19 July 2013: Edited to add: I'm pleased to share that this is my debut review on the Romantic Historical Lovers
blog. Wheeee! I've always wanted to have a debut!
Wealthy heiress Jane Fairfield is the laughing-stock of polite Cambridge society, and that’s just the way she likes it. She is counting the days until her younger sister reaches her majority, when Jane can liberate Emily from the tyranny of her guardian, their Uncle Titus. Until then, Jane will continue living in their uncle’s house doing everything she can to avoid the attentions of fortune-hunting suitors – draping her Junoesque figure in yards of lace and garish colors, talking too loudly, and oh-so-politely insulting people to their faces. (“What a lovely chandelier you have. I wager it would look almost new, if it had been dusted recently.”) Emily suffers from a mild convulsive disorder, and Jane is determined to protect her from the many self-proclaimed healers and downright quacks brought round by their ignorant, overly protective uncle.
Oliver Marshall (son of Hugo and Serena of The Governess Affair
) is quite the opposite. After fighting back against the taunts and bullying of boys at Eton and Cambridge, the adult Oliver has cultivated an air of quiet competence and dignity. Oliver is the byblow of the now-deceased Duke of Clermont, who forced himself upon a governess and refused to assist her, but the current duke (Robert from The Duchess War
) befriended Oliver at school and regards him fully as his brother.
While aspiring to a seat in the House of Commons, he is gradually making a name for himself in politics as an advocate of voting reform. He gingerly navigates his way between two worlds – the working class of his parents and the aristocracy of his biological father. Oliver is fiercely resolute and quite radical underneath his calm exterior.
Oliver didn’t know his place. He’d spent too many nights seething at the way of things, too long wanting to rise in power, not just so that he might wield it, but so that he might wrest it from the hands of those who abused it. They’d spent years trying to teach him his place; he’d learned through long, hard experience that the only way forward was to keep quiet until he grew so tall they could no longer shove him down.
The politically powerful Marquess of Bradenton holds a personal grudge against Jane Fairfield, and he recruits Oliver’s assistance in publicly taking her down a peg. Oliver doesn’t know Jane very well, but like everyone else he finds her rather ghastly. Oliver is tempted, as Bradenton has offered him political support that could significantly further Oliver’s aspirations. I love the clever way Milan describes the marquess – “like an old farmer, walking the perimeter of his property every day, testing the fences and peering suspiciously at his neighbors, making sure that his side and their side were clearly delineated.” Bradenton is evilly manipulative as he points out to Oliver that “in the end, we all know how this will work out. It’s one annoying girl against your entire future. Against the future of voting rights.”
Although Jane was born a lady, it was widely known that her mother’s husband was not her father. The mother had died when Jane was ten, and when she was thirteen, a man she had never heard of died and left her an immense fortune. Her legal father then abandoned Jane and Emily to molder in the country, with no governess, no companion, no playmates, and no education suitable to their station. Upon his death, they were forced upon Uncle Titus, who viewed Jane as “the product of her mother’s sin. She was argumentative, crude, unmannerly. She was, according to Titus, a poison in their household, one he only tolerated in the name of the duty he owed his dead brother.”
As Oliver becomes better acquainted with Jane, however, he finds that he rather likes her. Moreover, he sees her as someone like himself – tolerated but never really accepted by their supposed betters. Oliver begins to see through Jane’s charade, to see a woman who is lonely, who can barely breathe under the burden she has assumed.
"I see shoulders that dare not relax, muscles that dare not twitch, lips that dare not do anything but smile. You’re awash in choices, Miss Fairfield, but you know as well as I that the wrong one will bring your carefully husbanded awful reputation to naught."
Finally, Oliver half-guesses and Jane half-confesses the reasons for her pretense, and Oliver tells her of Bradenton’s plot. As they grow closer, an unwanted attraction develops, but both of them know that it can proceed no further. Oliver needs the kind of wife who can advance his political career, and Jane is certainly not that woman. And so they part, and later even after they meet again, admit their feelings, and act upon them, they still go their separate ways because Jane is not cut out to be the wife that Oliver wants.
Courtney Milan has written not just another wonderful romance novel; she has written a breathtaking novel. Full stop. While Jane and Oliver are pursuing their dreams, there are other, smaller but equally engaging, stories. There is Emily’s attraction to an Indian law student whom she meets when she sneaks out of the house for afternoon walks. There are vignettes of Oliver’s relationship with his father Hugo and his little sister Free, a suffragist who wants to go to Cambridge. (Her story will arrive in The Mistress Rebellion
.) We again meet Oliver’s cousin Sebastian Malheur, a scientist who has become famous, and reviled in some quarters, for his papers on natural selection that support Mr. Darwin’s new theories, and his friend Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury. (Their story is coming up in The Countess Conspiracy
.) There is a vivid picture of the great Hyde Park demonstration of May 1867, which was banned by the government but ultimately went forward because the crowds were so immense that the police and army did not dare to attack. There is even a kidnapping and forced elopement, which is so well done and so funny that I forgive the author for succumbing to the temptation to resort to such a tired old romance trope.
And finally, there is the truly heartbreaking story of Oliver’s elderly Aunt Freddy whose agoraphobia has kept her closed up in her tiny flat for years. She once told Oliver that
“Some people, when they’re hurt . . . they remember the challenge. They grab hold of the fire once, and when they’re burned, they make plans, trying to figure out how to hold live coals. That’s your mother. But some of us remember the pain.” She reached out and patted Oliver’s hand. “You’re like that. You remember the pain, and you flinch. When you were young, I thought you were like your mother—a regular coal-grabber. But no. Now I see more clearly.”
It isn’t a spoiler to reveal that she dies at the end of the book and that the truth about her life brought a tear to my eye. It is her passing that finally jolts Oliver out of his complacency. He realizes that Jane is not wrong for him; she is precisely right.
“I don’t need that quiet wife. I need you. Someone bold. Someone who won’t let me stand back from myself, and who will tell me in no uncertain terms when I’ve erred.”
She didn’t know what to say.
“I’ve needed you to shock me out of the biggest mistake of my life. To make me recognize my fears and to reach into the fire and grab hold of the coals.”
There are so many interwoven themes, such wry humor, and so much beautiful prose in this book that I found it difficult to select the bits to include in this review. In my opinion, though, this is Courtney Milan’s best book yet, and given her track record that alone is saying a lot.