REVIEW: Never a Mistress, No Longer a Maid by Maureen Driscoll
Dear Ms. Driscoll:
When you sent me your book back in June, it was one of the better pitches I had received for a book review. When I started reading it, however, I had some real concerns. I want to point out in the beginning of this review that I am no historian. What I know about the regency period, I’ve gleaned from books, message boards, and the random interesting article to which I’ve been directed. Thus, when I read a book set in the Regency period and it dings my weak history meter, I’ve got to wonder what kind of research went into the creation of the text.
The prologue opens with the heroine and hero in 1815 Belgium. The hero is in pain but alive which is more than he can say for the French soldier lying dead next to him. Ned Kellington is an English spy who was riding from the British line when he encountered a French soldier. They fought and Ned won although he received a bullet in his thigh for his methods.
Our heroine is Jane Wetherby, the granddaughter of the Earl of Huntington, who has followed her passion to Belgium to be involved in medicine. Specifically, she is serving as a nurse. For some reason, Jane is walking across the countryside from nursing men on the Western front to move to the main lines “in preparation for what she was told would be the defining battle of the war.” Jane is set upon by two other French brigands. Jane and I know they are French because of the French phrases they use (albeit incorrectly): “‘This one has some life to her, n’est pas?’ said the other soldier with a leer on his face.”
What is Jane doing walking alone (even dressed like a boy) along some river in Belgium? There are no other nurses, doctors, anyone that she could travel with? She is the ONLY one who wants to remove herself from the Western front to the main lines? Further, what is she doing by herself anyway? What English miss from a good family wanders about anywhere by herself?
But if Ned and Jane[fn1] aren’t alone, then Jane can’t proceed to a) dig out the bullet in Ned’s thing, b) nurse him through a 12 hour fever, and then c) lose her virginity and become impregnated by him in less than 24 hours. Why Jane would choose to give her virginity to some soldier that she met on a river bank in Belgium isn’t explored. If she had so little care for her virtue, wouldn’t she had given it over to a medical professional, as her love for medicine is why she abandoned her grandparents to come and nurse the wounded? But why should common sense and historical conventions be observed when you need the couple to copulate in the prologue?
Fast forward seven years. Ned and Jane reunite when Ned travels to her village, Marston Vale in Bedfordshire. Ned has orders from his brother, the Duke of Lynwood, to sort out an understanding that Ned’s father had arranged with the father of Madeleine Merriman, the eldest daughter of the Viscount Barrington. Miss Merriman lives in the same village as Jane.
The characters are very cliched. Jane is preyed upon a by an unsavory character to whom she owes a debt, a debt incurred in order to buy medicine for her village. Miss Merriman is a shrill, grasping creature who plots to be caught in a scandalous situation to bring Ned up to scratch. Jane is a Disney (TM) heroine whom every one loves, including the forest creatures, except, of course for the evil ones in the neighborhood (aka Merriman and her mother).
When Ned and Jane find each other again, Ned discovers that Jane has a daughter whom Ned recognizes as his progeny. He gets over his anger at her lies and deceit fairly quickly and determines to marry her, but Jane refuses. At this point, I am just shaking my head at the nonsense.
Jane has a daughter who is an illegitimate bastard. Jane has been cast out by her grandparents and she lives in a ramshackle farmhouse bequeathed to her by her parents. Jane can barely afford to provide even the most basic necessities of life for her and her child. Further, there is no chance that her child will have any decent life when she grows older because the daughter is a bastard. Does Jane look upon Ned’s offer with favor? Of course not! She does not want to marry Ned. She is not going to marry someone who does not love her. Her principles are more important than food, clothing and shelter for herself and her child! Please. This is a ridiculous setup. Who cares what the stupid git’s principles are?
Jane’s fortunate, though, because in the book everyone loves her in the village because of her surgical skills. She knows all about the “spirits of disease” (a phrase used 9 times in the text) and her facility with wielding the antisceptic known as Scotch brandy has increased her rates of survival. The villagers embrace of her is nice but not terribly realistic. The mark of having a child out of wedlock doesn’t seem to weigh heavily upon Jane’s shoulders. Even her arch nemesis, Miss Merriman, speaks to her albeit in a catty manner.
When Ned and Jane reenter society, the social repercussions of Jane and Ned’s indiscretion become a source of conflict as do some other nefarious characters. Ned is pretty stalwart the entire book. He cares for Jane and wants Jane is his life. Jane is beset by insecurities and principles (where were they when she was giving away her virginity to some stranger in Belgium?) and is often shown to be a poor judge of character when she often trusts random people ahead of those that are close to her. But alas, how else will we have agnst and drama? Ned’s eldest brother and sister also start their own romances in this story which I presume to be sequel bait for subsequent stories.
The unique parts of the book such as Jane as a surgeon or Ned being uncaring about society’s constraints weren’t integrated into the plot sufficiently. Like the historical trappings, those details served as superficial gloss and didn’t affect Jane or Ned’s make up. These characters could have been unique, their mindsets, their character, could have read fresh and different but there was too great a reliance on well trod tropes and archetypes. Ned and Jane were like paper dolls. I could have placed them in another background with different clothes and the story would have read the same.
The best thing to say about this book is that there are dozens of Regency books with the same level of historical accuracy and cliched characters being published by the Big 6. There wasn’t anything fresh, new or invigorating about this story. It read slow for me and it was a task to finish; however, it wasn’t because the product itself was substandard it is just that this story has been written before–many, many times before. C-
FN1: Ned and Jane! I know, I wished it was more awesome just because of that!