Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Paradise Will, by Elizabeth Hanbury

The premise of The Paradise Will is really a very charming one. A young lady is compelled by her eccentric uncle’s will to dine with a brusque, but ultimately fascinating nobleman once a week for six months; she has a rather cold-fish suitor, he has a scheming hussy of a would-be fiancee. It would make a wonderful comic opera, and in terms of characterisation, Hanbury does justice to her plot.

Alyssa Paradise, our heroine, is twenty-five, unmarried and smart as a whip. Her opposite number is Sir Giles Maxton, dark and brooding but possessed of a sardonic sense of humour that gels very well with Alyssa’s taste for jokes (how many young ladies in the early nineteenth century would dream up a tall tale involving cross-dressing, gambling and orgies, I wonder?). So far, so typical, you might think… but there is some particular quality in Hanbury’s writing – a freshness, perhaps – that ensures this couple’s story doesn’t stray too far into cliche territory. This is undoubtedly helped by the beautifully-drawn secondary characters, notably Alyssa’s bright foster sister, Letty, and wastrel cousin Piers, as well as Giles’ social-climbing lady friend Caroline and her mother Eugenie. Of course, Giles and Alyssa’s story is largely predictable; it’s written into the premise. But the secondary characters provide some very engaging action, as well as a few plot twists. In terms of plot and characterisation, this is a tight and well-run operation.

Where this debut novel runs into some difficulties, in my opinion, is historicity. The characters live out their drama without any real interaction with the outside world; for all the talk about working conditions, and the visits to deserving poor (which have drastic results for Alyssa), the only representative from the lower classes is the violent and amoral and decidedly undeserving Jonas Draper. Of course, a Regency romance is not (and should not be) The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that this one would have benefited from, well, more and better-drawn workers, especially since concern for their welfare is a key aspect of Alyssa’s character and the issue of fair pay turns out to be crucial to the plot. As it is, there’s a decided imbalance. Above all, while the characters are engaging, it is hard to get a sense of the epoch to which they belong; apart from the references to britches and unfashionable ostrich feathers, of course.

Language is also an issue when it comes to historicity. At times, Hanbury seems over-generous with the Regency slang:

“…Why, I would happily pelt him in the smeller if he lays one finger on you!”

Laughter rose to Alyssa’s throat at his use of boxing cant, but she quickly stifled it, seeing he was in earnest. “Ch-charles, all this is fustian!”

“Fustian? I think not. And another thing – if he is a loose fish, he could make himself agreeable to get Hawkscote!”

The “loose fish”, on top of fustian and smeller, made me choke a little. There is a fine line between being authentic enough and overegging it; that line is very hard to tread. (I’m definitely incorporating “loose fish” into my vocabulary, though.) There’s a dissonance, too, in the anachronistic and repeated use of “businessman”: a term that dates back to 1826 (six years too late for the Regency), and which carries very modern implications.

There’s no question that Hanbury has done her research, and a minor inconsistency is nothing damning. The issue is more that The Paradise Will does not seem entirely convincing as a period novel. I suspect this has to do partly with the lack of context I mentioned above, and partly with language, but mostly with a certain awkwardness. The narrative reads rather as if Hanbury is trying to sound like Georgette Heyer rather than writing with her own voice; which, to judge by the imagination deployed throughout the novel, must be a striking one. I caught myself wondering whether the narrator really needed to adapt the same rather convoluted language as the characters; couldn’t a modern telling of a Regency tale be just as valid as a conventional period piece? My instinctive feeling is that the action of this book would have been better served by a more direct narrative style; the vivid and immediate nature of the sex and romance scenes seems to sit uneasily with the rather decorous and circumspect feel of the rest of the novel. In fact, this could have been an excellent bodice-ripper, with all the chemistry flying about! As it is, there seems to be a contradiction at work, and Hanbury’s attempt at a “genre” voice is rather undermined by it. Particularly as it is the quirky, passionate, atypical side of The Paradise Will that is the more compelling.

For all the questions it raises, however, The Paradise Will has more than enough strong points to make it a pleasant and engaging read. The characterisation and the humour in particular make this novel a diverting choice. If you’re looking for a book with a thoroughly believable romance and an entertaining plot, this might just be the one for you.

The Paradise Will is published by Robert Hale Ltd.  Hardcover, 224 pp., ISBN 978-0709085492

15 comments on “The Paradise Will, by Elizabeth Hanbury

  1. Clorinda
    June 4, 2008

    Hi Kirsty, I have recently reviewed this book too, so I was interested to see that it was appearing on here today. I understand what you are trying to say about the poor people in the book, but this is a Regency romance (a genre) and not a social/historical comment novel. In this type of genre that I just love to read, I don’t want to read or have much description of the poor. (I’m not mean, or oblivious to true history or the needs of the poor – I just like to escape from reality when I read a book.) People who like this type of thing read “saga” books. Plenty of tragedy and poor people in those!

    Anyway, glad you liked it. I agree, the characterisation is brilliant and it is an engaging read.

    Julia Quinn is an american regency writer who is often criticised for not being historically accurate, but it doesn’t change the fact that her books are brilliant reads and she’s a bestseller both in the UK and USA.


  2. marygm
    June 4, 2008

    Interesting review. And interesting response from Clorinda. We’ve had discussions before about genre fiction and it seems to me that its main distinguishing feature is the level of reader expectations that come with it. Of course the plot of the novel can have lots of satisfying twists and turns but ultimately there are some basics that cannot be changed without disappointing its readers. The regency romance must end happliy with love just as the hard-boiled detective story must not. (I found the distinction between regency romance and saga interesting, I didn’t know that.)
    I think it is a useful thing to signpost a novel’s belonging to a particular genre so that those reader expectations are triggered and people can choose better what suits them.

  3. kirstyjane
    June 4, 2008

    Hi Clorinda. Well, of course I’m not suggesting that The Paradise Will be either a saga or a work of social comment – I probably didn’t make that clear enough. However, the author does take the decision to make the situation of the farm workers a key part of the plot, and to involve this aspect directly in the romance between the protagonists. I think it’s perfectly fair game to address it in a review.

    I’m aware of the genre to which The Paradise Will belongs and, as you can see, took it into consideration when thinking about how to write this review, but in the end I decided to treat it as a novel in its own right. Quite possibly I don’t have the genre sensibility that many readers will have. However, I don’t see why a book that has so many fundamentally good qualities shouldn’t be read and debated with like any other. It’s absolutely fine that many readers will choose to read and enjoy it without worrying about things like historicity, but it’s also perfectly fine, in my opinion, to read it with a critical eye. An intelligent piece of writing can survive a few questions! And this is an intelligent piece of writing.

  4. Emma
    June 4, 2008

    As a card-carrying Georgette Heyer fan (which probably shows in my own fiction) but not a reader of genre historical romance, I thought this was a really thoughtful review. I thought Kirsty made the point very clearly, and as a writer it’s one of my basic maxims: you can leave anything out of a novel that you like, BUT if you do put it in you must do it properly. Heyer, for example, doesn’t often look much below the upper classes, but when she does, her servants/low-life-villains/foundlings are central to the plot (see Arabella, or The Foundling). What grates (and I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if I’d agree with Kirsty about this case) is when a writer uses something like that as mere set-dressing. It’s like casting the heroine of a bright and bubbly chick-lit novel as a social worker to make her appealingly warm-hearted, and then never actually sending her to the sink estate, or making her worry out of hours about the latest taking-into-care horror-story.

  5. Lisa
    June 4, 2008

    Thoughtful review, Kirsty. It’s definitely one of those reviews that makes you want to read the book to decide for yourself.

    “In terms of plot and characterisation, this is a tight and well-run operation.” That is no mean feat. Will look for this one in the library.

  6. Clorinda
    June 4, 2008

    Hmm well I seem to have started some discussion! All I can say is this: I’ve read a lot of Regency romance novels, some have been very bad (boy some have been awful) – some have been very good, some excellent. The Paradise Will falls in the “excellent” range IMO.

    Regarding “historicity” (my new word for the day!) – as long as it isn’t too “out” date wise or similar I don’t mind. For example, in Diana Gabaldon’s book “Cross Stitch” there is a witch “dunking” in a lake….however, the author acknowledges at the end that such things stopped a good few years before her book is set. I didn’t mind – it was a good plot device and a great book. (In fact I wouldn’t have known if she hadn’t have pointed it out).

    Emma – what about Heyer’s “These Old Shades” the heroine in that is brought up “poor” but Heyer doesn’t go on about it much….but I know what you are trying to say! I’m sure both of us could give lots of examples either way. Also, in chicklit novels, the heroines seem always to be in PR or journo’s (probably because that’s what the author did/does)…but that’s another discussion for another day!

  7. kirstyjane
    June 4, 2008

    Egregious typo has been fixed. Apologies to all for the brainfart.

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  9. Jackie
    June 8, 2008

    I thought this was a balanced review and highlighted the author’s strengths. It sounds like there’s a lot of potential there, especially with some wrinkles ironed out. This romance sounds like one my mother might like, so I’ll be looking for it.
    The cover is nicely done too, the subject fits the time period and I like how they put the title in the negative space in a decorative way.

  10. Angie
    June 10, 2008

    I too have reviewed this book, and I found it a breath of fresh air! So many regency romances are very formula-like and predictable anymore- you know exactly what will happen before it happens. This was not one of them.

    As for being historically accurate- well, like others have said before me, there are bestselling authors that can’t seem to get their facts straight, and yet they sell tons of books. I can overlook some inaccuracies if the book is thought out and well written, however the glaring ones make me put it down. The Paradise Will didn’t having any glaring historical errors to me! I can overlook some language issues, and I thought the regency slang was perfect. It made those characters real to me.

    I don’t think I’d have the same opinion of the book if it was a bodice-ripper; it would have altered what is a light-hearted and hilarious journey through the characters lives! The bodice-ripping would be too distracting!

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