Sleeping Beauty

The Proposition by Judith Ivory
(Avon, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN: 0-380-80260-0
With The Proposition, Judith Ivory has crafted yet another poignant and intelligent historical romance. And sheís written it in her exquisite, trademark prose, smooth and polished as.......well, ivory.

Like her sublime previous effort, Sleeping Beauty, The Proposition is loosely inspired by a fairy tale -- in this case, a sort of Cinderella/Pygmalion story, but here Cinderella is the hero.

Taking place in late Victorian England, it is the story of Mick Tremore, a London ratcatcher who is made a curious offer: in six weeks time, he must pass himself off as a viscount at a certain grand ball. Lady Edwina Bollash, linguist and expert in manners, is given the daunting task of giving Mick a crash course in gentlemanly behavior.

Winnie, once the daughter of a wealthy peer, is now living in dismally reduced circumstances. To make ends meet, she works as a finishing governess, helping young ladies acquire grace and polish before making their debuts. But Winnieís existence on the edge of polite society has become altogether too drab of late. For when she is challenged by two gentleman gamblers to transform the lowly London ratcatcher into a lord, she shocks herself by accepting.

At first Mick is persuaded to cooperate for his own personal gain; after all, he has a large family of brothers and sisters to support. That, and the fact that he has already stolen a glimpse of Winnieís glorious gams whilst ratcatching in a dressmakerís. He is intrigued by the prim and proper Lady Edwina, but he is also hungry to better himself. Though he resents being used to amuse the idle rich, he is not a fool to reject such an opportunity. Or get better acquainted with Winnie.

In the beginning, Winnie and Mickís assignment seems rather hopeless. He is Cockney by way of Cornwall, and his accent is an impossible mishmash. He is an incorrigible pupil; he has a vulgar mustache that absolutely must come off; and he would rather flirt and try to take liberties with Winnie than practice his vowels. He has the habit of making risquť bargains a lady oughtnít accept, but Winnie canít resist. As usual, Ivory does a phenomenal job creating powerful romantic tension between her hero and heroine. The love scenes, when they arrive, are therefore wonderfully sexy.

Another plus: Mick cleans up beautifully. Very quickly, he proves himself an apt pupil, picking up gentlemanly ways as if he were born to them. His transformation from handsome Mick the jolly ratcatcher, to debonair Michael, Viscount Bartonreed, is so complete that Winnie is unnerved. Even as she congratulates herself on her thorough job, she realizes she loved the old Mick, with his easygoing joie de vivre-- but who is this suave, patrician stranger? Will he still desire her, now that he is the most magnificent male alive?

As for Mick, he does love Winnie, but heís a realist. He knows he must give her up after this escapade, but first he will make sure she has her night at the ball, before he turns back into a pumpkin. Winnie also begins to have misgivings about the morality of their prank, and fears the consequences. But the scheme has been set in motion, and soon all their questions will be answered at the ball -- such as the true motives of the two gentleman who proposed the bet, and the mystery of Mickís birth.

Though six weeks is a short time for Mick to complete his metamorphosis, I found it, well, plausible enough. After all, Eliza Dolittle managed her change in a similarly brief period. And who doesnít like a good Cinderfella story? I also went along with it because Mick is such a thoroughly likable hero. How weary one can get of all the handsome noblemen in romance novels! How very refreshing to have lovable Mick for a hero instead; he is smart, sexy, funny, and oh-so enamored with poor Winnie, who wouldnít know what to do with such a man if he sat in her lap. But she too learns quickly.

The only thing I questioned was that Winnie didnít seem to have many qualms about falling in love beneath her class. She does struggle -- sometimes mightily -- against her growing fascination for Mick, but it seems more due to maidenly timidity, than a deeply held class distinction such as a Victorian lady would certainly have. Especially one such as Winnie, who has come so far down in the world anyway. But with a hero and heroine this sensitively drawn, I didnít question too much. I sympathized with brave Winnie, who tries so hard to cling to her ladylike scruples, but nonetheless I rooted for Mick, unquestionably the most charming ratcatcher ever depicted in fiction.

One other small quibble -- usually Ivoryís novels have such a splendid sense of place. In Beast, it was the ocean liner Concordia; in Bliss and Dance it was France; in Sleeping Beauty it was Cambridge. In each of those previous novels, the setting became almost a character in its own right, giving those novels an extra richness and depth. The Proposition takes place in London. Perhaps London has been overdone? Or perhaps, since most of the action takes place in Winnieís house, it wasnít necessary to make much of the setting? I donít know, and it feels almost ungracious to make a point of it. But I did miss that sense of place Iíve relished before in Ivoryís work, and hope that with her next book Iíll relish it again.

Even so, The Proposition, as with Judith Ivoryís other novels, is romance fiction of the top drawer. With work like this, Judith Ivoryís reputation as a romance author of the first rank will grow, and deservedly so.

--Meredith Moore

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