An Independent Woman
This is a deliciously charming Victorian-era historical, appealing in both storyline and writing style.
Upon her father’s death, Juliana Holcott and her mother became poor relations dependent upon the kindness of distant relatives who grudgingly provided them with housing at Lynchwood Hall in order to preserve the family image. Although Juliana’s aunt and uncle look down on her, she was educated alongside their two children and another orphaned relation, Nicholas Barre. Juliana and Nicholas formed a bond over the years, stemming from their similar positions as outsiders of the family until Nicholas ran away at sixteen to escape the cruel treatment he’d received. When Juliana’s mother died soon after, Juliana stayed on with the family as a companion to her female cousin, and eventually moved on to being a paid companion.
Several years later, Juliana hears innumerable rumors about the now infamous Nicholas Barre’s return from abroad. She is at a ball with her charge when Nicholas enters, recognizes her right away, and is immediately drawn to her. Besides the attraction he feels for her, he also experiences guilt over the fact that his absence forced her into service. It turns out that Nicholas was the heir to Lychwood Hall, and the reason for his cruel treatment stemmed from his uncle’s resentment at being Nicholas’ guardian, and not the heir.
When a visit Nicholas pays to Juliana turns into a fiasco because Juliana’s charge is convinced that Nicholas is using her companion to get to her, Juliana is fired because of the misunderstanding. Nicholas talks Juliana into a marriage of convenience and the two of them travel to Lychwood Hall to exchange their vows and so that Nicholas can take control of the estate. Once they are reunited with their appalling relatives, all kinds of mysterious events begin, including a murder on the couple’s wedding night. While Nicholas and Juliana’s relationship develops along with their affection for one another, they must also devote time to solving the murder while not getting injured or killed in the process.
While the book has its flaws, I found it to be a satisfying read overall. I especially liked the premise of the relationship between the hero and heroine. They knew and cared about each other as children, and while they don’t meet again for several years, they have affectionate memories. I found this a more realistic basis for their relationship than a simple sexual attraction between strangers, and it deepened the idea of a marriage of convenience. The chemistry between Nicholas and Julian was believable, and they both behaved in ways realistic to their characters. And, while Nicholas and Juliana’s romance and the family mystery remain firmly in the forefront, the secondary characters were very well developed individuals; the scenes in which they participate help to move the story along and are worth the reader’s attention.
On the other hand, I found the mystery and intrigue subplot to be somewhat overdone and overly dramatic at times. I would also warn readers who are serious sticklers for historical accuracy that, while there is nothing hugely out of place, the informality of manners and realistic behavior for the period are clearly not a priority. For instance, Juliana’s maid seems exceedingly bold, such as when she announces to Nicholas that his wife might be pregnant. However, I found the book’s shortcomings to be minor enough that they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story.
I definitely enjoyed this book, found it to be a delightful story, and would certainly recommend it. Even more telling is my anticipation of Camp’s next novel, due in September, which will feature a minor character from this book.