Coming straight from a reread of Mary Jo Putney’s incomparably romantic Uncommon Vows, I couldn’t help but think that the earlier Dearly Beloved could have been written by another, less skilled writer. Though it contains the attention to historical detail and well-fleshed characters for which the author’s work is known, there is a twisted, dark element woven through this novel that spoiled the romance for me.
The story opens with Gervase Brandelin, Viscount St. Aubyn, headed off to fight for the British military in India. In an inn on the Isle of Mull, he finds himself drunk and trapped into a shotgun wedding to a young girl. Enraged, he acquiesces, then settles a sum on the girl and tells her never to contact him again. However, his fury is so great that he forces her into a sexual act that he regrets so totally he flees to India and tries to put the matter behind him.
Years later, we meet Diana Lindsay, who lives in the isolated Scottish cottage with her eight-year-old son Geoffrey and her loyal housekeeper Edith. A wealthy courtesan, Madeline Gainford, comes to Diana’s house for respite from a storm. Madeline has fled her lover in London, having discovered she is dying from breast cancer and unwilling to put him under the strain of watching her die. She chose Scotland as her destination, hoping her sister would take her in, but her very righteous sister wants nothing to do with her. Diana cares for her until she becomes well and strong again and the two forge a strong friendship. Soon, a year has passed and Madeline’s lump has subsided, and it becomes apparent that she is not going to die any time soon.
Madeline piques Diana’s curiosity about her life as a soiled dove, and Diana resolves to travel to London to take up this life for herself, lonely for male companionship and reassured by Madeline that with her great beauty she would no doubt find a powerful protector. Diana has always set great store by her premonitions and emotional intuitiveness, and she somehow convinces herself that this is her destiny. This regardless of the fact that she has quite a severely sick and impressionable young child, and that she has absolutely no experience even flirting with men, never mind playing bedroom games with them. Diana’s history is shrouded in mystery and we are not given direct details of Geoffrey’s father, or even of her sexual past.
Her introduction to the courtesan’s circle is brief. Though she instantly attracts a bevy of admirers, Gervase takes one look at her and resolves to have her. Gervase, however, has an ingrained distrust of women due to a self-absorbed abusive mother. As he is legally married, he can never emotionally commit to a woman, and chooses expensive and undemanding mistresses who satisfy his lusty nature. However, as he and Diana get more and more involved, he finds his lack of restraint with her terrifying, unable to believe that anyone could ever love him the way she seems to love him. They have secret trysts at her residence, and her refusal to let him stay the night afterwards leaves him constantly in a state of jealousy, wondering if she has other gentleman callers.
Several aspects of this book brought the grade down significantly, despite excellent writing and well-fleshed out characters. Firstly, I have to say the whole story of Gervase and Diana, though the plot sounds good in synopsis, did not bear writing out. I couldn’t relate to Diana’s decision to become a courtesan, to go from a chaste woman and devoted mother to a paid whore, based on an emotional whim. She seemed like the least likely candidate for this sort of decision. Her “training” to become a courtesan was worryingly farcical. Also, although it is necessary for the climax of the story to shroud Diana’s past in mystery, I found the level of enigma created a distance between the reader and her character, and made it impossible to get a feel for her motivations.
I also did not enjoy Gervase’s attitude towards Diana. Rarely have I come across a more downtrodden, pitiably tortured hero, or one who is happier to spread the misery around. The more he loves her, the more he distrusts his feelings; this leads him to spy on her and attack her. His more-or-less constant wavering between seeing Diana as wholly perfect or wholly corrupt annoyed me.
I think this book would have worked better had the characters’ foibles not been quite so dramatically heightened. For example, the author went way too far in creating a troubled past for the hero – his background was nauseating and surely unnecessary, and Diana’s own story rivaled it in depths of depravity.
Of course it is one of Putney’s tried and tested techniques to create obstacles for her protagonists to overcome before they can be together, but I felt the lengths she went to in this instance cast a depressing pall over the hero-heroine relationship. I also couldn’t believe for one second that an acknowledged courtesan could ever ‘expect’ to marry an aristocrat and take a place in respectable society.
My opinion? Though well researched and well written, a few deep plot holes and an unpleasant hero marred Dearly Beloved. This is not a badly written book, but for Putney it’s substandard. I suggest you reread Uncommon Vows to find a more convincing tortured hero and wise, loving heroine.