This is the penultimate 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 his fifth daughter, Diana, who very much takes after her father, so much so that she actually enjoys hunting as much as he does.
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) Deirdre and Desire (The Six Sisters Series)
4) Daphne (The Six Sisters Series)
5) This book, "Diana the Huntress"
6) Frederica in Fashion (The Six Sisters Series)
The opening sentence of this book tells us that "Had she not had four extremely beautiful elder sisters, Diana Armitage might have been accounted very well in her way" but that she had "mannish airs" and was regarded as lacking the charm and delicacy of thr four older girls. Although considering what her sisters had sometimes got up to in the previous books, those expressing this opinion and assuming there was no prospect of change must have had short memories !
Diana had always wanted to hunt, and at the end of her fourth sister Daphne's eponymous book, she persuaded their father to allow this. Daphne even made the vicar swear on the bible that he would permit Diana to join the hunt. Diana hunts as ferociously as her father does, but because this is not regarded as a ladylike thing to do, she disguises herself as a young man.
Diana has no interest in men or marriage. At one point having become lost in a storm while hunting and dressed as a man, she is forced to take refuge at the home of the sophisticated and wealthy Lord Mark Dantry, but finds him intimidating. She also meets the mysterious and equally handsome Jack Emberton, who seems more interesting, but too forward. She does not particularly want to marry either, but sees an opportunity to enjoy the freedom which is allowed to young men and comes up with a mad plan to do so ...
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.
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. Diana, heroine of this book is very much the tomboy of the family, which was a difficult thing for a gently-born female in the early nineteenth century to be.
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.
Another such nugget, in this book, comes when Diana asks Lord Dantry about the fall of Beau Brummel, mentioning the best known story (when Brummel insulted the Regent by asking Lord Alvaney "who's your fat friend?"). Dantry explains that Brummel was already out of favour at this stage, and explains how his fall started.
Some readers will enjoy these little bits of real historical information: other other readers have said they find them poorly integrated into the narrative and that they can come over as lecturing. Personally 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.