This almost defiantly plummy first novel by a Scots writer labors to out-Austen the immortal Jane in a deceptively mild-mannered exploration of the conflicting claims of love, property, and propriety set in a Derbyshire village near the end of the 18th century.
When jovial, empty-headed country squire Nathaniel Horne (kin to Fielding’s abrasive Squire Western) perishes in a ludicrous accident, his young son Edward stands to inherit the family’s handsome estate (and the eponymous “temple”) Winterbourne. Thirteen years pass, and Edward grows to manhood, as well as an appreciation of, not just Winterbourne, but his powerful neighbor Sir Anthony Apreece’s unhappy younger wife Daisy. Sir Anthony wants the Horne lands as much as Edward and Daisy want each other, and the story settles into a succession of (rather redundant) scenes detailing the plots in which all three involve themselves. Fleming echoes the relaxed style of the roomy traditional novel quite skillfully, filling it with both an enormity of convincing décor, idiom, detail, and walk-on characters burdened with aggressively eccentric names (Tom Glossipp, Augustus Spratchett, Digbeth Chiddlestone, et al). He also creates a nice contrast between Sir Anthony’s righteous avarice and the “unreal world” of equality for women that Daisy finds only in Fanny Burney’s popular novel Evelina. It’s all entertaining enough, but it moves at the pace of a promenade: observation, conversation, and commentary pretty much dwarf the story’s inherent drama—at least until a very odd melodramatic climax (which seems to have wandered in from another novel entirely) triggered by Sir Anthony’s vicious exploitation of Robert Pumphrey, a banker and moneylender determined not to become the villain people assume he already is.
An impressive piece of mimicry, but readers in search of droll comic fiction depicting the madness inherited, so to speak, from the activities of landownership and love may as well stick with Austen and Trollope.