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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