Once Upon a Maiden Lane
While Duke of Desire is the final full-length book in Elizabeth Hoyt’s long-running and incredibly popular Maiden Lane series, that wasn’t quite The End, as the author is treating us to a novella or two to round the series off and, in Once Upon a Maiden Lane, brings us back to where it all began – the streets and slums of the St. Giles area of London.
Some of the reviews I’ve read of Duke of Desire made mention of the fact that the book didn’t really feel like the end of a series; most of the time, such books feature cameos from characters from the previous books, filling pages with happy families as everyone catches up with each other. That doesn’t happen in Duke of Desire, and I, for one, was glad of it, because it would have been much too implausible and would have detracted from the main story. Instead, Ms. Hoyt kept her powder dry and has presented us with Once Upon a Maiden Lane – a novella featuring Mary Whitsun, who appeared regularly in the earlier books as one of the older orphan girls raised at the Home for Unfortunate Infants and Foundling Children run by the Makepeace family. (This will be followed in December by Once Upon a Christmas Eve, which will feature a very long-awaited story for Viscount D’Arque).
As is implied by the title, this story has a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Mary is a young woman now, and resides in the household of Lord and Lady Caire (Wicked Intentions) where she is employed as a nursemaid to the Caires’ two young children. On her afternoon off, she is browsing in a bookshop when she is approached by an extremely handsome young man – clearly an aristocrat – and addressed as Lady Joanna. Mary, who is distrustful of handsomeness and even more distrustful of it when it comes in an aristocratic package, makes clear to the gentleman, who introduces himself as Henry Collins, Viscount Blackwell, that she does not find his joke at all funny; but when his friend, John Seymour, also points out Mary’s strong resemblance to Lady Joanna Albright, she becomes very suspicious. It seems that the very same year she was left at the orphanage, the twin daughters of the Earl of Angrove were abducted, and while one of them, Lady Joanna, was subsequently returned to her family, the elder twin, Lady Cecilia, was not. Blackwell, who was betrothed to Cecilia as a boy, is expected to marry Joanna instead but isn’t keen. She’s like a sister to him, and besides, she’s in love with someone else. Enchanted by Mary’s loveliness and her spirited response to him, Blackwell is determined to prove that she is Lady Cecilia – and then to make her his wife as originally intended.
Once Upon a Maiden Lane is more or less your basic Cinderella story, although this being Elizabeth Hoyt, it’s not quite that simple. It seems that someone isn’t wild about Lady Cecilia’s return and doesn’t waste any time in trying to harm Mary; and while the ladies of the Albright family – her mother, sister and grandmother – welcome Mary with open arms, the Earl is less than friendly towards his long-lost daughter…
The romance between Mary and Blackwell is nicely done, if a little rushed, and, as one would expect of such an accomplished storyteller, the writing is deft, humorous, poignant and laced with the sort of earthy sensuality that is Ms. Hoyt’s trademark. I did, however scratch my head at the inclusion of the excerpts from The Curious Mermaid, the ‘legend’ which graces the opening of each chapter, which is basically The Little Mermaid subverted; and honestly, I didn’t quite see why it was there other than to preserve continuity with the rest of the books in the series.
Those hoping for the big Maiden Lane reunion that didn’t happen in Duke of Desire will find it here, although Ms. Hoyt very wisely doesn’t include speaking parts for everyone! I had to smile at the name bestowed upon Val’s (the Duke of Montgomery) three-year-old daughter, which is every bit as flamboyant as one would expect given who her father is; and it was nice to check in with some of the characters we haven’t seen or heard of for a while.
Once Upon a Maiden Lane is a charming little story that makes a nice coda to the series, but ultimately, it suffers from novella-itis – an underdeveloped story and characters. I was grateful for the chance to go back to where it all began, but ultimately, this is one for the fans.