|There is an expectation among contemporary romance readers that when the hero does willful harm to the heroine, he will be expected to grovel to a satisfactory extent before being allowed back into said heroine’s good graces. Likewise, there is the expectation that said wronged heroine will show some backbone and not fall too readily under said hero’s spell. While I am not a purist in my demand for excessive hero-groveling, I do prefer that the wronged heroine shows some self-respect before succumbing to the hero’s charms. I am afraid that Cathy Maxwell’s latest Regency historical failed to meet my expectations.
Gillian Ranson married Lord Brian Wright four years before the beginning of the story. On their wedding night, after a cursory bedding, Gillian’s new husband informed her that he had married her only at his father’s insistence and that his love and loyalty belonged to his mistress, Jess, a one-time milkmaid on the family estate. Brian, an army officer, then proceeds to abandon Gillian, sending her to live with his unpleasant parents.
He goes off to war in the Peninsula, with hardly a backward glance. (A slight problem here: the book is set in 1810. Since the French invasion of Portugal did not begin until 1807 and since the British did not send any forces to the “front” until 1808, Brian could not have been there for the full four years. But Maxwell is a bit sketchy and sometimes inaccurate with her historical details. This undoubtedly bothered me more than most readers.)
Gillian spent three miserable years under her in-laws’ roof and a year earlier, had fled her unhappy situation. She had sought refuge with her cousin, the Duke of Holburn and had made herself useful running his estate. Some months earlier, Brian had returned to England at the insistence of his father. His two elder brothers having died, Brian is now the Earl of Wright and his father’s heir. Since his arrival, Brian has sent several missives to his errant wife, demanding that she return to her duties. Gillian has ignored his orders.
Not only does Gillian refuse to resume her marriage, but she has also fallen in love with another man. Andres Ramigio, baron de Vesconia, is an exiled Spaniard who is a guest at the duke’s annual Christmas house party. He is handsome and dashing, but more importantly, he is kind and loving. For the first time since she fell head over heels for Brian, Gillian is in love. She not only considers taking a lover; she also informs her aunt that she wants a divorce. Brian’s cruelty and neglect have turned her affections to dislike. Gillian understands the difficulty that getting a divorce entails, especially for a woman; she knows the scandal that will follow. But she is convinced that the happiness she will find with Andres is worth it. Then Brian rides up, determined to force his wife to return to London.
In order to forestall a duel between Andres and Brian, Gillian agrees to her husband’s demands. They leave for London.
Brian’s reasons for seeking a reconciliation with Gillian are purely pragmatic. He needs her support for his political ambitions. His ruthless father wants him to become ambassador to Holland. (That Holland, firmly fixed in Napoleon’s orbit, did not have a British ambassador at the time seems inconsequential.) Brian, on the other hand, wants a position on the Secretary of War, Lord Liverpool’s staff. He wants to be of use to the army he has served. Brian has another personal reason for needing a wife, but describing it would be a spoiler. Gillian, believing herself in a strong position, threatens to make such a scandal as would dash her husband’s hopes unless he agrees to her demand that their marriage end. She will support him for a month, acting the perfect wife. But once he achieves his goal, she wants out. Brian seemingly agrees to the bargain, though he has no intention of letting Gillian go. Instead, he will woo her and win her back.
For all his apparent duplicity, Brian is not an unattractive hero. He knows full well that he has treated Gillian badly. He finds the “new” Gillian attractive and intriguing. He truly believes that she will be better off as his wife than as a divorced woman, cast out by society. He comes to value his wife as he did not in the past. His motivations are not completely selfish.
I had more trouble with the swiftness with which Gillian succumbed to Brian’s campaign. Yes, she had loved him when she married him but he really did treat her dreadfully. Yes, he is charming and interesting and even kind on their trip to London. Yes, he has put his mistress behind him. Yes, he has performed a really good deed. Yes, forgiveness is a virtue. But I couldn’t help feel that she made it too easy for him, that she fell back in love too readily. I repeat; he really did treat her dreadfully.
Of course, the premise of The Earl Claims His Wife centers on Gillian’s and Brian’s reconciliation so the fact that it didn’t quite work for me left me ultimately unsatisfied with this book.