Mimi Matthews’ Gentleman Jim reminds one of a mid-Regency The Count of Monte Cristo, featuring as it does a poor sailor’s son who assumes a fresh identity and seeks romance with the woman he’s always loved after being unjustly accused of a crime. It’s a fairly engrossing ripper of a tale, and Matthews, as always, researches and tells it well, but frustrating behavior on behalf of the hero makes this one hard for me to recommend.
Nicolas Seaton, bastard son of a light-skirted scullery maid, finds himself falsely accused of theft by the powerful Frederick (Fred) Burton-Smythe and is condemned to hang. Nicolas knows he’s innocent, knows it doesn’t matter and yet still yearns for the woman both he and Fred love – Margaret (Maggie) Honeywell.
Maggie and Nicolas were childhood friends in spite of their class differences, so close that they once took a blood oath to always remain so, and Maggie is the apple of Fred’s eye – but snobbish, possessive Fred is not fond of Nicolas. Both Maggie and Nicolas suspect Fred of taking Maggie’s jewelry and hiding it in Nicolas’ room to get him out of the way – so when Maggie arrives to spring Nicolas, he knows he must run for his life. She vows to never forget him or marry Fred, and he vows to take to the sea – to find that long lost alleged reprobate father of his, the titular Gentleman Jim.
Ten years later, Maggie is still unmarried – though her father has passed away and left her money and property in a trust controlled by Fred – and she has long presumed Nicolas to have died at sea. Her problems are much more immediate – either she must come up with a husband Fred approves of – unlikely, vis his obsession with her – or she must marry before the two year period specified by her father’s will has expired. Maggie thus has six months left to find herself a spouse.
Maggie learns from her cousin that Fred has been challenged to a duel by a man with whom he quarreled over a card game. Knowing that if Fred dies foolishly in the duel against his apparently very accomplished opponent she will be left subject to the whim of an elderly uncle she’s never met, Maggie decides to appeal to the fairness of his opponent – Lord St. Clare, John Beresford. But Maggie only has to look into John’s eyes once to see the truth in them, and faints. Though John continues to lie about his identity as he searches for an heir to secure his inherited title and strives to fit in with the ton, he is Nicolas (of course), and he continues to court Maggie even as Fred is pressuring her to marry him. But will Nicolas ever bring himself to tell her that truth?
Yes, but it takes forever, and in the meantime he gaslights her about his true identity. Gentleman Jim is a hard book for me to grade specifically because while Matthews’ usual talent, impeccable research and sense for heedless romance and gothic passions remain on display, Nicolas lies to Maggie about his identity for weeks after she’s confronted him with the truth, while she’s in a physically and emotionally vulnerable state – and this after they showed such a strong emotional bond at the beginning of the book.
And it’s not that Nicolas isn’t a dashing guy, and that he doesn’t deserve his happily ever after – but the notion that he doesn’t trust Maggie and thinks that she’s best protected from the deeper secret of his resurrection, is just plain annoying.
And then there’s Maggie, who is so painfully passive and weak-willed, constantly fainting due to stress and medical issues, constantly bending to her fate instead of finding the next step or a way out for herself. She’s a constant fainter and needed her plans fed to her by her more active-minded cousin. It takes her until the middle of the book to finally perk up, and by then it’s too little too late.
Thus did I enjoy the beginning of their romance versus its latter days. Maggie and Nicolas were a much better pair when they were companionably communicating instead of letting Nicolas indulge in his blatant lies.
And yet Matthews is such a good writer, such a smart writer, and such a breathless constructor of smart romances that it’s hard for me to take this novel lower than a C. She is so good at writing passionate and yet perfectly chaste romance that one finds oneself sitting, enraptured, as her words fly by.
It’s worth noting that there is attempted sexual assault in this novel – and that the assaulter actually ends up with a happy ending, which is… a choice. Gentleman Jim gave me much to love about its revenge tale – but also left much to be desired.