The Garden Intrigue

Charm is a little less studied than wit; in a literary context, it must feel effortless or a novel dissolves into a hopeless puddle of sentimentality. Lauren Willig has achieved that rare thing: her novels depict a delightful, civilized world in which characters charm without being irksome; they captivate without becoming maudlin.

The Garden Intrigue tells the story of Secret Agent Augustus Whittlesby, who is attached to Napoleon’s court in 1804 under the cover of being a hopelessly bad poet. In fact, his verses are so terrible that the French secret police can’t bear to read his work, and so they never discover the information he passes along to the British War Office.

By the end of a decade of writing drivel, Augustus is heartily sick of his lyrics, but the worst is yet to come when he actually falls in love: “After years of writing about love, he was finally prey to it…. It was the worst of poetic clichés: the poet infatuated, the lady indifferent.” The object of his adoration is his fellow spy Jane (alias the Pink Carnation, whose secret errands on behalf of England are the thread that stitches together Willig’s ongoing series); together they are supposed to locate and “contain” a spy known as the Black Tulip. Such a plethora of floral infiltrators could easily become tedious, but Willig deftly spins her story around Augustus, rather than around the submarine that might be used by the emperor to attack Britain (apparently, plans for such an underwater naval craft called the Nautilus were indeed floating around Paris at the time).

Augustus has a definite Bertie Wooster flair. There’s a literary tradition of English aristocrats able to talk of “perpetrating unspeakable crimes against unsuspecting adverbs” — or (more prosaically) “Oh, bugger. He was thinking in rhyme again.” But whereas Bertie wanders in a hapless sea of silver spoons and charming girls, without — to the best of my knowledge — ever falling deeply in love, Willig takes Augustus straight past insouciance to deeper and (to Augustus) more irritating emotions. In short, Jane has an annoying American friend named Emma. Emma’s plumes are too long and spangled; she drinks too much champagne; she comes to all Augustus’s readings and pokes fun at him.

Augustus is remarkably dim when it comes to emotion — at one point, he tells Emma that she is his closest friend, and he’s glad she’s not getting married because “I would have hated to lose you.” Of course, Emma doesn’t want to be his friend. It’s not easy to spin a story in which an intelligent woman falls in love with a man she considers a dithery poet; Baroness Orczy faced an uphill battle in the same vein. Willig shapes the situation as a comedy of manners: “One flirts with poets,” barks one of Emma’s friends. “One doesn’t fall in love with them. And one certainly doesn’t marry them.”  It probably goes without saying that fans of Downton Abbey will find plenty to enjoy here.

When the dithery poet is stripped away, Augustus turns out to be that particular brand of stiff-upper-lip, solid Englishman who is heroic but not lyrical. “You matter to me,” he says quietly, in one of the most deeply romantic scenes in the book. “Do I matter to you?”

The Garden Intrigue is a perfect after–Valentine’s Day treat for those of us suffering from a surfeit of chocolate and promises. “Flowers withered; words lied,” as Emma puts it. But the romance depicted here is enough to put your faith back in love (if not in poetry).