Almost a Lady
Jane Feather is a longtime favorite of mine. Even when her books are not complete hits (Almost Innocent and the Duncan Sisters trilogy, there’s something about the strength of her writing that gets me every time. When she is on her game, she skillfully intertwines historical fact, intrigue, and romance in a way that is seldom matched. With Almost a Lady, she handles the first two with aplomb but skips a beat with the romance in the end.
Meg Barratt is minding her own business in a coastal town when an unexpected encounter with a carriage in an alley knocks her out. She wakes to find herself on board a ship under the command of a privateer named Cosimo. He is on an urgent mission for the Crown and cannot immediately return her to shore. Meg has no choice but to sail along, but insists she has to leave the ship as soon as they make landfall somewhere. She knows her friends and family will be concerned about her sudden disappearance.
Cosimo is in a bind. Meg was brought to his ship by mistake. His men thought Meg was Ana, the young woman they were sent to meet because Meg fit the physical description. Ana, who also works for the British government, was an integral part of Cosimo’s planned mission. Without her the mission will fall apart, and Cosimo cannot allow that to happen. His only option is to press Ms. Barratt into duty as a substitute. Her interest in participating is less important than the job he has to do. If trickery will keep her on board, then that’s what he’ll employ.
One of Ms. Feather’s greatest skills is her ability to create characters who act like adults. These adults have conversations and exchange information like real people. They don’t screech at one another or stomp out of rooms in high dudgeon. Her track record holds true in this regard with Meg and Cosimo. Meg is a young woman of her time, but no innocent miss. Often we as readers bemoan the virgin who doesn’t even seem to realize she has a body below the neck. Welcome Meg. Here is a woman who knows her mind (and has acted on it in the past). She spends time thinking about the attraction she feels for Cosimo and what’s more, she talks to him about it. It’s refreshing.
Cosimo is equally praise-worthy. He has a job to do and he plans to do it. Though he feels sympathy for the position he’s forced Meg into, he doesn’t intend to change his plans. Don’t get me wrong; the blurb on the back cover suggests that Cosimo sees Meg as an object to be used and discarded. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Cosimo knows what he’s asking of Meg is unthinkable, but every action he takes is considered and thoughtful. Though he comes to care for Meg, his feelings can’t come into the equation.
I loved the pacing of this cabin romance for about three-fourths of the book. Cosimo and Meg spend enough time together to believably fall in love. In that same time period, Cosimo follows the steps necessary to complete his mission. But this is a help and a hindrance to the plotting. All that time building up the relationship and the dangerous assignment leaves the reader expecting a big pay-off – a pay-off that never materializes. Cosimo’s sense of urgency is ever-present, and yet the actual job seems to happen as a sidelight. And the denouement of the love story gets even shorter shrift. Cosimo and Meg are perfectly matched and I truly believed they’d manage their happily-ever-after, but not because of anything that happened in the climactic scenes. They tell each other about their love in an almost off-hand manner. It’s not much of an emotional payoff for what is a very intelligent and delightful relationship throughout the rest of the book.
When she’s at her best, Jane Feather is very, very good. When she’s at her worst, she’s still better then most. In this case her skillful characterizations carry the day. Read this one for the interesting and intelligent people she’s created. And if you want to read Feather at her best, take Vice off your keeper shelf for a three-hanky read.