The Parfit Knight
The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley (writing as Juliet Blyth) is an old favorite. Rereading it for this review, I was delighted to find it as charming as I did twenty years ago when it was published. In the prologue, the author describes an accident: a girl plays catch with her brother in a country lane as a carriage carrying a young gentleman and his coachman comes too fast around the corner, and the girl is hit and loses consciousness. The gentleman takes her to the doctor, but the prologue ends before we know her condition.
The novel proper begins at a gentlemen’s club, where the Marquis of Amberley is engaged in fleecing young Robert Dacre in a game of cards. While most present disapprove heavily, Amberley’s friends know that he is only about to teach the young man a well-needed lesson, and deplore the mixture of arrogance and levity that makes Amberley impervious to what the world thinks of him. The witness most upset is Lord Philip Vernon, fiancé of Dacre’s sister Isabel. Philip and Amberley quarrel, then Philip lends Robert the £3000 he needs to pay his gambling debts. The next morning, Amberley receives Robert only to cancel the debt. When Robert realises that Amberley will not tell anyone of this, he plans to pocket the money and let Philip and the rest of the ton believe Amberley took it.
Amberley then travels to his country seat. His servants speculate about the fact that he hates being driven and insists on the coachman going really slowly. They are attacked by footpads, the coachman is shot, and with a snowstorm arriving, they seek shelter in a nearby manor house. The lady of the house, Miss Rosalind Vernon, readily offers them hospitality. Amberley is immediately struck by her beauty and wit, and shocked to realize that she is blind.
Because of the snowstorm, he and his servants must stay for a couple of days, a fact which delights Amberley because that will give him further occasion to spend time with his delightful hostess. Slowly he understands that she lives in complete isolation and has never been to London because her family – now only her brother – is overprotective of her. Horrified at seeing such a rare spirit caged in like that, he reads books to her, engages her in a snowball fight and finally teaches her to dance.
Rosalind, in turn, finds herself enchanted with the stranger and begins to understand what she has missed: companionship, intellectual pursuits, the admiration of a man and finally love. It is as they dance that Amberley realises that he loves her. Unfortunately, almost the next moment she tells him about the accident that left her blind, and with horror he comprehends that she is the girl that was hurt in the carriage accident so many years ago. Somehow he keeps up his façade, but departs as soon as he can, leaving Rosalind lonelier than ever and heartbroken – although he does not know of the latter. Amberley feels that a marriage between them is impossible under the circumstances, but he wants to change her life for the better in the only way he can, which means awakening her brother to his responsibilities and getting Rosalind to London. As Rosalind’s brother is the Lord Philip Vernon who quarrelled with Amberley at the beginning of the novel, his task is not easy. Nor can he keep away from Rosalind once she arrives in London, although she has many other suitors and Philip tries everything to keep them apart.
Both Amberley and Rosalind are highly likeable characters – charming, witty and intelligent. Their dialogue is of the sort that makes you read slower to savor every nuance. The minor characters are also pleasant and interesting. In fact, this is a novel where the conflict is not created by the introduction of an e-e-e-vil villain (a small-minded egoist is all that there is), but by generally well-intentioned people being tied up, alternatively, in convention, pride and guilt, and thus prone to say the wrong thing at the wrong moment. This, in my opinion, makes them more sympathetic than many of the over-the-top romance protagonists around.
The author’s style is something of a Georgette-Heyer-meets-Dorothy-Dunnett. Several elements are reminiscent of these novelists, for example the figure of the hero who is too clever for his own good and hopelessly lost once he falls in love. The result is an elegant, charming novel. The historic background is used very little, however, and that is the main reason why this novel, for all its charm, is no DIK for me. It lacks the depth of Stella Riley’s truly superb Civil War and Restoration historicals like The Marigold Chain or The Black Madonna. Still, if you miss the classic Regency and Georgian romances with their emphasis on wit rather than sex, and haven’t read The Parfit Knight yet, I can recommend it strongly.