The Demure Miss Manning
I’ve been reading Amanda McCabe for years. Her stories tend to be comfort reads for me, and I appreciate that she’s one of the few authors out there who employs a fairly wide variety of historical settings in her books. The Demure Miss Manning is set during the Napoleonic War, and follows a diplomat’s daughter from England to Portugal and then into exile with the Portuguese court in Brazil. I had no idea what to expect going in, but I came away charmed.
As the novel opens, we learn that Mary Manning often assists her father and attends events with him as her Portuguese mother is deceased. From the beginning, Mary comes off as quiet but confident and fairly wise in the ways of diplomatic socializing. She knows how to take the temperature of a room and to think before acting/speaking. And yet, she isn’t a flat, dull paragon of a diplomat’s daughter. Something about her made her appear interesting from the very beginning. The author does not tell us anything all that interesting about her character, and yet as the book unfolds, I just liked watching her wind her way through her world.
In the opening chapters, Mary meets handsome war hero Sebastian Barrett. Though her father appears to be angling for a match with Sebastian’s rather stodgy older brother who is also a rising diplomat, Mary finds Sebastian almost uncomfortably attractive. Conversation between them comes easily, and later on at a ball, Sebastian steals a kiss. To her great humiliation, Mary learns that the situation with Sebastian had not quite been what it seemed.
Mary doesn’t get time to dwell on her anger and embarrassment because her father gets sent to Portugal on an urgent assignment soon after the kiss in question. The action then jumps forward two years in time. Mary is settled in Portugal, and life has gone on. She is brought back together with Sebastian in realistic fashion when the Portuguese court must flee the approaching French army. Sebastian is sent to work with the evacuation, and a ship journey to Brazil means that he and Mary will be trapped in close quarters.
For his part, Sebastian claims to have matured considerably since his first meeting with Mary. Over the course of the journey, he gets a chance to prove himself. And he certainly does, both in word and in deed. He not only apologizes (a real one, not an “I’m sorry you caught me doing something.”) but shows himself to be an often quiet, but very present support. He won me over more quickly than Mary, I’ll admit. I like Sebastian because, war hero or no, he’s a strong and often quietly decent man. I like some of my larger than life, only-in-a-romance-novel heroes, but Sebastian could easily be a real-life hero as well.
The pacing of the relationship between Sebastian and Mary felt a little uneven toward the end of the book and while I did enjoy the ending, it did seem a tad rushed. However, even with that, I did enjoy this book and it stuck in my mind after I read it. This is a good historical comfort read, and I enjoyed learning a bit of new-to-me history as well.