Set in the late eighteenth century and originally published in 1932, this book has a lot of conflicting cultural mores and values to balance, and I’m just not sure it works in the feminist-imbued twenty-first century. A virtuous young lady, Mary Challoner, disguises herself as her sister who has a date to run away with the rakish and self indulgent Dominic Alistair, Marquis of Vidal (Vidal for short). In the first chapter Vidal very casually murders a would-be highway robber and leaves the body lying in the middle of the road because he’s too lazy to dispose of it. Then he wounds his opponent in a duel, leaves him for dead, and rushes off to arrange his assignation with Mary’s feckless and gullible sister, Sophia. So, Mary, to save her sister, runs away with Vidal, reveals herself after a while, and hopes that Vidal will lose interest in ruining Sophia. Instead, Vidal decides to abduct Mary out of spite, and he comes close to attempted rape until Mary shoots him in the arm with a pistol.
After all of that set-up, we’re supposed to believe that Vidal is just a misunderstood “bad boy”, kind of a Rhett Butler character, and Mary is just the girl to take him in hand and tame him. Oh, and we know that he’s really a good guy deep down inside because when Mary gets seasick while crossing the Channel with her abductor, Vidal fetches a basin for her to throw up into. By the time they get to France, they are in love with each other although neither one is aware of the other’s regard, and all that remains is for them to discover their mutual admiration, soothe and get the approval of the parents on both sides of the match, assuage Sophia’s wounded pride, and save Mary’s reputation and honor.
I’m just not buying. Vidal never does come across as a good character, although Mary thinks he is. If she marries him, Mary Challoner is in for a rude awakening when he murders a servant someday for polishing his boots the wrong way or tells her that he didn’t know that she would mind his having a mistress on the side. Vidal is not shown to be misunderstood or misjudged, but rather he is absolved of all responsibility and guilt for no discernible reason. He’s actually a cad and a murderer. And if there is such a thing as slut-shaming, Sophia is a victim; it’s said to be justifiable to abduct her because she’s a naive but willing runaway. However, Mary is supposed to be honorable and a cut above her sister because she would never really run away to Paris with Vidal; it’s all a horrible misunderstanding, an adventure, and an accident.
What with the male-female double standard for marital and sexual behavior in the 1930’s and the class distinctions for what is honorable and moral behavior in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this romance is a hot mess. Honorable, decent girls shouldn’t fall in love with their would-be abductors and rapists, and if they do they can expect trouble in the subsequent marriage. As for Vidal, he doesn’t deserve a wife or a mistress, and I don’t believe his protestations of innocence and undying affection for Mary.
The spectacle of the various characters in the novel chasing one another all over France is somewhat entertaining, but othe wise this novel is both infuriating and forgettable. I’ve liked some other Heyer Regency romances, but I’d recommend giving this one a pass.