Jennifer Haymore’s CONFESSIONS OF AN IMPROPER BRIDE is an English historical romance set in 1828 of unexpected emotional depth and complexity. In it, we meet the oldest surviving Donovan sister, Serena, once an identical twin. Six years ago, she was first wined, dined, and seduced by Lord Jonathan Dane, then cast off when Dane’s father, the Earl of Stratford, refused to let Jonathan marry Serena after Jonathan had compromised her (and himself) at a social function.
On the way home due to her disgrace, and accompanied by her twin sister, Margaret (called “Meg”), a terrible accident caused Meg to be lost at sea. Because Meg was promised to another man, Captain William (“Will”) Langley, and because Serena’s formidable mother decided to hush up the scandal any way she could, the world was told that Serena had died — not Meg.
The problem was, Jonathan Dane didn’t know that Serena was still alive because he saw the same obituary as everyone else, and he really did have feelings for her — strong ones. Being adjudged a wicked man for how he’d seduced Serena, then cut her in the street because of parental pressure, he went out and promptly did his best to live down to his reputation.
What the world at large, and Serena in particular, didn’t know is that he’d vowed privately to his father, and his elder brother Gervase as well, that he’d marry Serena — or he’d marry no one at all. And since he believed Serena was dead, his new vow after he ascended to the Earldom was that he would die without issue as a way to spite his father and brother for refusing to let him marry Serena when he still could.
So the two principals here are stricken with guilt, remorse, and grief; that Serena has been told by her mother that she must be Meg and must marry Will Langley (a very good man in his narrow way), or her sisters will not be able to marry well due to Serena’s past disgrace, just complicates the issue. Her heart and body still belong to Jonathan, though she wrongly believes he never cared about her; she also believes, wrongly, that Meg was far more innocent than Serena, which is yet another complication that can’t help but cause problems for all concerned.
Serena believes she must take Meg’s place in every respect, and be more of a moral, virtuous woman (as that’s how she’s always viewed Meg) in order to save her family. She also feels that as she was at fault for Meg’s death (as Meg wouldn’t have been on that ship with her if Serena hadn’t been sent home), Serena must marry Will and be as good a wife to him as her sister Meg would’ve been, even though she doesn’t love Will (she merely likes him) and never will.
So how do these two lovers, separated by fate and chance, manage to get together after all? That’s for you to read — but I can assure you, if you love romance, you’ll find a great deal to enjoy.
The best thing about CONFESSIONS OF AN IMPROPER BRIDE is its unexpected (yet welcome) emotional depth and pathos on the part of both Serena/Meg and Jonathan. They’ve both grown up in six years, are both still extremely attracted to one another, and when Serena lets herself, she can still communicate with Jonathan quite well. The fact that Jonathan very quickly figures out Serena isn’t Meg (and is thus alive), but doesn’t tell anyone about it because he doesn’t want to shame Serena further, is believable in this context; that it’s “played straight” by Haymore helps, as this could’ve been a plot deal-breaker with less skillful treatment.
The secondary romance is that of Serena’s next-oldest sister Phoebe, who’s nineteen, and the twenty-one year old Lord Sebastian Harford, who’s more or less “hedge nobility” — that is, he has a title because his grandfather had one, but has no money nor an ancestral estate with which to back it up. Harford is adjudged his generation’s “great rake” because he gambles and fights (he also seems to know more than his share of loose women, too), while Phoebe is an innocent who scans much as Serena must have six years ago. Yet this romance does not run into the same troubles, partly because Serena had the experiences she did years ago, and partly because Jonathan, too, decides to help the younger couple rather than hinder them.
This secondary romance is sweet, earnest, and not based on carnality (though there does seem to be a strong undercurrent of passion there, it’s not the primary motivation for these two to be together). Phoebe and Sebastian can talk with one another; they have long, in-depth conversations and hide nothing, much as real lovers in any time would do. Phoebe doesn’t care that Sebastian is land-poor and that his prospects aren’t good (though he does have talent as an architect, then, as now, it can be tough to break into that particular field); her family is just as poor as Sebastian’s (might be worse off, in fact, as they’re another of the types that try to hold up appearances to outsiders but live in wretched poverty behind closed doors), and she sees no need for the type of hypocrisy it would take for her to say, “I must marry for money rather than love,” especially as her sister Serena is preparing to do that very thing at the start of this novel.
So the primary plot works, the secondary plot works and is an excellent contrast, the sensuality which Haymore is known for is shown to excellent effect (much better than Haymore’s A SEASON OF SEDUCTION, which I reviewed here) and the true things that drive any good romance to fruition — understanding, mutual respect, friendship, and caring — are also enumerated well.
This is a near-flawless romance, one I enjoyed in all particulars, and I recommend it without reservation.
— reviewed by Barb