Desert Isle Keeper
A Precious Jewel
A Precious Jewel is a most unusual Regency Romance. Indeed, it is one of the most remarkable romance novels I have ever read, Regency or otherwise. The hero is not heroic by most standards. The heroine is a prostitute. My goodness, one asks, what happened to the refined comedy of manners? Where are the rakes and rogues? Where are the chits at the Marriage Mart? The answer is that when a writer as skilled as Mary Balogh takes on a period she begins to think about all of the people who populate it. When we know enough about them, each person is lovable even when flawed, at least that is how I felt when I finished A Precious Jewel.
Sir Gerald Stapleton meets heroine Priscilla Wentworth one night in one of London’s more refined brothels. In the riveting opening scene we watch the strangely businesslike yet erotic occupation of a regency prostitute. In this “love” scene, where emotion is completely absent, Gerald and Priscilla reveal themselves in the matter-of-fact, respectful way that they treat each other. Gerald instructs Priscilla to lie still and let him get on with it. Priscilla, a pretty young gentlewoman driven to prostitution, is cheerful and compliant, telling him that it is her job to “give him pleasure.” Gerald continues to visit Priscilla for weeks, and though she tries to resist, he becomes her fantasy. His unimaginative lovemaking reminds her of that of a husband. Try as she might she cannot help but pretend that he is hers to love.
One night Gerald visits Priscilla after she has been abused by a client. Outraged, he immediately arranges to make her his mistress, setting her up in her own house. Priscilla is delighted for she has fallen in love with Gerald. She realizes that the arrangement will only last until he tires of her but she is glad to give him exclusive use of her body. Priscilla is so careful not to hope for more that it is heartbreaking. She does not know if Gerald is married or single, rich or middle class. He has not ever kissed her. Most of the story of A Precious Jewel is told during their year together.
Priscilla is the “precious jewel” to which the title refers and she is indeed that. Intelligent and talented she was left penniless by a father and brother too careless to leave a will. Miss Blythe, the madam at Priscilla’s brothel says that Priscilla has a knack for contentment. What she really has is a talent for survival and denial. She has learned to divide her life between her time as “Priss” the prostitute and Priscilla Wentworth, the person. When Priscilla is not working she draws, paints, writes poetry and a novel and reads.
Gerald Stapleton is a unique hero. He is neither handsome nor particularly intelligent and knows it. Gerald is, in fact the kind of insecure, woman-fearing man that I can imagine frequenting a prostitute. And yet, although I would not want Gerald for myself, and would probably be bored after an hour with him, I wanted Gerald for the delightful Priscilla.
Why? Because Priscilla wanted him and I knew that her heart was more giving and generous than mine will ever be. The conclusion of a marriage between these two, in the hands of a lesser writer, would be unbelievable. Balogh makes it work by fully developing not only Gerald and Priscilla but Gerald’s good friend, the Earl of Severn, who admires Priscilla as a person and encourages Gerald to do so as well.
The lovemaking in A Precious Jewel follows the development of the relationship. One of the most touching scenes comes when Gerald, who is trying to rein in his feelings for Priscilla, demands that she make love to him the way she did in the brothel. Priscilla, uncomplaining as always, complies with her employer. Though it is not graphic, this was, without question, the saddest and most wrenching love scene I have ever read.
One cannot read this book without a sigh and perhaps a tear at the pathos of the story. In the end we are filled with a quiet joy at the strength of Gerald’s love and the beauty of Priscilla’s faith in him. He loves her knowing deep in his heart that she is too good for him. Indeed it is unlikely that he would have a chance with such a woman had he had not met her in a brothel. She loves him for his steadfastness and his good heart.
As for me, I finished this book glowing with the warm feeling of having read about two unforgettable people.