Relief comes in two forms: the first, an extended visit from Maria Lucas, still unmarried, very beautiful, and, in her adult form, not terribly dissimilar from the former Lydia Bennet. Though chaperoning her younger sister brings out Charlotte's most repressive qualities (not inappropriately, I should add), it also forces her to come out of mourning and rejoin the world. The second factor that pushes Charlotte out of her dour (no pun intended) state is the arrival in the neighborhood of two American gentleman. The younger, a Mr. Westfield, to all appearances a proper English gentleman (much to the shock of the neighborhood, who rather expected a barbarian), immediately becomes a source of near-obsessive interest for Maria. His chaperon and uncle, Mr. Basford, is much more in keeping with what the area's residents expected in an American: loose manners, a disregard for social propriety, and an irreverent sense of humor. Charlotte is appalled by him on their initial encounters, as in the following scene, in which the two gentlemen pay a call a the cottage:
"Shall we hace tea? Maria, ring the bell and inform Mrs. Eff that we require another pot."
Maria went obediently.
"Why do the English have such an obsession with tea?" asked Mr. Basford, still leaning precariously on the back legs of the chair. "It is nothing but a few died leaves after all."
Charlotte studied him. "Indeed, your censure is unwarranted, for I have heard that Americans are quite mad for the stuff as well. Particularly in Boston, I believe."
Charlotte was pleased with her retort, and so was Mr. Basford, who leaned his head back, causing the chair to tilt even further, and laughed heartily.
"She has you there, Uncle."
"Yes, indeed, she does."
"Mr. Basford seems to believe that the customs of our country are quite stilted and unnecessary," Charlotte said to Mr. Westfield.
"I confess that I do," Mr. Basford replied, letting the front legs of the chair return to the ground. "Take for instance the custom of calling people by their family names. I've seen close friends referring to each other as Mr. or Mrs. Whatnot, It's rediculous."
"In your opinion, perhaps, Mr. Basford. I have never called social acquaintances by their first names unless I have known them since childhood. It is too familiar and uncomfortable."
"That is only because you have not practiced. Call me Ben, and you'll soon see how nice familarity is."
Charlotte looked at him with horror. "Indeed, I will not! That sort of familiarity is only permitted in private moments between married couples, and perhaps not even then!"
He spoke as if she had not. "And I'll call you Charlotte."
"Indeed you shall not! she objected, leaning forward as though to apprehend his words.
Mr. Westfield came to her rescue. "Uncle, do stop tormenting Mrs. Collins." He turned to Charlotte. "He is still reacting to your tea comment. He does not like to be bested in a battle of wits."
Regaining her composure somewhat, Charlotte asked Mr. Westfield, "Are all people in America this informal?"
"No. In truth, the rules of propriety are somewhat relaxed in our country, but many of us are almost as formal as you. However, Uncle believes strongly in informality and fancies himself ahead of his time."
"Someone ought to tell him that it will do him no good to be ahead of his time if he is rejected by society in the present. He will have no acquaintances to speak of and even fewer friends."
"You are probably correct," Mr. Basford said conversationally. "I care nothing for mere acquaintances, but a true friend will accept my eccentricities, Mrs. Collins."
He emphasized her name, causing Charlotte to flush. "With such appalling manners, it is unlikely that you will ever develop true friends, Mr. Basford." She emphasized his last name in the same manner.
Now such animosity on Charlotte's part is a clear signal to every observant reader that here is precisely the man to cure her of an overdose of propriety. Unfortunately, she must first learn the hard way that not even the most rigid defense against social misstep is a guarantee of that very respectability she clings to so desperately.
I only have one complaint about this novel and that is a slight inconsistency in the social censure dolled out by Charlotte's neighbors. Maria, like her sister, must learn to better guard her behavior, and receives the cold shoulder from all her former friends upon rejecting a very eligible marriage proposal in a rather unfeeling manner. I thought the reaction was rather severe, especially as the gentleman in question fails to receive his share of blame for publicizing the incident so very widely. My discomfort with this episode increased when Maria, in an attempt to make amends, sends him a letter of apology - a definitively compromising action in Regency society between a man and woman not engaged. However, despite this one, really very minor, criticism, the story is highly engaging and a thoroughly sweet tale of regeneration for the long suffering Charlotte Collins. Though she has clearly brought her fate upon herself, all of us who know and love her will be delighted to see her find the happiness she so clearly deserves.
Enter the giveaway! Ms. Becton has been so kind as to offer my US readers a signed copy of her novel. The giveaway was first announced last Sunday when I posted my interview with the author (read it here), and will continue through Sunday, November 28th. To enter, simply leave a comment on this post or on the interview (or both, for two chances to win!), including your email address, by midnight, EST of the final day of entry. Good luck to all who participate!