24/03/2008

The Five-Minute Marriage (by Joan Aiken)

I have mixed feelings about Joan Aiken's writing. I very much enjoyed her best-known children's novel when younger, and again as an adult when I read 'The Wolves of Willoughby Chase' and its sequel ('Black Hearts in Battersea') to my sons. On the other hand, I started to read one of her novels for adults a few years ago ('Castle Barebane') - and it's one of the few novels I didn't finish reading, because the plot was so unpleasant.

However I've had 'The Five-Minute Marriage' sitting on my shelves for a long time, with a note in the front saying that I first read it in 1995. It looks as though I picked it up second-hand some years before that. Since I had no recollection whatsoever of what it was about, I thought I would re-read it this last weekend.

It's the story of Delphie, a young woman who works hard as a private music teacher, to support herself and her frail mother. It's set in the days of horses and carriages - perhaps the Regency period, or a little later. Two of Delphie's students at the daughters of the wealthy, widowed Josiah Browty, who is curious about her circumstnaces in a slightly nosy but very well-meaning way. It turns out that he once did a small service for Lord Bollington, who is Delphie's estranged Great-Uncle Mark.

So Mr Browty suggests that Delphie should pay a visit to her great-uncle, asking if a small allowance could be made to her mother. He gives her a rather badly-written letter of introduction, in case anyone should doubt her.

When Delphie arrives at her great-uncle's home, she is regarded with great suspicion. It turns out that there is someone else claiming to be her, who has been supported for many years by her great-uncle. Moreover, her great-uncle seems to be dying, and wishes his great-nephew Gareth to be married immediately to the imposter, or he will disinherit them both.

Delphie is drawn into a bizarre plan to deceive her great-uncle, but promised an annual allowance in exchange. The plot turns out to have long-lasting ramifications, and leads to a very exciting and fast-paced novel which I found almost impossible to put down once I had started.

It's a thriller romance, a little in the style of Joan Aiken's sister Jane Aiken Hodge, or Mary Stewart, and I very much enjoyed it. The outcome was fairly obvious from the start, but the paths to get there were very exciting and well-written. The main characters seemed real, and I particularly empathised with Delphie. She's an independent and very caring young lady, and I wanted her to have a happy ending.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed 'The Five-Minute Marriage', and sorry to see that it's been out of print for a long time. However it is fairly widely available second-hand. Definitely recommended.

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