Set in England during the reign of the Prince Regent, The Affairs of Harriet Walters, Spinster is a tender romantic comedy. Harriet Walters, a twenty-six year old spinster, is evicted from her home and sent to live with a persnickety aunt. Resigned to the life of an unpaid companion, fate intervenes and Harriet becomes an heiress. Leaving her small town life for the glittering attractions of London, Harriet chooses an unconventional path to happiness and love. It is the author’s hope that people who delight in Jane Austen’s novels will find similar pleasure in The Affairs of Harriet Walters, Spinster.
Time Frame: Regency England
Heat Level: 1
Review Rating: 3 Stars
Review by Susan:
By the title of C.M. Spencer’s work of historical fiction The Affairs of Harriet Walters, Spinster, one would expect that the term “affairs’ refers to numerous sexual escapades reflective of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. In fact, the sexual content in the novel is G-rated. Also extrapolated from the title is the term “spinster” which acts as a clue to her occupation similarly to the way “esq” stands for esquire or attorney after one’s name. In fact, being a spinster is not an occupation for Miss Harriet Walters but her lot in life which changes by the close of the novel.
The story launches with Miss Harriet Walters and her mother Edwina finding themselves dependent on the charity of family members when Harriet’s father dies forcing the two women to leave their home in Willoway. Edwina moves in with her younger daughter Helen and her husband Sinclair Watts. Harriet, however, moves in with her mother’s sister Edna who resides in Rexton outside of Bath, England.
As the story rolls along so does Harriet, rolling along with the hand that life deals her, making the best out of living with her overbearing, judgmental, and obnoxiously strict aunt. Brightening her stay is Mr. Joseph Ash, the history master at the boys’ school. They forge a genuine rapport being honest with each other whether for better or worse.
Harriet’s course takes an unexpected twist when Mrs. Mabel Evans, a neighbor of Edna whom Harriet befriends, dies and leaves a parcel of her family’ property, the income from it, and her home in Rexton to Harriet. This good fortune has a profound effect on Harriet who experiences a surge of independence with this newfound financial security. She goes to London and stays with Mabel’s daughter Diane and her husband Edward Fitzwilliam.
In London, Harriet is exposed to a wider range of people including an heiress hunter Augustus Bell, an elderly widower Colonel York, and an aspiring nurse Abigail Pope. She also indulges her adventurous nature by going to the opera, theatre, and society balls, in addition to visiting London’s opulent sites like Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park, and the British Museum. Other than the descriptions used to picture the interior of a local church, the settings are rather bland or scarcely mentioned.
After a period of exerting her free spirit, Harriet returns to Rexton where her financial standing allows her to make decisions without requiring her aunt or mother’s approval. All of her life, Harriet had done what her family expected. With this newfound wealth, she becomes an active participant in her life making her own choices and living as she wishes.
Spencer’s narration is reminiscent of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott where the reader is a spectator and the leading female role alternates between being passive and assertive. Sometimes the story is hard to follow and the reader must re-read passages to grasp who is who and what is happening.
There is also a resemblance to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations where similarly to Pip, Harriet rolls along with life until a change enables her to take some control over her life. By distancing the reader from the characters, the story feels flat even when Spencer inserts modern expressions meant for contemporary audiences to relate to such as characters looking like a “country Madonna”, having “mixed feelings”, concocting a “powerful restorative”, and “bacheloring it in private rooms”. The characters are plain in texture and two-dimensional, and the lessons are elementary making for an ordinary plot as though the reader has encountered this story before.