. You don’t bag a brother-in-law with a pistol.
But the duel takes place anyhow. Chadderton delopes in the finest heroic style, but by accident or intent, Charles wings Chadderton and the result—for no evident reason besides getting Henry and Edward alone together—is that Edward winds up accompany Henry to his country estate, where they spend some time in cultural pursuits (Edward reads Shakespeare to Henry, Henry teaches Edward to shoot and gamble.) It’s kind of a shame that Mestek never actually quoted Shakespeare, because the sonnets would have brought some life to this extremely stodgy courtship. Anyone who is expecting any sex in this situation is going to be sorely disappointed. Edward blushes a few times, but that’s about the extent of it.

Further plot complications from Emma and one of Chadderton’s less savoury friends do slowly move the story along, but by the time it gets to the end, with Emma and Charles safely disposed of and Henry and Edward getting ready to take the Grand Tour of Europe (in 1810?) I was fed up with the whole crew. Emma came across as yet another of those tiresome females thrown into a gay romance to make the guys look wonderful in comparison, and in fact every significant character in this story, other than Edward and Henry, was a shallow, selfish jerk to one degree or another—and Edward and Henry weren’t that much better. Edward seemed like a nice kid but he was painfully dim, and Henry’s treatment of Emma was genuinely boorish.

“When I set out to meet your sister I had heard much of her beauty. I was prepared to admire her without any danger of being taken in by her allurements, as I have long since discovered that such charms, though captivating and pleasant to behold, have no power over me. Imagine my astonishment when upon entering the drawing room with every intention of playing the part of a scoundrel at a later date, I perceived not one but two divine creatures, one of whom proved to be an immediate temptation….

“How alike your aspects appeared to me on first notice, and yet as I sat in front of the double vision and took in the whole picture, how different I found you. Your frank and curious air appealed to me instantly. You seemed unspoilt by attention and thus craving it. You spoke freely and unguardedly and gazed at me with such a flattering expression of awe and adoration that I could not imagine not pursuing your further acquaintance.”

This doesn’t sound like someone I’d want my brother or sister to marry—this is sheer selfishness. Later in the story, what appeared to be a generous gesture on Henry’s part was really just a means of buying off Edward’s father and sister.

Miss Mestek’s bio says that she has read Jane Austen’s novels many times, and her writing style is proof of that—but she lacks Austen’s human insight and ability to create three-dimensional characters, and she’s overlooked some things that Austen would never have bothered to explain because her readers in that era would have known about them–the legitimate grounds for a duel or the common presence of firearms. Explaining away a gunshot wound would not have required the elaborate charade of Edward going to Henry’s estate and making up some wild story. All that was needed was for Henry to say he’d had a mishap while loading his pistol. And that happy ending? In 1810 Europe was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, not the best time for attempting the Grand Tour. A little basic research would have prevented these errors.

Forced plot, weak characterizations, dialog that created a craving for strong coffee… this book never caught or held my interest and I would recommend it only to Regency completists.

Author’s website

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5 Responses

  1. Oh dear. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Regency fan, but I think I’ll give this one a miss.

    Pity; it sounds as though this story could have been an entertaining one too, with a bit of work on character development and checking and double checking historical facts – an 1810 Grand Tour is an unforgiveable blunder !! Any Regency writer who knows her stuff should know about the Napoleonic wars – shouldn’t she?

    I had a look at Ferida Mestek’s webpage and it’s obvious she loves the genre. However, before she attempts another historical, she would do herself a favour by studying the period first. Her other book, Margaret’s Rematch, contains another unforgiveable blunder – the heroine marries her brother-in-law! (From reading the blurb, the hero is her late sister’s husband.)

    Ms Mestek – in Regency times, this was illegal ! (And icky, to boot…)

  2. Actually, if you check the year 1810 in Wikipedia, you will see that Europe wasn’t THAT much affected by the Napoleonic wars. There were things going on in Holland and Portugal, but one could always go to other places, Europe is big. Also. English nobles used to travel even to France during the French revolution (vide Miss Berry), and that requires a little more courage than going, say, to Italy or Austria in 1810.

    As for marrying one’s late wife’s sister, here is another quote from Wikipedia: Charles Austen married Frances Palmer, the youngest daughter of the late Attorney-General of Bermuda, in 1807. After the death of Frances, Charles married his late wife’s sister in 1820.

    • One might travel to France during the Revolution, but England wasn’t involved in that. One would be foolhardy indeed to attempt to travel across France or in other country that Napoleon had a vested interest in.

      It WAS illegal to marry brothers and sisters in law – however, as the law derived from an ecclesiastical law, it could be waived – with permission – which is how Charles married and got away with it. I haven’t read the book mentioned, obviously, so I assume that permission was mentioned. I only know about this, as I’m setting a book in the year when it was repealed.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deceased_Wife%27s_Sister%27s_Marriage_Act_1907

    • Re: Europe and the Napoleonic Wars… there might not have been a lot of active fighting, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean it was safe for Englishmen to travel there. When the Treaty of Amiens failed in 1803, Napoleon ordered the arrest of British civilians who were visiting in France, and some folks were stuck there for years. (There’s a great scene in one of O’Brian’s books where, to avoid arrest, Aubrey and Maturin sneak out over the frontier with Jack Aubrey disguised as a bear.) By 1810 Bonaparte’s empire extended over much of Europe–this site says he was ‘at the height of his powers.’

      http://www.theotherside.co.uk/tm-heritage/background/napoleon.htm

      So, probably not the best vacation destination for any Englishmen, gay or otherwise.

  3. And yet it is hard to imagine that no one would travel abroad during this time…

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