This is the third book in a charming series of six regency romances, each of which has as its central character one of the six daughters of the Reverend Armitage, a warm-hearted but reprobate "squarson" who would rather hunt than preach. It tells the story of the romance between his third daughter, Deirdre, and Lord Harry Desire.
The full sequence of titles in "The Six Sisters" series is:
1) Minerva (The Six Sisters Series)
2) The Taming of Annabelle (The Six Sisters Series)
3) This book, "Deirdre and Desire"
4) Daphne (The Six Sisters Series)
5) Diana the Huntress (The Six Sisters Series)
6) Frederica in Fashion (The Six Sisters Series)
There is signficant character development through the series: although the books can stand on their own they are best read in the above order, starting with Minerva.
The author is a prolific detective story writer, creator of the Hamish MacBeth and Agatha Raisin books, and also of regency romances. To date she has usually published detective stories as M.C. Beaton and romances as Marion Chesney, and this series was originally published under that latter pen-name, but it has now been republished under the "M.C. Beaton" label, so to speak.
At the start of this third book, despite the brilliant matches made by his first two daughters, the Reverend Charles Armitage is in financial trouble yet again. He hears a rumour that a rich nabob has made a will which leaves his immense fortune to his nephew Lord Harry Desire, on condition that Lord Harry marries before the uncle dies. So, as bold as brass, the vicar suggests to Lord Harry that he might like to marry his third beautiful daughter, flame-haired Deirdre.
However, Deirdre is determined to marry for love, and the fact that Lord Harry is immensely handsome is not sufficient to outweigh her fury at being offered as a pawn to save her father's finances. So she sets out to make sure that Lord Harry doesn't want her. Against all appearances however, and unfortunately for Deirdre's plans, Lord Harry Desire has a great sense of humour ...
The story is told very much in the same style as the previous books in the series, but the six books are not carbon copies, partly because each of the six heroines is very different in personality. Deirdre, the heroine of this book, shares with her eldest sister Minerva a keen intelligence: indeed she is usually regarded as the most intelligent member of the family, and something of a bluestocking. However, she is also a natural romantic, very unlike the practical, down-to-earth Minerva, though without quite the capacity for getting into ridiculous scrapes as the second sister Annabelle. But Deirdre is sometimes capable of making almost equally disastrous misjudgements of people, which may put her in terrible danger ...
Not being a geneticist, I don't know how unlikely it is that a couple's first three children would have three different hair colours - Minerva is a brunette, Annabelle is blonde, and Deirdre is a redhead. I suppose however that if their recent ancestors included people with all three of those colourings it could happen. And anyway this is only a story.
Three things lift this series above the general run of regency romances. The first is that it does not take itself too seriously and has some good use of humour. The second is that where Beaton gives her sympathetic characters views or attitudes which are essential to keep the regard of modern readers but which were by no means universal at the time, such as a belief in education for women or opposition to slavery, she is open about the fact.
For example, the Armitage family do have a horror of slavery. The slave trade was made illegal in 1807 precisely because there really were people in George III's Britain who disapproved of this immoral trade so strongly as to want it banned even though it was then highly lucrative, but their view was by no means unanimous. Chesney explains this, adds why the heroine and her sisters were among those who did despise slavers, and integrates it well into the story.
This is one of many little nuggets of real historical information which, as with many of her novels, Beaton throws in throughout the story. Some readers will enjoy these: in some of tthe other books other readers may find them poorly integrated into the narrative and that they can come over as lecturing. I didn't have that problem with the six sisters series.
A third strength of this little sextet is the character development throughout the six books. The reprobate vicar, the Reverend Armitage, his friend, Squire Radford, and long-suffering curate, Mr Pettifor, and several other members of the Armitage vicarage staff are all gradually developed through the stories. Younger sisters in the first five books appear as minor characters and give hints of what is to come, while the elder sisters, particularly Minerva, appear from time to time in books two to six, mostly to help out the heroine of the moment though in some cases Annabelle, heroine of the second book, needs a bit of further help herself!
This reduces the irritating impression given by many romance stories that the only interesting part of a character's life is between puberty and marriage.
Bottom line, if you have read and enjoyed any of the other romances which Beaton published as Marion Chesney, such as the "Daughters of Mannerling," "A House for the Season" or "Poor Relation" series, you will very probably like this one. It is definately a step up from the "School for Manners" or "Travelling Matchmaker" books, or from the majority of modern books in the genre. Although this is not in the same league as Georgette Heyer, let alone Jane Austen, it is an entertaining bit of light reading.