I enjoyed parts of this, but disliked others.
Theo is a man who has been sent to his family's country estate in Sussex to 'reform' in a sense. For the most part, he is unremarkable. I read him as a character who has a serious lack of self-esteem, although he generally puts up a good front of confidence.
Martha is a recent widow who cares very deeply about the humanity of all people, which the author portrays in her selfless care and concern for the education and well-being of her servants, tenants and their families. She is very proper, and even a bit stuffy. Indeed, this is a perfect example of an starchy-heroine-gets-unstarched. When her husband leaves her without heir and without a dower to support herself, she is devastated. Not for her own lack of support (she has an invitation to go and live with her brother), but because without an heir, her husband's estate will fall into the hands of his younger brother, a man remembered in the area for his predatory actions towards the female servants of the house. Martha resolves that, one way or another, she must protect the people for whom she cares so deeply. One way she sets about to accomplish this is to get with child - in the hopes it might be a son - who she can pass of as her late husband's issue. Then she learns about her new neighbor, who has a slight reputation for his wantonness. And this very proper widow makes a very improper proposition.
And so begins a very odd relationship between Theo and Martha, which slowly unfolds and develops very naturally and realistically.
This author puts us deeply into the characters' psyches - letting us read their thoughts and feelings as if we were thinking and feeling them ourselves. This, interspersed with Theo's slow ascent towards a greater understanding of himself, and his realization of his capability as a landowner and farmer. And Martha's ascent into a greater understanding of herself as a woman and a lover.
Truly, this story shows how two partners can fulfill in one another each one's missing parts. Martha provides Theo with her strengths - intellectual companionship and the practical advice he needs to run his estates. Theo provides Martha with his strengths - awakening
her to the joy that can be had from loosening her stays (literally and figuratively), and showing her that there is nothing wrong with needing and wanting another person.
The romance itself was beautiful. I almost rated this three stars, but in retrospect, I have little to criticize in the execution of this story. Primarily, it is laborious to get through. And while the writing was excellent, it didn't seem to have the smooth flow that I tend to enjoy in a well-written romance. Plus, there were lengthy technical passages that got a tad boring. I admit, there were parts I had skim through simply because I was completely bored with them.
All in all, I wouldn't read this one again. Time will tell if it is a memorable read or not.