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Review: Bless Thine Inheritance

Bless Thine Inheritance audiobook cover. The silhouette of a Regency man standing the right, and a seatedand woman to his left. Bless Thine Inheritance by Sophia Holloway.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Duration: 9 hrs 46 mins.
Publisher: Soundings for Isis Audiobooks.
#BennetSistersScale: Lizzy - 🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹 Filled with lively, engaging characters and an unconventional heroine, this story could only ever have been a Lizzy.

Bless Thine Inheritance by Sophia Holloway is a traditional Regency romance whose unlikely heroine is anything but the usual society belle. When a family bequest heightens the rivalry between two branches of the family, Celia Mardham finds herself - and her future happiness - caught between warring Mamas.

Audible Summary: "Pretty Celia Mardham should have been a success in her London Season, but a near fatal riding accident has left her with a pronounced limp which means she cannot even make a good curtsy, let alone dance.

There can be no expectation of marriage, but her mama makes one last effort. She draws up a list of guests for a country house sojourn, picking only young ladies she feels will not be rivals, and some potential suitors. Among the well-bred gentlemen is Lord Levedale.

When he meets Celia he sees her, not the limp, but even as his heart draws him to her, he is held back by his duty to his family name.

©2018 Sophia Holloway (P)2019 Soundings."

Bless Thine Inheritance opens with a delightfully catty scene between sisters-in-law which made me laugh aloud before I was even five minutes into the book. Due to the 'house party' format, there is a large cast to set up in the beginning and it did well to avoid feeling laborious while introducing the group we would follow throughout their eventful summer at Meysey manor.

The hosts, Lord and Lady Mardham, were somewhat reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice's Mr and Mrs Bennett, though Lord Mardham's understanding of his daughter's circumstances was both more compassionate and more tactful than any of Mr Bennett's views on his less-desirable daughters. I also very much enjoyed the camaraderie between our heroine, Celia, and her brother, Richard. Siblings in Regency novels frequently treat each other like they are separate species, which is often reflective of how very differently the sexes were raised. There felt to be sincere warmth between the young Mardhams, and because of this it felt very natural that Richard would have reassured his sister that there would always be a place for her in the Dower house when he inherited Meysey. It allowed Celia a level of security that most unmarried ladies of the period could only hope to attain via marriage, and in that regard Celia was less vulnerable than many of her peers (a position which was nicely contrasted with her cousin Sarah's experience as "the poor relation"). Allowing Celia's circumstances to remain nuanced, with her privilege juxtaposed against her misfortunes, was vital to helping her feel like a rounded character with a story all her own and not simply a tragic plot device.

I also thought it was a brave choice to place Celia between Miss Clandon and Miss Burton in terms of appearance. Regency heroines are often either an incomparable beauty or an ugly-duckling whom the hero is the only one to truly notice, and eventually love, despite her shortcomings. There is an element of this with Celia, of course, but it feels less exaggerated than is common to the trope. Having the beautiful Miss Burton there to dazzle and introducing Miss Clandon as the shy wallflower risked leaving Celia as the unremarkable 'middle child'. Instead, I felt that it gave Celia the room to be herself and helped with the sense that she was finding her place in the world following the dramatic alteration in her circumstances. I was also pleasantly surprised by the development in the other young ladies, both of whom broke out of their assigned roles a little by the end of the book.

There is a point toward the end of almost every Regency romance where the reader is conscious of awaiting that one last, crushing, misunderstanding between the central couple which must be resolved before their HEA, and it always has the potential to grind. Here, however, it was done well, with the scheming Darwen's claw-sharpening practically audible in the background as the stage is set for the final act. Overall the book felt very well paced, neither dragging nor feeling rushed.

Unlike many modern Regencies, there was a wonderful levity to much of this audiobook, which one might not expect given the prominence of Celia's injury. Her witty exchanges with the playful Lord Levedale were a delight, and the gloriously-irascible Dowager was a highlight of every scene she entered. There were so many characters I came to like, including Lord Deben, who reminded me very much of Bertie Wooster; kind-hearted and jolly but not terribly bright. Miss Darwen was the perfect antagonist, far outdoing the spoilt cockscomb, Mr Wombwell, as the villain of the piece. In fact, so entertaining were they all that while listening to this audiobook I was struck by how well I felt it would work on screen. I am utterly oblivious to the technicalities of adapting a novel, but it felt very visual and the supporting characters were so well developed that it was easy to imagine it in the traditional 'television miniseries' format typical of period dramas.

Much as I loved this audiobook, it is not entirely without fault. There is occasionally too much explanation of people's motives and behaviours, which often feels a little like the listener is being spoon-fed the story. There's also some repetitive wording throughout which is a bit of a pet hate due to its clumsiness, and something I think is exacerbated by the audio format as it is much more noticeable when spoken. Neither issue was very troublesome, nor did they hinder my enjoyment of the story, it's simply that my preference would have been for a little tightening in those areas. That aside, I did appreciated learning the word 'toxophilite' (a lover of archery) with which I was previously unfamiliar, despite - or perhaps because of - my not having drawn a bow in 20 years. There is something so pleasurable about encountering a new word, however commonplace it may be for others.

Another aspect of this audiobook that is important to address more specifically is the author's approach to Celia's disability. A horse riding accident left Celia with a pronounced limp in an era when young women were judged on their grace, poise, and dancing when assessing their eligibility for marriage. With matrimony being a necessity for most women if they were to have any chance of avoiding becoming a burden on their families, Celia's injury was life-changing in every regard. This could have proven to be a difficult aspect to incorporate sensitively, but I felt that Holloway succeeded and several moments within the book were especially resonant with my own lived experiences of disability.

I cringed when Miss Marianne Burton greeted Celia by saying "Oh Celia, my dear friend, how terrible. And you used to be the best of dancers, and so very pretty." Miss Burton's sincerity does not erase her indiscretion, but it is very reflective of the way healthy/physically 'desirable' people often view disability. I have lost count of the times in the last twenty years when I have received similar comments from well-meaning but tactless observers of my own situation. "You're too pretty to be in a wheelchair!" is at best nonsensical, but it is still regarded as churlish to be anything but appreciative of the intended compliment. Celia's reaction - to inwardly wince while attempting to maintain polite gratitude - was painfully familiar.

As, too, was Celia's self-deprecating humour at the dinner table, to relieve the patronising awkwardness caused by those who treat her frailty too earnestly. People can be quite othering in their attentions to disabled people, often assuming our limitations to be greater than they are. Pretending not to be mortified by whatever gaffe one's friends or relations have just made is not exclusive to people with a chronic illness or disability, but - for many - making light of one's own circumstances is the easiest way back into the club.

One of the reasons I liked her so much was that whilst Celia is certainly pitied by a society that cannot see beyond her disability, she is never pitiable in herself. She is fully cognisant of the impact her impairment has on her value in the 'marriage mart', but she is not defined by it and it is never treated as a gimmick. When Sir Marcus Cotgrave infuriates Celia with his stifling attentions, his co-dependency and near fetishisation of Celia's disability is evident in their every interaction. It aptly demonstrated the infantilisation of people with disabilities, which is not at all uncommon even in our own, supposedly more progressive, society. In stark contrast, Lord Levedale's determination that he will help Celia do as much as she feels able to, without pushing her to do more, illustrates the difference between suffocation and support.

Though Celia's injury was referenced regularly, it was seldom the primary focus for long. I was glad that it wasn't only viewed through the prism of other people's reactions to her situation, and felt that Celia's own experience was honoured in its depiction of her pain and frustration. For example, Celia's observation that even lying down upon the bed felt like too much effort when wracked with pain, anxiety, and fatigue was very well described, as was the icy dread with which she feared any further decline.

One of the most important aspects of Celia's story to note is that she is not miraculously cured by the love of a good man. True love does not recoil from imperfection, and it is wonderful to see a heroine whose happily-ever-after embraces her as she is, and does not insist that she must be fixed to be happy.

Lifting the entire novel and infusing it with humour and emotion was the narrator, Matt Addis. I challenge anyone to listen to this book and not fall a little in love with his voice by the end of it. He infuses personality into his portrayal of each character, adroitly performing both the male and female parts; in fact, few gentlemen-narrators give a better Dowager or overbearing Mama, and I am always impressed by how seamlessly he can switch from one character to another. I know few narrators who could convincingly portray a furious Earl, an imperious Dowager, and a heartbroken ingénue almost within the same breath. In fact, there were times (such as during a heated argument between Levedale and his father, Curborough,) when I was so invested in the performance that I almost forgot that the book has a single narrator. There was none of the blurring of one character into another that is common to such an energetic moment in most narration, even by the most talented voice actor. (There was recently a discussion in my audiobook group about how even the inimitable Stephen Fry appears to mistake Slugthorne and Hagrid in one of the Harry Potter books, an awareness of which only makes Addis' performance all the more impressive!) Addis does have an unusual way of pronouncing 'phaeton' but once I grew used to it I did not find it distracting despite the prevalence of the word throughout the book. The performance as a whole was so engaging that the odd false step was eminently forgivable.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sophia Holloway's previous book, The Devil You Know , which was also narrated by Addis, yet this novel comfortably surpassed it; juggling the wealth of characters and the restrictions of the setting to emerge feeling generally much more accomplished. It is rare to find a traditional, 'clean', Regency novel with so much humour and vibrancy, and I very much hope that it is not the last Regency romance by this author, especially when aided by such a marvellous narrator.

I love the richness to Holloway's stories; from the detailed historical references, (which are generally very faithful to the era), to the colourful secondary characters whose personalities are always well rounded. Hers are books which have not skimped on the time and attention that is required to present them to their best advantage, and this is also present in the quality of the audiobook production. Holloway's books always feel as though the characters are well-known to her by the time they reach us, and have been sufficiently nurtured throughout the process of their creation, in both print and audio. They are not audiobooks to rush through at (gasp!) 2x speed, as some are apparently inclined, but instead are stories to curl up with away from the stresses of the world at the moment, while drinking tea from your favourite mug. (Teacups, though infinitely prettier, do not hold nearly enough tea for a true connoisseur.)

My overall rating for this audiobook is 4.5 stars, but has been rounded up to 5 because of the wonderful narration and the astute, compassionate portrayal of chronic pain and disability. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Regency romance, but most especially to those who yearn to see themselves represented within its pages, and may finally find that in Miss Celia Mardham.

*I received this audiobook from the publisher free of charge in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.

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