Lord Stanhope's Proposal
by Jessica Benson, historical (2005, reissue)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7801-3

My first Jessica Benson book was the author's ambitious chick-lit/Regency historical hybrid The Accidental Duchess. When I see this book on the shelf, the first thing to pop into my head is: "That poor dear! One big book with Pocket and now she's dumped and forced to publish with Kensington? I knew that first-person narration voice is a mistake... well, I better do what I can to soothe the poor gal's self-esteem!" So in this book goes into my book bag.

The good news is, this book is actually a reissue. That means the author has either a very good agent or her book sells by the truckloads - either way it's all good. The bad news is, this book is actually a traditional Regency published in 2000 now reissued as a historical romance. And no, there's no penetration scene added for extra spice. Oh dear. Me? And a traditional Regency?

Lord Stanhope's Proposal is an ensemble comedy rather than a straightforward romance because it has a large cast interacting and our lovebirds are just two of many people populating the story. Everything happens in Deepdene, Sussex. Our hero Tristan, Earl of Stanhope has to go to that place because his cousin Oswald "Ossie" Cravvandish is up to no good. Exiled by his mother from town due to his latest embarrassing rumbunctious antics in public, Ossie concocts a plan with his buddies so that he can leave town without having everyone know that his mother has sent him away from London. He tells everyone that he is going to the estate of his friend Elmo Lyttworth's family to court a prim and proper bluestocking called Calista Ashton. Upon seeing the outcome of this "courtship" wagered in clubs, Tristan rushes to Deepdene to save Calista, who will be very surprised at her sudden engagement to Ossie, from more embarrassment without Ossie dragging the family name deeper into the mud.

He tells Lyttworth's parents that he will be coming to buy Elmo's horse (don't ask, it's a rather long story) and his parents assume that the "filly" he is coming to see is Sofie, Elmo's sister. Tristan will be surprised at the wedding plans taking place even before his arrival. Meanwhile, Calista is being coerced into marriage into an unpleasant local squire. Ossie and his friends are besotted with and are eager to court Sofie but Ossie is obligated to court Calista because of the wagers made about the outcome of this "courtship". And on and on the story goes, as the cast bloats up to include Tristan's mistress and a couple of obligatory sharp and blunt-tongued old ladies.

The characters in this book are tried and true stereotypes. Tristan is the rakish gentleman, Calista is the determined joyless bluestocking, Sofie is insipid, her mother is shrewd and grasping, her father doesn't care too much, Ossie is vapid - the usual. What makes this story work pretty well though is the author's infectious sense of mischief that seems to be brimming from her prose. While nothing about this story is in any way surprising or unexpected, there is no shortage of scenes or dialogues to elicit chuckles if not laughter from me.

What this book ultimately lacks though is depth. If it has depth, the book would be a more memorable read. More specifically, Calista and Tristan lack depth.

Calista starts off as one of those determined joyless martyr sorts, to whom even wearing pretty clothes is considered "moral decadence" (her words, not mine). She disapproves of rakes in principal. She runs off to help sick people if she's not reading some feminist tracts. Oh, and she has to be dragged to parties. In short, she's one joyless wraith of a heroine. But perplexingly, she falls for Tristan, who embodies everything she's supposedly against, without experiencing any internal moral conflicts. This makes her come off like a nitwit with wishy-washy principles. But what's more disquieting is how her falling in love with Tristan seems to arise solely from her being attracted to his looks at first sight. Calista's subsequent actions and emotions give me this impression that she is just justifying her attraction to Tristan and compromising her beliefs in the process.

Meanwhile, it's hard to understand Tristan's attraction to Calista. Of course, she's unusual, intelligent, doesn't simper - the same old shtick found in every other Regency historical - but what else is there? There has to be something else, surely? I don't get anything deeper to his attraction to Calista other than his finding her a novelty of sorts.

To sum up, Calista comes off like one of those thou-protests-too-much nitwits who insist that they will never like boys until they go to summer camp when they are thirteen and next thing I know, they are constantly stuffing their bras to attract those boys' attention. Tristan comes off like someone mistakes novelty for genuine affection. Underneath the effervescent comedy, therefore, Lord Stanhope's Proposal could use a little more substance to back up its plentiful comedy.

Rating: 73

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