The Brightest Flame

Song of the Lark

Lanigan’s Lady by Sonya Birmingham
(Leisure, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-4944-9
Callie O’Doule is a young laundress in County Galway, Ireland, in 1875. When she is summoned by Trent Lanigan, the new heir to the estate of Abbeygate Manor, she believes he wishes to speak with her about doing his shirts. Instead she learns that he has been appointed executor of the late squire’s will. He is to inherit the estate if he provides Callie with the training to become a lady and establishes her in society. Callie is in reality the squire’s natural daughter, and at the end of his life he repented his neglect of her. This is way of rectifying his neglect.

Callie complies with Lanigan’s command that she move into the manor house. Her chaperon, Allison Kincaid, and an elocution teacher begin her education. Callie fears that her da, Patrick O’Doule, would be distressed by the knowledge that his late wife had been unfaithful to him, but in fact he had already known the truth of her paternity. He has no objection to her assuming her new rank.

Lanigan has been less than forthright with Callie. A lawyer from Boston, he intends to sell the estate, take the money, and return to his career and his fiancée in America. In order to inherit the estate, as Callie’s guardian, he must see that she marries a man of noble lineage. When Callie learns that Lanigan intends to marry her off to someone she fears will be bald with a foul breath, she rebels. One stormy night she flees. Lanigan follows finding her mud-covered after her horse threw her.

They spend the night at an inn where Lanigan acts on his sexual attraction to the lovely Callie. In the morning, Lanigan understands that he may have not acted properly. His words of comfort to Callie convince her that he intends to marry her as soon as she’s a lady. A night of passion, however, has not changed Lanigan’s plans at all. He still intends to marry her to another and return to Boston.

It’s only a matter of time before Callie learns the depths of his deception. Lanigan’s Lady is another story based on the Pygmalion theme where a person of the lower classes is transformed into someone who fits into the highest levels of society, the mentor then falls in love with his/her protégé. Probably the best-known version of this plot is the musical _My Fair Lady_. A number of romances have utilized this theme -The Proposition by Judith Ivory is among the best. Lanigan’s Lady is much less successful.

For a successful romance, it’s essential that the reader fall in love - at least a little - with the hero. On that score, Lanigan loses. When he thinks, “He was her guardian, not her seducer,” I thought, “Wrong, guy. You’re her seducer. And a user besides.” Think about this: he’s only come to Ireland to arrange matters so that he can sell the estate, return to Boston, and marry his grasping fiancée. In order to do this, he needs to convert the late squire’s daughter into a lady and marry her off to someone of noble blood. Where in that strategy is it allowed that he gets to sleep with her? Once they’ve spent the night together, does he change his plans? Realize he’s now obligated to marry Callie? That maybe the noble husband might expect a virgin bride? Not at all. He’s still on course. He scarcely devotes a moment’s thought to the fact that Callie is only road kill on the way to his ambition. He’s just as indifferent about the concerns of the estate tenants. It’s all about him. His need for money. His plans. His future.

Callie, on the other hand, is an Irish marvel. I would never have suspected that Irish laundresses in the nineteenth century would be so literate, but that just must be my preconception because it never occurs to Lanigan that his lovely protégé might not have learned to read. Furthermore, in a mere two months she learns the speech, the manners, the deportment of a well-bred lady, even how to ride horseback, sidesaddle yet. But that doesn’t mean she’s too smart. Lanigan beds her so she immediately jumps to the conclusion that he’ll marry her. Given her origins, you’d think she’d have a few misgivings - after all, the squire didn’t marry her mother. Even after Lanigan’s fiancée shows up (heaven only knows why he proposed to her - she’s self-centered and shrewish, and he doesn’t appear to like her very much), Callie still remains clueless. Any self-respecting woman would have wised up long ago and moved on, but Callie remains obsessed with the jerk.

The older characters in this story come off a bit better. Callie’s da Patrick O’Doule is affectionate and generous. He knew she wasn’t his child but loved her unstintingly anyway. Even though she acts contrary to his express wishes, he forgives her immediately. Allison Kincaid, Callie’s chaperon, isn’t the dim, ditzy widow too many similar romances have employed; she’s observant, supportive, and non-critical.

Maybe when the hero and heroine get old, plump, and gray, they’ll improve, too, but I’m glad I am not going to have to hang around long enough to see.

--Lesley Dunlap

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