A widowed noblewoman and a lord with middle-class antecedents engage in a decidedly unconventional courtship.
Lady Gwendoline, somewhat lame from a long-ago riding accident, sprains her ankle while taking an ill-advised shortcut up a seaside cliff, which just happens to be on the grounds of Penderris Hall, where the Survivors' Club, six Napoleonic war veterans and a widow, meets annually. One of these, Hugo, Lord Trentham, who earned his title as a reward for valor in a “Forlorn Hope” assault on the enemy, comes upon Gwen, and in his gruff, no-nonsense way carries her to Penderris. His companions had just been joking that Hugo, who has decided to take a wife, would propose to the first woman he met at the shore, and now their jibes prove prescient, for Gwen and Hugo are instantly drawn to each other, and in contravention of every rule of decency, consummate their love days later, in a way that Jane Austen may well have imagined but would never have put in writing. Both acknowledge the considerable impediments to a marriage between them. Hugo is solidly middle-class although he’s the inheritor of a substantial import/export fortune. Gwen bears tremendous guilt from her first marriage: Her husband, who suffered from manic depression, killed himself in front of her, not long after her miscarriage, a result of the aforementioned riding accident. Hugo also is tormented by conscience: The hopeless attack he led succeeded only at the cost of massive casualties. Moreover, only a middle-class wife could help Hugo find a suitably bourgeois match for his half-sister Constance. But Constance, with Gwen’s collaboration, aims to make her debut at balls and parties among London’s high society. Reluctantly assenting, Hugo also agrees to court Gwen in a genteel manner Austen would definitely endorse, even if it kills him.
Balogh contravenes the conventions of historical romance by introducing an ingredient the genre is not always known for: intelligence.