Her Ladyship's Companion
When I came across a (semi-)affordable copy of Joanna Bourne’s Her Ladyship’s Companion online, I found myself unable to resist. When else do you get a chance to read an early book by an acclaimed new author, published 25 years before her current releases and yet is a sequel to the present series, with two major characters in common? As it is, I haven’t even yet read The Spymaster’s Lady and My Lord and Spymaster, though I am certainly keen to do so now.
Her Ladyship’s Companion shows very clearly how some romances age, and it also shows how an author’s talent can shine through even in a not-quite-perfect first novel. Here we have a Gothic romance in the old pattern: Young woman accepts post as a companion in remote Cornish castle, a murder has occurred, further sinister events take place, she doesn’t know which of the charming men in the castle to trust, etc. etc. As I cut my romance teeth on Victoria Holt and Carola Salisbury, this is a pattern I am really familiar with.
Here, the young lady is Melissa Rivenwood, the adopted daughter of a clergyman who was placed in a very disagreeable ladies’ seminary after his death where she has spent the last ten years, first as a student, then as an underpaid teacher. It is with considerable pleasure that she announces she will leave as she has secured a position in Cornwall and will not even need references. When she arrives in Cornwall, she is set down at an inn that is full of male company due to a cockfight. She is accosted and immediately saved by two gentlemen. Of course she meets them again at the castle, the gentlemen being Mr. Giles Tarsin, the uncle and guardian of the present Earl of Keptford (a boy of seven) and his friend Sir Adrian Hawkhurst. Melissa actually enjoys working for the demanding Lady Dorothy, Giles’s aunt, but she is confused by the many undercurrents among the castle’s inhabitants, and even more so when she falls for a man far above her station. Then several worrying events occur.
Joanna Bourne takes a well-known plot here, but she fills it with interesting characters, who, even when they match stereotypes like the spoilt girl or the crotchety aristocrat, still acquire three dimensions and were delightful to read about. Melissa is beautiful, but she is neither a doormat nor spunky, and when she acts daringly, it is after she has thought matters through and because there is no viable alternative at that moment. The hero is on the cool and enigmatic side, but not unbearably so. Add to this a beautiful style and confident voice, and what you have is a good book.
So up to page 122 I enjoyed this book tremendously. Then the dealbreaker happened. The hero, a sensible man so far, suddenly falls back into 1970s caveman behavior. After a scorching kiss, he promises Melissa he won’t seduce her and she counters she won’t be, to which he replies, “You really have no say in the matter.” In such an intelligent romance, what a disappointment! After this, the novel relies too heavily on a series of accidents and misunderstandings for my taste. I won’t lie: I would have graded the novel a C+ if not for a delightful, entirely irreverent twist right at the ending.
Her Ladyship’s Companion is a remarkable first novel, with a stunning start and less-than-perfect second half. If it is too expensive for you to buy at the moment, perhaps you can get it through a library. I am very glad that Joanna Bourne got another contract after those 25 years, and am looking forward very much to reading about her characters’ earlier adventures.