Eleanor is an intelligent, strong-willed, witty young woman of nineteen, a member of the city of York's gentry. However, one thing that she does not have is money, for all her wit, education, and unconventional dark good looks. She has not met a man in York that she cares to marry, however, and not many of them care to marry her. Her lack of conventional good looks and money makes her prospects not that great. In contrast, Eleanor's blonde, beautiful cousin Beatrix is in love with an officer, but his finances are so bad that Beatrix's family won't hear of it. To remove this unsuitable match from Beatrix's mind, she is sent to join the London Season, a marriage-courtship ritual that lasts through half the year and was at a height in Regency England. Nobody expects Eleanor to make a good marriage in London, where prettier and richer girls will outshine her even more, but they send her along to keep Beatrix in check. Beatrix and Eleanor don't get along. Eleanor is slightly envious of Beatrix's beauty but is self-possessed enough to not show that she cares, and Beatrix is frequently baffled by Eleanor's cutting tongue and sharp wit, which she cannot compete with in a verbal sparring match.
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But Beatrix's arrogance, stubborn nature, and selfishness soon rub their London relatives the wrong way. Beatrix swans around the house of her father's sister, Lady Lucy watches as Beatrix puts down other women's clothes, patronizingly tells Eleanor that she might get a vicar, and scoffs at all her suitors. She decides that it will be necessary to put Beatrix in her place, and devises a plan to make Eleanor outshine Beatrix.
Eleanor, surprised at the sudden attention but agreeable with Lucy's scheme, is taken to be outfitted at the best dressmakers in London, her new clothes paid for by her new patroness. Lucy secures Eleanor invitations to the balls and parties thrown by the most exclusive and high-ranking hostesses in London society. She also talks up the girl to the matrons of London, knowing that these dowagers - mothers and grandmothers of powerful men - control the doors of entry to society, and facilitate the ambitions of a young girl.
She also draws in the help of her cynical, cold-hearted, amused, and bored nephew, Justin. Justin is a marquis and a bit of a Regency rake. In his thirties and still unmarried, he's had a string of mistresses, and still attracts high society debutantes with his fortune, his dark good looks, his confident bearing and his athletic and aesthetic excellence. Justin is the very picture of elegance, while Eleanor is only just learning the ways of London society. Lucy knows that if men seeing Justin paying court to Eleanor at parties, it will generate more interest and intrigue in her protegee. Justin feels an instant interest in Eleanor when they meet, for her cool, critical eye, her lack of enthusiasm for him, and her prettiness. For her part, Eleanor finds Justin masterful and attractive, but figures that he is a libertine and a rake without a heart, and intends to cut him down to size.
As they attend balls and parties, their conversation moves between sexually tense verbal sparring matches and, occasionally, deeper intellectual conversation. Justin is enthralled at how well-read Eleanor is, and how clever and self-confident and collected she is, and has never before met a woman who will refuse to submit to him at all. For her part, Eleanor gradually develops warmer feelings of sympathy, understanding, and a need to nurture towards him. But it is hard to read him. She cannot tell if he truly courting her, or just playing along to help his aunt in a scheme that amuses him.
Meanwhile, their aunt's efforts have been paying off, and a young landed gentlemen named George has started to court Eleanor. George is nice, sweet, solid and dependable, but the girl he really admires is Beatrix, but he can't bring himself to approach her, so he approaches Eleanor. Eleanor feels no spark for him, but when Justin makes sardonic remarks about George, she is hurt and annoyed (she wanted Justin to fight for her). Beatrix's officer beau back in York runs off with a different girl, leaving Beatrix heartbroken, and in a spiteful act of revenge, she makes a deliberate attempt to wound Eleanor by aggressively flirting with Justin in front of her at a garden party on the Thames. Watching them, Eleanor is convinced that Justin likes the blonde beauty after all, and resigns herself to her fate, telling George she will marry him right that night. George is reluctant, but he has also seen Beatrix and Justin flirting and thinks he has no hope. They leave for the church. However, a footman tells Lucy, who tells Justin, who suddenly realizes that Eleanor really is the right woman for him, the woman he passionately desires, and he flares with jealousy and rage at the idea of George marrying her. Justin makes it to the church in time and stops the wedding, declaring his love for Eleanor in private, and she admits her love for him. George finally approaches Beatrix, and they begin courting, while Justin and Eleanor get married.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked the time period, and I liked the the fresh, snappy, witty romance.
Best scene in story:
When Eleanor is trying on expensive new gowns and shocked at how pretty she looks. It is a scene any girl can relate to (the clothes/self-love) and it's a fun historical detail to see how women's clothing was designed and made and measured back then.
Opinion about the main character:
Eleanor was very independent-minded and represented a different beauty ideal, which I enjoyed seeing.