This is my favourite romance novel of all time. And, I’ll freely confess, not for any really good reason. It has some of the flaws typical of Quinn’s earliest books (mostly down to historical vagueness or just plain inaccuracy), the plot occasionally bounces around a little inexplicably, the writing isn’t always spectacular, but… it’s still just plain my favourite.
Robert Kemble, Earl of Macclesfield, meets Victoria Lyndon, the new vicar’s daughter, when he stumbles on her in the woods one day. They’re both young — 24 and 17, respectively — and they fall in love at first sight. Due to the differences in their stations, however, their fathers oppose the match. Robert’s father fears she’s only after his money; Victoria’s father fears he’s just out to ruin her. The lovers plan to elope, but Victoria’s father catches her sneaking out and ties her to the bed to keep her from leaving. Robert, wondering where she is, goes to her window, sees her in bed and hunched up, misunderstands, thinks she’s decided against him, leaves for London immediately. Victoria rushes to him to explain the next morning, finds he’s not there, and his father tells her he’s gone in search of a proper wife. Sadness and heartbreak abound.
Seven years pass. Victoria, unable to stay in her father’s household any longer, has been working as a governess, and lo and behold, Robert ends up as a houseguest at the manor where she’s working. They’re both still hurting and each lashes out at the other, but they’re still very obviously attracted to each other. Robert makes some headway by being sweet and useful — and then promptly undoes it by asking Victoria to be his mistress. She takes off again and takes up as a seamstress in London, and finds that she really enjoys the work; it gives her money of her own, she makes friends, and the work is fulfilling. Then Robert shows up asking her to be his wife. And then he, well, kidnaps her when he finds out she’s living in a dangerous neighborhood. Victoria is understandably pretty upset about this, and I enjoy that she actually calls Robert out on his high-handed and disrespectful behaviour. He once again finds himself with ground to make up, and he has to work pretty hard to regain her trust.
So what is it I love about this book? Well, for one thing, Quinn’s sense of humour is in fine form here. When Robert, particularly, is on an upswing, he’s warm and witty and a little bit random, which is really entertaining. Consider the following:
“Today,” he announced with great cheer, “is a superb day to be married.”
Victoria was certain she’d misheard him. “I beg your pardon?”
“Married. Man and wife.”
“You and me?”
“No, actually I think that the hedgehogs out in the garden need to be joined in holy matrimony. They have been living in sin for years. I can no longer stand for it.”
“Robert,” Victoria said, giggling despite herself.
“And all those little illegitimate hedgehogs. Think of the stigma. Their parents have been breeding like rabbits. Or like hedgehogs, as the case may be.”
There are little nuggets of delight like that sprinkled throughout the entire book, and that makes it, on one level, a joy to read. But this is also a book about recovering from pain. It’s about regaining trust, and the bravery that takes. Victoria expresses the pain of loss, of finding out you put your faith in someone unworthy:
“You gave me the moon, Robert. No, you did more than that. You picked me up and put me right on it.” There was a long, painful pause. “And then I fell. And it hurt so much when I landed. I don’t want that again.”
“It won’t happen again. I am older and wiser now. We are both older and wiser.”
“Don’t you see? It has already happened twice.”
“Twice?” he echoed, thinking that he very much didn’t want to hear what she had to say.
“At the Hollingwoods,” she said, her voice oddly flat. “When you asked me to be your—”
“Don’t say it.” His voice was curt.
“Don’t say what? ‘Mistress’? It’s a fine time for you to suddenly develop scruples.”
He paled. “I never knew you could be so vindictive.”
“I’m not being vindictive, I’m being honest. And I didn’t just fall off that time. You pushed me.”
She also gives voice to the fear that comes with opening yourself up again:
“Life isn’t about crawling under a rock and watching the world go by, desperately hoping it won’t touch us. Life is about taking chances, about reaching for the moon.”
“I took chances,” she said flatly. “I lost.”
If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, Victoria really doesn’t have to say more than that. Lose faith enough times, take the wrong chances, trust the wrong people, and eventually it just wearies you. It drains you of emotional energy. And it’s a long, long road back.
There’s also a lot of negotiation that has to happen in this book. Victoria actually enacts a lot more agency than your typical Regency heroine. She discovers that she likes working and likes the freedom that it gives her, and so she and Robert actually talk through that, and talk about how she’ll be able to still have that usefulness, that source of pride, and that liberty as a Countess. She forces him to see her as a person with her own needs and desires, not just as the object of his love, and Robert proves himself worthy by coming to understand that.
So, on top of Quinn’s typical quality writing, I enjoy that she addresses some tough issues in this book. The drama is entirely inside the characters, not because of a melodramatic plot, and that makes it very real and easy to relate to. She upends a lot of the stereotypes of love at first sight, and she shows how much work love can be. I appreciate the emotional honesty.