Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Highwayman's Mistress by Francine Howarth

Note:  Novella
My Experience:  A
Synopsis:    Richard Courtenay Viscount Somerton, gallant as heroes come, has agreed to see Miss Diamonta Whitaker, safely delivered to the Palace of Versailles. Half French by birth and daughter of a once French countess, Diamonta has more than one reason for accepting a gracious invite to stay at the Royal Court at Versailles. Her heart lies at court, with Francois de Boviere, Count of Saint Mont Marche. 
Unfortunately, tide of revolution has swept from Paris to Versailles and heads of French aristocrats are seriously under threat of Madame Guillotine. With Diamonta's coche still en route to Versailles, strange as it seems a highwayman delivers a message by way of robbery to save her life. Can she, upon return to England, ever recover from her mother's wrath once her relationship with a highwayman is discovered, and can he survive a duel to the death?

Madame Guillitine has yet to flood the streets with blood but she was already singing her frenetic dirge. The militia is scouring the country side for food, booty and suspects; Paris and Versailles are no longer safe for foreigners, or aristocrats. In to this danger, Diamonta and her escort unwittingly head until a charming highwayman turns them back, for their own good, and the good of his sister, hidden nearby. Diamonta, not quite able to take in the danger, is nevertheless stunned to discover the very person she was hoping to see at the end of her journey, is right before her, in mask. Richard and Diamonta rescue the sister and make good their escape, leaving behind Francois, the beguiling highwayman disguising a French Count, to distract the militia. He, after a tricky escape, finally reaches Diamonta's side. It seems to be in vain. Her mother is vehemently opposed to the match and the course of true love is going to be as difficult as an escape from France!

Diamonta is a woman of her day. A child of her mother, willful and yes, a bit spoiled, she is able to accept what is while gathering strength for what she intends to be her life. Francois is a man of his times, fervent, a bit reckless; shocked but not immobilized to discover change costs as much as the suffering demanded, and then so much more. This book pinpoints almost to the year where the differences in mores and expectations of behaviors began the great shift toward rigorous self-control as a means of eliminating the temptation ideals will whisper to restless hearts. How the hero of one generation transitioned from the courtly passionate wooer to the somber survivor of Waterloo is in a flash of dialog you might miss.

"a peasant uprising in one country can easily spread to another in much the same way French and Italian fashion has influenced you ladies for years. To be forewarned is to be forearmed and ready to counter any sway toward revolt by the people. History could easily repeat itself and royal heads thence to the block or hangman's noose here in England."

For me, this little testament to romance, written in a style intentionally evocative of the pre-Napoleonic day was just right. There was none of the lavender euphemisms, no pretentious obsolete spellings, none of the faux pas of forsoothery. Neither was it so modern the charm was sanitized from the atmosphere. As I discovered before, Ms. Howarth doesn't fiddle about when it comes to sex, or the fact it existed long before reformers insisted passion, not poverty, was the curse of the lower classes. Even her love scenes are written in period mindset and language so you aren't yanked from the mood of the book by currently acceptable ... terminology. Despite the diminutive length of this story, she packs every sentence and word with a precise nuance and meaning so the tale does not dawdle. You don't dare blink or you'll miss months at a time or the shift from uncertainty to commitment that happens in a moment that makes you hold your breath, then sputter and laugh because, yes, it says exactly what you thought it said!

Despite the setting, this is not a dark story by any means. Part of the charm is how unaware they are of what's to come. Francois has seen the beginning and still can't quite believe it. His determination to allow nothing, not mother or mores, to keep them apart is an enviable touchstone they will no doubt need in the future. I choose to believe he continued to abide in his certainty and that Diamonta resided there, with him, secure even when the world around them seemed everything but. Totally worth the time to read and revel in the romance.

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