Hey, I'm really serious about the spoilers thing. Run in fear. Soon.
Look, I get that this is not a romance genre novel. I do. But I'm going to point a few things out about this book that seem relevant.
(1) It's a Reforming the Rake novel. He's not the worst rake, by any means, but he is presented in classic rake fashion, right down to finally deciding to do his duty and produce an heir and picking someone cute and snarky and then wondering if he screwed up. Because it's not actually a romance novel, he really does screw this up; more about that in a moment.
(2) It's a baby-daddy/secret baby novel. (You were warned about the spoilers.). While two of the three endings don't involve Tragedy's baby, there's no reason to believe that the baby is absent from any of the three endings. The only difference is that Smithson doesn't know about the baby in the other two endings. And in classic, classic, classic baby-daddy/secret baby novel fashion, the man doesn't get to learn about the existence of his offspring until he passes some subtle, unannounced and somewhat arbitrary test (in one of the endings, he never gets anywhere near the test; in the third ending he walks out in the middle of it, thus flunking). I really dislike secret baby novels. It just seems so wildly unfair to the baby and the daddy for them not to know about each other's existence.
You bang together those two classic plots, and it's hard _not_ to judge the book by romance novel standards. What happens if we do? Nothing good. Between the pomo devices (the obtrusive Narrator, Chapter 13's descent into cheap thrills of literary analysis and possibly a little epistemology, the endless comparisons of the 1860s to the author's contemporary 1960s) and the relentlessly negative portrayal of women in the novel, it left a really unpleasant aftertaste.
Okay, so it's a crap romance novel, but how about if it's not a romance novel? What then? Maybe it is a bildungsroman for Tragedy/Sarah Woodruff and/or Charles Smithson? What kind of character development actually happens? Well, the two of them share a real problem with indecision. Sarah, "educated beyond her class" (goddess, is that ever a cliche of historical romances), is poisoned by envy and relentlessly denies it. She won't buckle down and live the lot she's been given nor will she leave and go take her chances in the city. The pressure has to get quite intense to convince her to actually leave Lyme Regis. (I have to say that the section in which the Doctor attempts to convince Smithson that Sarah suffers from hysteria and/or is a manipulative shit is one of the creepiest bits I've read lately. Really reminded me of all that Freudian garbage that was so prevalent during the 20th C, which we have almost entirely left behind us. I sure don't miss it.) Smithson can't seem to bring himself to seriously nerd it up like his grandfather or play nice with Uncle to carry on the tradition of whatever it is Uncle believes in (shooting things, at least in part). Smithson and Woodruff are fully prepared to snipe at everyone around them -- and it doesn't seem to make them any happier, nor do they appear to suffer from any of the moral qualms that Ernestina does when she's been punching down.
It might actually _be_ a somewhat decent bildungsroman. Sarah and Charles are both sociable (socialized?) and connected enough to not want to disappoint the people around them. But their values are at odds with those people. They really needed to walk away from the people around them and find a better environment -- or modify their values to better suit the people they chose to love. And for a variety of reasons, they had a lot of trouble deciding which it was going to be. As has been my experience with indecision and the indecisive, they did a ton of damage to the people around them along the way (have I been that person? Alas, yes). Slogging through the excruciatingly long-winded descriptions of the indecision was a lot more than I can take. I started skimming, and ultimately skipped some large chunks of the book. SEE NOT A REAL BOOK REVIEW.
But it's only a somewhat decent bildungsroman. A lot of that long winded description was less than great. The one that attracted the most specific ire for me was the description of an early (but not the first) interaction between Sam and Mary, where she asks him what it's going to cost her and he responds with an "unambiguous wink".
Really? An unambiguous wink? What's that look like? The lid of the eye made it all the way down, as opposed to halfway? Or is the unambiguity what the wink is about? Because that wasn't unambiguous at all. Since Sam winds up having honorable intentions for Mary, the obvious "unambiguous" interpretation (that presumably causes her to slam the door in his face) isn't even true.
But hey. That's a postmodern novel for you.
You want pomo? Go read some Robbe-Grillet. It's better.