The Viscount and the Vicar's Daughter
This was the second of Ms. Matthews’ novels that I read, and I enjoyed this one every bit as much as her first, The Lost Letter. Despite that, however, The Viscount and the Vicar’s Daughter suffers from much the same problem that plagued the earlier book in that after the author introduces two appealing primary characters and a compelling storyline (I was hooked right from the start) she rushes the plot and delivers a too-short story wherein everything feels slightly underdeveloped and unsatisfying. Her writing is strong, the story is compelling, and I wish I could have spent more time with this couple. TVatVD is lushly romantic and the premise compelling, but it’s too short.
With no relatives willing to recognize her or take her in after the death of her father, Valentine March was forced to find work to support herself. With the help of a local widower, she managed to secure a position as a paid companion to Lady Brightwell; she’s saving her earnings so that she might become a missionary and travel abroad.
When TVatVD opens, Valentine has accompanied Lady Brightwell and her daughter to a weekend house party. The annual party is notorious for both its scandalous guests and their debauched revelries, and Valentine is warned by household staff not to find herself alone with any of the gentlemen in attendance. With that in mind, she hides herself away to work on a series of illustrations made by her mother shortly before her death. But Lady Brightwell’s daughter interrupts her work and, in the midst of a tantrum, upends a bottle of ink all over the drawings. Devastated, Valentine flees the house. Sobbing over the damage – a last link to her mother – she’s caught off guard when a handsome stranger steps into the folly and asks if he can help.
Tristan Sinclair, Viscount St. Ashton, is dirty, tired and annoyed. After traveling on horseback for hours to arrive at a house party he doesn’t even want to attend, his groom has just informed him that his father, the Earl of Lynden – whom he’s successfully avoided until now – is waiting to speak to him. Knowing the earl would never willingly attend this particular gathering, St. Ashton suspects his father has arrived with an ultimatum of some sort. And frankly, after years of hard living, St. Ashton has hit rock bottom. None of the vices he’s enjoyed – drinking, gambling, women – bring pleasure any more, and after two years hiding out in his London home, he knows he can no longer avoid his father or his duties as his heir. After taking a moment to gather himself before the coming discussion, he’s en route to the house when he hears a woman sobbing. He’s reluctant to intercede, but is concerned someone might be hurt, so he follows the sounds to a nearby folly – and discovers an angel in tears.
Suspecting someone at the party has harassed her and since she’s clearly nervous at being alone with him, he only introduces himself as Tristan Sinclair – purposefully omitting his title. He is surprised by his attraction to the lovely young woman and slightly confused by her effect on him, but he’s enjoying their conversation and does his best to cheer her up. The couple enjoys a companionable few moments in the folly until they’re startled by the arrival of Tristan’s groom – who refers to him as Lord St. Ashton. Valentine has heard much gossip about St. Ashton – from the household staff (who like him) and Lady Brightwell, who hopes he’ll offer for her daughter at the end of the weekend – and she’s furious that he tried to disguise his identity… so she flees once again, leaving behind her ink stained illustration (which vaguely resembles something he can’t quite remember) in her haste.
Ms. Matthews does a terrific job setting up our principals as strangers who fall hard for each other during this much too short first meeting. In less capable hands the set-up would be less believable, but Ms. Matthews eloquently lights a spark and the chemistry between them is palpable right from the get-go. Their tantalizing interlude in the folly is enough for both of them to want more – but Valentine knows St. Ashton is an infamous rake, and sets her heart against him, while St. Ashton, forced to endure a humiliating interview with his father wherein he’s given an ultimatum to do his duty (marry and beget an heir) or be cut off, resigns himself to an engagement to Lady Brightwell’s daughter.
Fortunately for us, neither Valentine or St. Ashton can deny how they feel whenever they’re together – and he’s determined to regain her favor and return her illustration. Shortly before dinner, when St. Ashton’s father appears to recognize Valentine and impetuously decides to stay on at the house party, Tristan is suspicious – but distracted by his overwhelming need to apologize to Valentine, so he follows her after she departs the dinner party. Their meeting, in the dark of the conservatory, is sweetly moving. Tristan, bewildered by his feelings for Valentine, apologizes, and Valentine, unable to resist this version of St. Ashton – handsome, passionate and contrite – forgives him. One thing leads to another… and then they’re discovered in a compromising position by Lady Brightwell and the Earl of Lynden.
To Ms. Matthews’ credit, the narrative doesn’t quite unfold as predictably as you might imagine. Instead (and much to my dismay), once our principles are linked together, two parallel narratives move to the fore: one concerning Valentine’s past and the other to do with St. Ashton’s relationship with his father and his actions after the ultimatum wherein he tries to redeem himself and prove he’s worthy of Valentine’s affections. The pair spend a significant amount of time apart and although I enjoyed the novel as a whole, it is at its best when they’re together. Valentine and St. Ashton are terrific contrasts – she’s a calming, sweet and earnest innocent while he’s a darkly handsome, suave and sexy reformed rake. I liked this match-up very much, although their physical relationship, chaste though passionate, begged for a bit more steam.
After such a terrific set-up – three parallel narratives in play, and a compelling opposites attract pairing – Ms. Matthews relies on plot contrivances to deliver a happily ever after. And intriguing secondary characters – used to great effect to advance the various plotlines – are mostly ignored after they’ve served their limited purpose. These contrivances, missed opportunities, and most especially the largely off-the-page redemption of St. Ashton’s character is why TVatVD only earns a B-. The writing, story and characters are strong and they deserved a longer length to fully develop.