Where Roses Grow Wild
by Patricia Cabot
(St. Martins, $5.99, R) ISBN 0-312-96489-7
***
Maybe it's just because it's Sunday, but I feel compelled to write the following one-line sermon: Authors must remain true to their characters and they must know when to end a book. I was so impressed with the beginning of Where Roses Grow Wild that I felt certain I would be recommending this story. Unfortunately, what starts out as a charming and refreshingly honest tale turns into standard romance fare. As the story line progresses, there are a few inconstancies in the characterization of the heroine and at least fifty pages should have been cut from the final chapters.

Pegeen MacDougal has been raising her ten-year-old nephew, Jeremy, since he was a baby. Although Jeremy is the duke of Rawlings, his late father's family has never offered any kind of support, either financial or emotional. Pegeen, a devout Liberal and anti-royalist, despises polite society for their indifference to the poor and she has never asked for help, even though her father's death has left her penniless. So when Lord Edward Rawlings sends his agent to Scotland to retrieve his nephew so that Edward can fulfill his father's dying wish and because he doesn't want to be plagued with managing the estate Pegeen sends the agent back to Lord Edward, alone.

Determined to convince his nephew's spinster aunt that life would be better for them if they moved to England, Edward decides to make the trip himself. He is surprised by how young and beautiful Pegeen is and Edward genuinely feels guilty about the way his family has treated her. So he kisses her. Pegeen, who just an hour before had been fending off the unwanted kisses of a would-be suitor, was too busy being amazed at how different kisses can be to think about stopping him.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view, Jeremy enters and things cool down considerably. Edward begins using his considerable powers of persuasion to make Jeremy want to come to Yorkshire. That is, he offers the boy a horse. Jeremy is ready to pack immediately but Pegeen cannot be bought off so easily. It's only after slapping Edward's face for the kiss and then offering him a shot of whiskey, in which she joins him, that they start seriously discussing the conditions Edward would have to agree to before Pegeen would consider moving to Rawlings Manor.

As I said before, I thought the first part of book was terrific; it's full of crisp and funny dialogue. Also, I thought it was refreshing to encounter a heroine who takes on some of the social issues of the day, and it's refreshing to encounter an author who doesn't pretend that life for women during the Victorian era was easy. As Pegeen notes, a woman of this time was considered a possession with no rights of her own. A single woman of privilege was totally dependent on the men in her family, so much so that husbands and fathers determined what their wives and daughters were allowed to read.

Most men of this era forbade their women to read newspapers, other than the society pages, because women were deemed too frail of mind and too delicate of spirit to understand the concepts of day-to-day life. Even worse, reading might excite a woman's imagination! Pegeen doesn't want a husband who would dictate to her what she will and will not do. She also refers to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication on the Rights of Women as a primary reason for never wanting to marry. And she lectures Edward, a known libertine, for the evils inflicted upon women during this time, including forced prostitution.

One of Pegeen's conditions for moving to Yorkshire is that Edward must pay the village prostitute enough money to keep her from having to sell her body for a year. However, another one of Pegeen's conditions for moving is a new wardrobe. It seems inconsistent for Pegeen, who despises society because they spend money like water while the poor starve, to have no compunction in accepting a new wardrobe, including some very expensive Worth gowns.

Actually, there were a number of inconstancies between the Liberal views Pegeen espouses and some of the things she actually says and does while at Rawlings Manor. For instance, despite her belief that all women deserve better treatment from men of Edward's class, whenever Edward grabs her and kisses her she complains that he treats her like a servant. The implication is that it would be all right for Edward to accost a woman if she were a "common serving wench." And despite Pegeen's aversion to the wealthy, she doesn't hesitate to wear Edward's mother's diamonds to her first ball.

During these occasional lapses I found myself wondering what happened to the intelligent, thoughtful and refreshingly honest woman who lived simply, drank whiskey like it was water, and traded smart-mouthed quips with Edward while they were in Scotland? Fortunately, these lapses in character were not frequent. I certainly enjoyed the Pegeen who keeps the vain, arrogant, but oh-so attractive Edward on his toes and in his place at Rawlings Manor with remarks concerning the "feminine air" he has about him.

Finally, I believe this tale would have been greatly improved had the author left out the "He doesn't really love me" chapters and gone right for the surprise ending. Those chapters were unnecessary and left me in serious doubt as to Pegeen's alleged intelligence. Still, there is a lot to like in this story I certainly enjoyed the sexual battle of wills between Pegeen and Edward and the lighthearted humor. It's just too bad that the last one hundred pages of this book did not live up to the high expectations that the first hundred pages engendered.

--Judith Flavell


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