Set in Silver

August 15, 2012

After two extremely unsatisfying books, I was beginning to wonder whether I really liked fluffy romances or if I’d just been imagining it. Fortunately, there was a third, less unsatisfying book sitting on my shelves.

The third book was Set in Silver, by A.M. and C.N. Williamson. Was it cheating to pick a book by the Williamsons? I would say yes, because they are kind of a known quantity, but it’s been a long time since I really loved a Williamsons (can I use that as a noun? Well, I’m going to). Lord Loveland was disappointing. I couldn’t get into The Lion’s Mouse. To M.L.G. was proof that Alice Williamson should never have been let near a publishing contract without Charlie. And, of course, Lord John in New York was just terrible. Set in Silver, on the other hand, sits comfortably in the Williamsons’ wheelhouse. It’s very much the same sort of thing as The Lightning Conductor, The Princess Passes, My Friend the Chauffeur, It Happened in Egypt, and The Chauffeur and the Chaperon. In other words, the good kind of Williamsons, where some people travel around together while writing long, chatty letters to their friends and one of them is sort of in disguise. And I feel a little crazy saying this — because how could it be their best novel? — but it might be their best novel. It’s awesome.

Nothing in Set in Silver is a surprise, but everything is just a little better than it has to be. The heroine, Audrie Brendon, isn’t the usual American heiress or impoverished English or Irish aristocrat, but the American-born daughter of an American man and a Frenchwoman. Her father died, it seems, when she was in her teens, and she and her mother used up whatever they inherited from him traveling around Europe. Now that they can’t afford to do that anymore, they’ve settled down in Versailles, where, with the recommendation of Audrie’s friend Ellaline Lethbridge, Audrie has got a job teaching music at a fancy girls’ boarding school. That’s why she owes Ellaline a favor, and doesn’t just laugh at her when Ellaline proposes that Audrie take her place for a few weeks while Ellaline elopes with a French soldier.

Ellaline’s father died either shortly before or shortly after she was born, and her mother died when she was four. Her guardian is Sir Lionel Pendragon, a cousin of her mother’s, who, while he’s kept Ellaline well supplied with money, has never sent her any kind of gift or communication, let alone come to see her. He’s been living in India being a lieutenant governor or something, but now he’s coming back, and Ellaline’s worried that he won’t let her marry Honoré, her French soldier, and wants Audrie to impersonate her until Honoré can get leave and marry her. And here’s where my expectations started to lift, because Audrie’s like, “okay, sure, I owe her, but this is ridiculous,” and writes to her mother, who is in Switzerland for her health, to ask for her advice. I mean, it’s still a ridiculous scheme, and of course her mother tells her to go along with it or there wouldn’t be a book, but I love that the decision isn’t left in the hands of two young women whose prefrontal cortices haven’t finished myelinating.

Anyway, Sir Lionel turns out to be a young-looking forty with an attractive personality and a dry sense of humor, rather than the ogre Audrie had imagined. The party is completed by his aggressively virtuous widowed sister, Mrs. Norton, who brings some news — part of Sir Lionel’s castle has caught fire. It’s sort of okay, though — it’s only the modern wing that’s been damaged. Anyway, a lot of work has to be done, and Sir Lionel suggests a motor trip around England.

I don’t always love the travelogue-y bits of Williamsons — a lot of the time it seems like description for the sake of description, and French chateaus start to run together pretty quickly. That wasn’t the case here, probably because the focus was almost as much on history — actual, personal and anecdotal — as on nice-looking stuff. Audrie and Sir Lionel love to connect places with stories, and it doesn’t matter much to them whether the stories are true. There’s still an excessive amount of scenery everywhere they go, but there are also connections to literature, to history, to other countries, etc. It’s engaging and fun, and it even reminds me a little of H.V. Morton, my favorite travel writer, who likes to shuttle back and forth between various eras, explaining architecture and geography, relating historical gossip, and making fun of tourists. The Williamsons don’t ever rise to Morton’s level, but even to remind me of him earns them some points.

Not that they need them, because even if I was a little bored by the travel writing sections, I would have been completely charmed by the rest of it. Audrie and Sir Lionel are great, and have lots of chemistry — the Williamsons are great at chemistry when they don’t completely fail at it — and they both have equally lovely relationships with their correspondents. Audrie’s letters are, of course, written to her mother — at times I felt like this was the Williamsons’ Visits of Elizabeth — and although we never hear from her mother herself, you get a very clear picture of her, and the way she and Audrie take care of each other. Sir Lionel’s letters go to his best friend, Colonel Patrick O’Hagan, who’s still in India, and you can tell the two of them know each really well.

There’s also a third character getting in on the letter-writing — Gwen Senter, a youngish widow who wants to marry Sir Lionel. She’s very beautiful and very clever and unabashedly malicious — but only in her letters to her sister. The rest of the time, she does a very good imitation of a nice person who shares most of SIr Lionel’s interests. She and her nephew, Dick Burden, get themselves invited on the motor tour and prevent it from being uniformly idyllic, which is frustrating for Audrie but necessary to the narrative. We don’t get to see what’s going on inside Dick’s head, which makes things pretty interesting — he enjoys blackmailing Audrie far too much for someone who claims to be in love with her.

Anyway, Set in Silver is great. It’s as quintessentially Williamsons-ish as it gets, only a little bit better. And while it hasn’t restored my faith in cute books by authors I haven’t encountered before, it did remind me that I do really enjoy fluff.


  1. I agree – a delightful read, like many of the Williamsons’. As for the boring travel bits – I believe that they were Charlie’s, while the lighter fare is Alice’s (born a stone’s throw from where I currently live). Anyway, while there are a few exceptions, this is one of the pleasure-filled ones. Glad you found it too!

    • Yeah, I suspect the travel bits were Charlie’s, but based on Alice’s solo stuff and things she wrote under both their names after he died, I think he also kept her from being too self-indulgent.

  2. This is one of the Williamsons’ books I haven’t read. It goes to the top of my list now.

    • It’s pretty awesome — everything that’s good about the Williamsons and nothing that’s bad.

  3. I was planning to start with the Egypt one, but if this is their best, I’ll go with this one. I’ve decided I like “journey” books where the characters are on a trip.

    • Most of the Williamsons’ books involve people on a trip, so it’s hard to go wrong there.

      I read It Happened in Egypt first, which I think was a pretty good one to start with, and Set in Silver probably would be, too, but if I got to retrospectively choose my first Williamsons, I think I’d go with The Lightning Conductor, because as well as being pretty delightful, it’s kind of the blueprint for everything else.

  4. “To M.L.G. was proof that Alice Williamson should never have been let near a publishing contract without Charlie. ”

    Having just battled my way through 2.5 chapters of Princess Sylvia, I agree with you.

    • Uh oh.

      • Don’t bother with Princess Sylvia. Read Princess Virginia instead.

        If you haven’t read it, Princess Virginia is about an Anglo-American princess (penniless and living in Hampstead Heath by grace and favour of the King) who learns that Leopold, the handsome young Emperor of the fictional European nation of Rhaetia, is planning to propose an arranged royal marriage with her, sight unseen, because she fits all the requirements for the position of Empress. But Virginia has had a crush on him all her life and persuades her mother to accompany her to Rhaetia incognito to see if Leopold will fall in love with Virginia for herself, not just because a princess is a suitable wife.

        Princess Sylvia (the Gutenberg edition is dated 1909) appears to be a very bad rewriting of PV (published in 1906 or 1907 according to Wikipedia). PS preserves the same core plotline, but with worse dialogue and different names for all the characters, and it’s not as concise. Also, PS’s happy ending is much less satisfying than PV’s. I don’t know whether AMW was inexplicably dissatisfied with PV, or there were copyright issues, or what, but PV should not have been messed with. Skip Princess Sylvia and go straight to the original, Princess Virginia.

        • Weird. Will do, and thanks for the background.

  5. Thought you might be interested in this article about Dorothy Levitt, an early-C20 female racecar driver who encouraged women to learn how to drive and is thought to have invented the rearview mirror: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_vault/2014/05/20/photos_advice_for_female_drivers_in_1909.html There are also some pics of her wearing what I think is the “mushroom hat” the Williamsons are always referring to as standard driving gear for ladies.

    • I’ve actually read about her before, but thanks! That’s a fun article, with some great pictures.

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