Desert Isle Keeper
(originally reviewed on November 11, 1999)
I have read all of Jane Feather’s books from the ’90s and some from the ’80s. This book is her finest because she goes into her material with a depth and complexity her other books lack. While all of her books are entertaining, this one is not only entertaining, it’s thought-provoking.
Tarquin is a handsome and sexy duke. He is also a very controlling and manipulative personality. He oversees his family and the various titles and estates they all hold. Thus, when his cousin, a homosexual Viscount, shows up riddled with last-stage syphilis and no heir, Tarquin sees a valuable title and estate slipping out of his grasp. His solution is to marry his cousin off, not let him consummate the marriage (a dubious proposition anyway) and to make the wife his mistress. Tarquin will get her pregnant and pass off the child as his cousin’s. This child will thus inherit the title and estate and all will stay within Tarquin’s family and control.
Tarquin hastens to a high-class London brothel and offers the owners a huge sum to come up with a well-bred virgin for him to use in his scheme. They come up with our heroine, Juliana. She’s on the lam after being accused of murdering her husband by hitting him with a bed warmer when he was trying, in vain, to perform his husbandly duties on their wedding night. Juliana is charmingly clumsy and that is how the bed warmer got her into this predicament. She is like this with objects throughout the book, which will endear her to her new family. It is also a great comic device and provides comic relief throughout the story.
Juliana puts up a valiant fight to not be Tarquin’s prostitute. Since her only other choice is actual prostitution, however, she eventually agrees so as to retain her respectability and class level. She marries the cousin and moves into Tarquin’s mansion. She has a separate room, however, one that Tarquin (and not the cousin), has secret access to.
The leads’ love affair heats up as Juliana finds herself wildly attracted to Tarquin despite her resentment of his manipulation. Tarquin thinks he has done Juliana a favor with his scheme even though he left Juliana with no choice in the matter. After all, she has a title, is living in luxury and has him as a lover without paying a socially ostracizing price for doing so. What else could a woman want?
Juliana dedicates herself to the larger cause of freeing women from the slavery of prostitution. She made friends with some of the other women in the brothel while hiding out there, and continues her friendships with them. She urges them to organize so that they can get better conditions and not be victims, as she sees herself.
Tarquin is falling in love with Juliana. He has no intention of letting her go even when his cousin dies and he has the child as heir to the Viscount. He is still engaged to the woman Quentin, his brother, is secretly in love with even though Tarquin himself is not in love with her. This enrages Quentin who has been inspired by Juliana’s rebellions against Tarquin’s authority.
Tarquin becomes a man dismayed and besieged – by the woman he loves, by his younger brother, and by his own machinations. At one point, when he rushes to Juliana’s rescue from being arrested and jailed for being in a riot with the prostitutes, he asks his brother why she obsesses about these women. Quentin tells him that she identifies with them because they’ve been exploited as she was. “Exploitation! Who in the hell has exploited her?” Tarquin yells. “You have,” Quentin responds.
Tarquin, Juliana, and Quentin each have symbolic roles in this book. Tarquin represents the enormous power of England’s male aristocracy and ruling class in the early 1800s. Juliana represents all women forced into marriages by this class as well as the prostitutes they used. Quentin is the rebel against primogeniture and the power it confers upon the eldest son while leaving remaining children as the eldest son’s pawns. The rebellion that these characters stage against Tarquin foreshadows the larger rebellions against England’s ruling class that will come about in the future.
Feather flawlessly executes this provocative book. She makes it utterly believable that much as Juliana fights the aristocratic system, she loves the man concealed underneath the title. Tarquin has a lot of learning to do in order to gain her love and his brother’s respect. He has difficult compromises to make just as England itself will make compromises in its future to satisfy more of its people. I would generally recommend all of Feather’s V books as her finest and this one as the very best of that series. If you read nothing else by her, do read Vice.