Dear Ms. Ranney,
They were a pair, weren’t they? The earl who’d divorced his wife, and the maid who hid her past. Perhaps they deserved each other.
I enjoyed your latest book A Scandalous Scot. It’s a straightforward love story–a Cinderella story, really–between a smart, competent woman and a compassionate, passionate man. The plot made sense, the historical background was interesting, and the supplementary characters were well-fleshed out and added depth to your story. I’ve recently read a spate of books where something–the denouement, the circumstances, and/or the lovers–seemed forced and annoying. Your novel was a pleasant change.
It’s the summer of 1860 in rural Scotland, and the Earl of Denbleigh, after a long unhappy absence, has returned to his childhood home, Ballindair Castle. The Earl, Morgan MacCraig, has been run out of London on a rail of scandal. He, rather than stay married to a woman so unfaithful a friend calls her a “true slut” who “before she’s finished, she’ll have bedded most of London,” divorced his wife, was forced to relinquish his seat in Parliament, and has come home to escape being a “social and political pariah.” Morgan, though he feels his choice was justified, is deeply ashamed to have brought scandal to his family name.
On his first night home, he literally runs into Jean MacDonald, one of the castle’s many maids. She is lurking in the dark, in the Master Suite, hoping to see one of the castle’s famous ghosts. Morgan is irked she’s disrupted his return–he’s tired and cranky–and Jean is mortified to have been caught loitering someplace she’s not supposed to be. She also thinks Morgan’s a bit of an ass–he embarrasses her in front of her aunt, the castle’s housekeeper, as well as the other staff.
Just as Morgan has come to Ballindair to escape a scandal, so has Jean. She and her sister, the gorgeous and slightly evil Catriona, aren’t really MacDonalds. They were born into a relatively privileged life, but then a horrific act on the part of their father plunged them into poverty. Their aunt took them in and put them to work as lowly maids. Catriona loathes their life–she’d rather be a wealthy man’s mistress–but Jean is a make-do sort and finds ways to challenge herself. She tries to be the best maid she can be, to learn something new every day, and to be appreciative of the world around her.
When Catriona decides to seduce the Earl, Jean, trying to save Catriona from disgrace, intercedes, and ends up compromised herself. Morgan, after some thought and encouragement from Jean’s aunt, offers to marry Jean, an offer Jean tries to turn down. Not only does Jean feel she’s not the stuff of countesses, she knows if she marries under a false name, the marriage will be a legal sham. Morgan, though, is drawn to Jean for her quick mind and honest conversation. He insists they marry and, less than a month after she collided with the Earl in the dark, Jean is the Countess of Denbleigh.
I liked Jean. She’s always been considered plain–especially when compared to her gorgeous sister–and she values herself for her honor and her mind. She does whatever she thinks needs to be done–taking care of Ballindair’s dying steward, making sure a wrongly accused maid is treated justly, pushing Morgan to become a better caretaker of his estate–even when doing so is awkward or puts her at risk. She’s a good person in a real way–there is nothing cloying or falsely perfect about her. I enjoyed watching her become more sure of herself as she settled into her role as Countess.
Morgan’s a winner too. When he first comes home, he pays scant attention to his staff or his land. As he tells Jean, when she asks if he sees the people who serve him, he says,
“I try not to…. Sometimes, all those people, set to obey your slightest whim, are oppressive.”
However, as he stays in Scotland, and as he watches how Jean deals with her responsibilities, he begins to shoulder more of his own. In doing so, he learns the joys of a purposeful life. One of my favorite things about this book is the pleasure Jean and Morgan take in working and in tangible accomplishments.
As much as I like Jean and Morgan separately, I liked them even more as a couple. The two spend as much time talking as they do making love (the love scenes in this book are excellent and plentiful) and their conversations are fun to read. Jean is willing to debate almost anything–she’s endearingly (slightly) self-righteous. Their exchanges are well done and often funny. Here, the two, the first time they formally dine together, are arguing over marrying.
“Forgive my tardiness,” he said.
“You can’t marry me,” she said, blurting out the worlds.
……”Good evening to you, too, Jean,” he said, sitting at the head of the table and unfolding his napkin.
“You’re an earl. I’m a maid.”
“Thank you for explaining that,” he said.
….“Have you heard the tale of Cinderella?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre,” he said. “’Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper,’ written by Charles Perrault nearly two hundred years ago.”
“I don’t speak French,” she said.
“Pity. It’s the tale of a girl who was forced into being a maid by circumstance. She ends up attracting the attention of a prince.”
“Did he marry her?”
“I believe he did, and they lived happily ever after.”
When Morgan explains the glass slipper part to her, Jean thinks it sounds crazy.
“Didn’t he recognize her? Wouldn’t he have noticed her face? Or was he always staring at her feet?”…. “I doubt they lived happily ever after,” she said. “If he couldn’t remember what she looked like.”
Not much happens in this story–this is not a book full of plot twists, big misunderstandings, or histrionics. Morgan and Jean take care of the castle, its staff and land. Jean must figure out how to tell Morgan the truth about her past. The two slowly fall in love. Catriona and Morgan’s slimy friend Andrew try to derail that process but they do so in petty and fairly unimportant ways. A Scandalous Scot is a low-key story–I liked that about it, but, at the same time, it makes the novel, once finished, fairly forgettable.
It’s tough to grade historicals. So many of them suck–mistorical and otherwise. At the same time, there are stellar writers out there–Cecilia Grant, Sherry Thomas, Joanna Bourne, to name a few–whose works often take my breath away. This book, while pleasant and well-done, isn’t a knock-out. So, despite my enjoyment of its straight-forward, nicely told love story, I’m giving it a B-.