REVIEW: The Maid of Honour (updated) by Dinah Dean
In 1666, plague and fire will pull them asunder. But love will overcome.
In a privileged role as Maid of Honor to the Queen of England, Miss Mary Hook should be content, but her companions’ lack of morals makes her miserable. When the plague forces the Royal court to leave London, Mary is happy to leave the vice and frivolity behind… Only to find that the reputation of light-skirts follows her, regardless of how wrong the assumption is.
Back home in the countryside village of Woodham, Mr Francis Hartwell disapproves of her friendship with his sister. He can’t believe that Mary won’t be a bad influence and lead her astray. Then the plague hits the Hartwell household, trapping Mary in the house with them to contain the disease. And when she succumbs to illness, it’s not her friend who tends her back to health, but scandalously, the Master of the household himself!
With danger and rich historical detail, fans of sweet and clean historical romance will relish this Tudor and Stuarts era piece for the wealth of intriguing domestic history and the heart-pounding events that shaped England.
I thought I’d treat myself to a reread of “The Maid of Honour” in honor of it being released digitally. Plague! Fire! Charles II! Restoration goodness along with a wonderful cat named Oliver. Oh, you want to know about the romance? Well the Hartwell men (as I’ve pointed out in Briar Rose and Country Cousins) aren’t known for their romantic finesse but once they love their lady, their love is strong.
Mary Hook is the daughter of the Baronet who owns Pinnacles and received his title from his restored King in gratitude for secret help during the Commonwealth. Clever Sir Charles carefully spun a tale of health woe that lasted until the Restoration. His only daughter, Mary, is now a Maid of Honour to Queen Catherine and heartily sick of Whitehall, court dandies, and her fellow Maids. When word that the plague is spreading reaches court – after word that the Dutch Navy has been defeated – Mary begs leave to visit home. There she is reacquainted with Jemima (Jem) Hartwell – a descendent of Matthew and Kate Hartwell (Briar Rose). Francis, Jem’s brother, eyes Mary askance and then quietly pulls her aside to ask her not to corrupt his younger sister with her wanton court ways. Insulted, Mary verbally hits back after which the two mainly avoid each other.
On a day when Mary is at Cannons Grange helping with the brambleberry conserve making, Cook collapses and the terrified household is forced to isolate as she is revealed to have been Visited – by the plague. Francis and Jem survived the disease as children but Mary is struck down and then nursed back to health by Francis. Afraid that he is offering for her to save her reputation, Mary (who has by now reversed her feelings about this quiet, steadfast, and honorable man) declines his proposal. It’s going to take the Fire of London to break this romance deadlock.
Oh, the Hartwell men. If only they could screw their courage to the sticking point and tell the women they love that they love them. But as it appears to be a family trait to remain mum about that, the course of their true love never runs smooth. The reader knows the deal but all we can do is sigh and urge them on. I will say that Mary’s reasons for turning Francis down are valid and given that he hasn’t told her he loves her (the lunk), I can understand why she’s trying to protect her heart. The romance here is definitely a slow burn.
This time with the other of the books in the series fresh in my mind, I enjoyed reading more about the village of Woodham. The church bells are a minor event in village life and we see the place 120 years after Henry VIII was saved by Matthew Hartwell who, in return, got Cannons Grange for a peppercorn rent of one arrow delivered to the monarch every seven years. Charles II (who is shown very positively in the book) is amused by the story as Francis delivers the most recent one. I felt I was getting another glimpse of a slower time long gone when villagers had an ancient right to pannage for their livestock, massive shire horses pulled hay wains at harvest time, making preserves was a hot all day process, households depended on the herbal knowledge of the ladies of the house, and those houses were expanded by fits and starts over the years.
Mary is strong willed – she lets Francis know he’s overstepped and fends off the handsy men at court – but she is also a woman of her time and not a dolled up 21st century woman. When she realizes she’s stuck at the Hartwell’s house, she pitches in, makes good suggestions, and doesn’t whine. When she is worried about Francis in London, she recruits help and goes searching for him. Mary is not an empty headed fool. Slowly we learn about Francis’s background and what he has endured – usually without complaint – in his life. Francis’s scarred palms, and how he got them, earn the respect of the Thames watermen.
I enjoyed all the secondary characters and felt they were well rounded. Oliver, the cat who rules over Cannons Grange with a firm but benevolent paw, is again a favorite. But then everyone probably knew I’d say that. This time my grade rises to a B+