I’ve had Lady Elizabeth’s Comet by Sheila Simonson on my iPad for a while. I cannot remember how I came about buying it—or was it free? But I decided it was time to either read or discard the book.
I was hooked early and thoroughly. This regency romance is told from the point of view of Lady Elizabeth Conway, daughter of an earl. She’s twenty-eight, content to be a spinster, and her passion is astronomy. She spends many a clear night with her telescope, exploring the skies.
But she does not live on her own. Her mother and stepmother predeceased her; she is one of eight daughters. Her father died a year ago, and the book starts with the arrival of the new earl, a distant relation. She is not generous in her assessment of him—he’s stiff and cold and grey—and she makes light of the affected way he walks and moves. As well, she’s in charge of her twin half-sisters, fourteen years of age and a handful. Elizabeth can’t seem to retain a governess for them. The new earl, Clanross, isn’t impressed with the girls’ lack of schooling—he’s been tasked with ensuring the younger sisters are properly educated—which puts Elizabeth’s back up.
I was all set to watch these two people who don’t think much of each other. Or at least, since we’re in Elizabeth’s point of view, she’s doesn’t think much of him, noting petty things like his stiff handwriting (compared to her father’s graceful writing) or describing him (in her mind) as a “jumped-up third cousin”. It’s hard not to have some sympathy for her position, given she still misses her father and a complete stranger has come to take over the family estates. He has a certain amount of power over them.
Elizabeth soon discovers Clanross’s stiff gait is due to injuries sustained during the war, not affectation. Pieces of metal lie within his body, and he collapses with her younger sister Jean nearby, when such a piece works itself out, exiting his body. There follows a very bad episode, which Elizabeth handles with competence, calling for the capable neighborhood surgeon and nursing Clanross when he very much needs help to recover.
At this point, Elizabeth’s former suitor Bevis arrives on the scene. He’s a friend of Clanross’s; Elizabeth is embarrassed by her letters to Bevis which made sport of Clanross before she realized he’d been injured. Bevis aids Clanross and recommences courting Elizabeth. Bevis is handsome, charming, reasonable, and a good friend to Clanross, so I began to wonder if I’d misidentified the hero. I was dismayed, given I found Bevis just okay and admired Clanross. (When he collapses, his main concern is that Jean is all right. It’s also clear he is genuinely concerned about the girls’ schooling and wellbeing.) But not only that, the scenes between Clanross and Elizabeth are charged and fascinating while those between Bevis and Elizabeth are much less interesting.
There is a lot to love in this book: the voice, the conflicts, the heroine, the hero, the pace of the romance and even the shape of the romance, in which the hero and heroine have a number of issues to work through before they can reach any kind of understanding.
Lady Elizabeth is not always sympathetic. She’s can be self-absorbed and oblivious. I rather liked what I perceived as the role reversal (which puts paid to the notion that male and female roles in older romances were more rigid). Clanross is more sensitive to Elizabeth’s sisters’ needs and interests. Maggie and Jean come to adore him, as he pays attention to and listens to them, clearly enjoying their company. Elizabeth, on the other hand, doesn’t always know what to do with her younger sisters, or loses track of what they are doing when she focuses on her astronomy. Fortunately, she finally engages an effective governess.
I thought the book handled Clanross’s relationship with Maggie and Jean nicely. It has the potential to be a delicate situation. Yes, he’s the family head now and should show some interest. But he’s careful that his interactions are never inappropriate. The governess at one point misunderstands Elizabeth’s misapprehension about Clanross (because Elizabeth realizes she’s in love with him), and explains that Clanross never crosses any lines, that he enjoys the sisters in part because his own sister died when she was eleven, and he feels he gets to see what she would have been like had she been allowed to grow older. (To her absolute horror, Elizabeth bursts into tears upon learning this.)
Clanross is a complete sweetheart, actually. Perhaps a little too perfect and right thinking, but like the twins, I adored him. Elizabeth is much more difficult, which I also adored. Besides being prickly and judgmental (she notices the mustache on the new governess, although this attitude fades as she comes to fully appreciate what a stellar person this woman is), Elizabeth is also prone to self-deception. She allows herself to believe she could happy with Bevis—who does not want her to be an astronomer or write articles about her comet. But Elizabeth is also practical, honest with herself (when she recognizes her self-deceptions), and responsible. She tends to underplay to herself (and thus to the reader) what she does for others and is more focused on her flaws than her strengths in dealing with people. In part because she is not wholly comfortable in society.
I’ll admit I also liked that Clanross was the character who underwent the ugly-duckling transformation. Physically damaged by the war, and not properly treated medically (something Elizabeth’s father could have contributed to if he’d been more responsible), Clanross’s physical appearance improves as his health does. He doesn’t quite reach Bevis’s level of handsomeness—and Elizabeth is allowed by the author to be swayed by male beauty—but there’s a wonderful scene later in the book where Elizabeth realizes she is far more drawn to Clanross in all ways than Bevis. (Bevis, by the way, is “the other man”, and I think he’s portrayed well. He has his good and bad points; his motives are suspect at times but never terrible.)
I wouldn’t exactly say this is Heyer-like, there’s quite a different tone. But I do think readers looking for regencies that shine when it comes to dialogue, sexual tension, and the wider family situation (instead of a tight focus on the couple) could enjoy this. Simonson touches, though not with any great depth, on politics, given that Clanross takes his place in the House of Lords and is a Radical.
I look forward to reading more Simonson!