The French Affair, Historical Romance by Marion Chesney (aka MC Beaton)
Series: Endearing Young Charms #1
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My rating: ⭐️⭐️
I have read a significant number and variety of Marion Chesney historical romances over the last couple of years. They are like comfort food, the small snackable types that have a low calorie count and therefore engender little to no guilt, but also come in limited flavours. Oft-repeated names and character archetypes abound, and villains and subplots can often be guessed before they come in. Everything is so cosy and easily established.
The downside is that the thinking is quite old. Obviously, the books themselves are old, so this is to be expected, and if I go in expecting anything progressive, than on my own head be it. But I’m always put off when I come across a sticky issue. This one isn’t horrible–it’s not like a self-punishing peek at the Censored Eleven–but it always gets worse when I see that I’m the rare reader who didn’t believe the judgmental bullshit view of the heroine.
When she was five years old, Delphine was rescued from France by Lord Charteris. He coddled and sheltered her through childhood and then into an infantilising marriage, never allowing her to meet other French refugees, nor to speak her own language–she only learned French because he considered it something a proper English lady learned–and he refused to tell her the circumstances of her rescue or her parents’ death. Always claiming that he would tell her someday. Until he died.
Three years later, she lives with his disapproving gossip of a widowed sister, Maria Bencastle, who decries her as too French to the neighbours behind her back, makes life less fun, and is basically the reason no one pays calls. At the start of the story, they are taking a rare, nigh unheard of trip to a fair to raise funds for French refugees, and Delphine encounters a juggler who gives her a flower. She later learns he is the Comte Jules Saint-Pierre, and the two of them are parties to a marriage agreement between their parents that dates back to childhood.
The rest of the story is about Jules being “perfect” and right all the time, even when he makes a mistake or acts like an ass, and every last tiny thing Delphine does wrong is worthy of burning her at the stake. Some faux pas are legitimately head-shaking and tie into her character arc. But Jules has no arc and is never considered by the narrative to have done anything wrong, even if he has done.
As a Chesney HR, this book doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It felt kind of like it was emulating my struggle with still reading them after a saturation point. The antagonist is a pointedly unpleasant poor relation by marriage to the heroine. But she repents of her behaviour immediately and threatens to leave the story early on. Delphine stands up to her right away, so she never needs to learn anything from her interactions with Mrs Bencastle. Theirs is not the timid heroine and overbearing authority figure conflict, nor is it the heroine blinded by loyalty to an awful person conflict.
Delphine’s characterisation fluctuates wildly while the book tries to find its place. At first, she is the capable businesswoman who has made her late husband’s estates flourish. Then she’s bored with it and thinks of how the juggler represents fun. But then she disapproves because the juggler lacks dignity. The fair awoke her need to be with other French people, but she takes a long time to question Lord Charteris’s treatment of her and forced rejection of her nationality. When the marriage comes up, she’s firmly stuffed into the slot of being stodgy and a shrill fishwife who nags Jules in public. Never mind that he puts both of them in danger and never shows any care for her safety. He does care about her safety–he simply chooses to punish her by not making any outward show of it.
I never liked Jules. I only got that he was supposed to be a foil teaching Delphine to have fun and lighten up because I am genre savvy. It was executed extremely poorly. Jules was a lightly sketched character who phoned in everything and sailed through all of his conflict without so much as a speed bump. Delphine was a likeable character who got morphed and badmouthed in order to sell me on things I didn’t buy. Somehow she was always the bad guy when they argued, even when it was clear that Jules should have taken some responsibility or at least effing apologised.
Of course an inattentive reader would believe the “bad press” about Delphine and not disapprove of Jules. She’s an actual character with an arc. He’s just… there without any consequences. This made the majority of the book feel either frustrating or just empty. I know sometimes Chesney HRs have the cards stacked in the hero’s favour, but this was ridiculous.