REVIEW: The Maid of Honour (original) by Dinah Dean
“Have you found that ideal man yet?”
There was only one man at the court of King Charles II that Miss Mary Hook could contemplate marrying — Prince Rupert was undoubtedly the most interesting, most intelligent, most honorable, chivalrous and handsome man at Court. If only she could find a man like him — but attainable, and country-loving, with no desire to spend his life at Whitehall. Perhaps she had — and thrown away her chance when she had refused to marry Francis Hartwell. He had saved her from the plague, but she would not marry him out of gratitude. Now she realized what she had thrown away — could she, dare she, say to him that she had changed her mind?
I think the only other romance book I’ve ever read that features the plague is Paula Allardyce’s My Dear Miss Emma. But this one trumps that as it also includes the Great Fire of London (2 disasters for the price of one! What a bargain.). It was also one of my bargains of the decade as I found a cheap copy listed by an Aussie bookseller and only paid $30.00 at the time instead of the $450.00 that some dealers were asking. And it’s even cheaper now! Is it worth $450.00? Heck no. But it is definitely worth what I paid and a bit more.
At a court famed for its debauchery and licentiousness, Mary Hook is an anomaly, a woman of virtue despite the determined efforts of some of the court dandies. When the summer of 1665 brings with it the Great Plague, she decides to ask for a leave of absence from her duties as a Maid of Honour to Queen Catherine of Braganza. Once she arrives home in Woodham, Essex, she renews a friendship with the daughter of a neighboring family, Jemima Hartwell whose brother, Francis, Mary barely remembers from years ago.
And after their first meeting, when Francis all but accuses Mary of being a loose court woman, she’s just as happy to avoid him. He’s handsome all right, but cold and reserved. At least that’s what Mary thinks until fate takes a hand and strands her at their estate when a servant falls ill with the plague. Now unable to leave for six weeks to avoid spreading the disease further, Mary and Francis begin to take second looks at each other. Looks which might go nowhere when Mary realizes that she too has the plague.
Dinah Dean’s style is nice, quiet and gentle. She writes great beta heroes and Francis is no exception. He’s also the descendant of the h/h of one of Dean’s other books, The Briar Rose (set during Henry VIII’s reign). Dean often only shows the POV of one main character and in this book it’s Mary. I would like to have seen more of Francis’s thoughts but we are told enough to see what’s going on in his mind. There’s also only kissing and that comes fairly late in the book. Dean is very descriptive and that slowed down the start of Maid of Honour just slightly. Reading exactly what the estates looked like was nice but didn’t advance the plot much.
Now, having gotten all the complaints out of the way, why did I like this book. Mary is a believable young woman of her times. Not feisty or a 21st century person at Charles II’s court. She makes some mistakes but I can excuse them in a young, confused woman. She also grows and learns what it is that she truly wants. While Francis is reserved, he’s anything but cold and acts as an honorable man. They’re backed up by well fleshed out secondary characters and you truly get a feel for the rhythms of 17th century English country life.
Two characters I really enjoyed are Oliver and Dr. Gumble. Oliver is the Hartwell’s house cat who rules the place with a firm paw. I was delighted with him as I once had a cat named Oliver as well and Dean “gets” cats and how they relate to their staff. Dr. Gumble is funny as a medical man spouting incomprehensible medical Latin and ordering everyone around (gee, he could be a doctor today).
So, nice h/h who slowly but believably fall in love and a great cat = B for me.