I’m not one who typically goes back and reads classic romance authors since I often have my hands full of newly released titles, but when a colleague extolled the virtues of Marion Chesney’s Regency-set romances, I was intrigued enough to check out the audio recording of The Banishment, the first title in Chesney’s Daughters of Mannerling series. It was short, and the audio appealed as much as the print version’s dated and ugly covers did not. Well, dear reader, I did not know what I was getting into. An hour into the first book and I’d placed the next title on hold; completion of the second book led to the remaining four to be placed on hold and unnecessary housework completed for the sole purpose of listening.
The series follows the six daughters of the Beverly family, very wealthy and VERY snobbish, extremely proud of Mannerling, the graceful mansion they claim as their home. Eldest daughter Isabella is expected to win a great match, but before she can, the terrible news that papa has gambled away the family fortune—and Mannerling—leaves the family homeless and, more importantly, without their claim to superiority. There is only one option: Mannerling must be restored to Beverly possession, by any means. Each book follows each daughter—Isabella, Jessica, twins Abigail and Rachel, Belinda and the youngest, Lizzie—as they scheme to regain the family home. But is it the need to assuage the Beverly pride that Mannerling calls to them? Or is there something far more nefarious going on?
Chesney is the pen name for M.C. Beaton (who sadly recently passed away), best known for her Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth cozy mystery series. Her versatility shows in her romances. Chesney packs her stories with social commentary, puts her heroines in real danger, and presents characters that are multifaceted. In one scene, a father, who has just learned that his wastrel son sexually assaulted a gentlewoman and sold off several properties without permission, finally takes his son to task—but only over the lost properties. (“He thus proved himself a true Englishman,” Chesney’s narrator wryly notes.) The books go to dark places—I lost count of how many dead bodies there were by the end of the series. Yes, there are dashing rescues and sweet moments between hero and heroine, but Chesney recognized how much of Regency culture was built on rotten family relations (no shortage of that here) and brutally unfair double standards. Her lovers fall for each other with their eyes open and feet firmly on the ground.
The series, which opens with The Banishment and concludes with The Homecoming, must be read in order. There’s little in the way overt sexuality, and the fine characterizations and frankly spooky nature of Mannerling makes this a series that will appeal to those who like comedies of manners or cozy fiction with a dash of mystery. Overlook the dated and frankly dreadful nineties-era covers and pick up the print editions or enjoy Lizzie Stanton’s or Charlotte Anne Dore’s narrations through the Overdrive audio versions.