Miss Darby’s Debut by Marilyn Clay
(Zebra, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-8217-6357-1
There are times when I really wish I didn’t know so much history! I sit here wondering whether my reluctance to recommend Marilyn Clay’s new Regency romance is too colored by my becoming disconcerted by a number of relatively minor historical gaffes. (Like the statement that Jefferson wrote the Constitution.) I really liked a number of things about Miss Darby’s Debut. But as I look back on the story, I realize that there were certain elements in the plot and the character development that detracted from my complete enjoyment of the tale.

Clay has provided a variation of the plot, “An American in London.” Tessa Darby is the daughter of an English gentleman and his wife. But when her father was killed in battle before her birth, her mother married an American senator. Thus, Tessa was raised in “the colonies” as a senator’s daughter, although her relationship with her tyrannical stepfather was anything but happy.

Now, at the age of nineteen, Tessa has returned to the England she has never known but always longed for. She has come to visit her mother’s best friend, Lady Penwyck. Lady Penwyck thinks she has come to enjoy a London season and perhaps find an English husband. In fact, Tessa has a Cause. She wants to improve the lot of the working men, women and children of her native land. She has no desire to marry.

Harrison Belmour, fifth Earl of Penwyck, first spots Miss Darby in Hyde Park. She has stopped the hired coach which is bringing her to her hostess’s home to hand out radical pamphlets to the people she sees walking there. The earl is understandably shocked at such improper behavior. He is even more shocked when he discovers that “the Hyde Park Spectacle,” as he calls her, is his mother’s expected houseguest.

The earl is a most proper gentleman. He has to be, to overcome the scandal that his younger brother has brought upon the family. He has definite ideas about acceptable female behavior. Indeed, he has drawn up a list of such behaviors to guide him in his search for a wife. Miss Darby fits none of his criteria.

Of course, Clay has set up quite nicely the traditional plot of a man who thinks he knows what he wants in his wife, but who discovers himself falling in love with someone who is the exact opposite. He wants a demure, proper, biddable woman who will accept his superiority. In Miss Darby he finds a strong-minded, intelligent, forthright woman who stands up for herself and for her Cause.

Tessa doesn’t want to marry at all and she certainly doesn’t intend to fall in love with a stuffy, proper man who believes that women should be seen and not heard, at least when it comes to political matters. And he’s always making lists!

That Clay succeeds in showing how and why this two seemingly mismatched people fall in love is the best part of the book. The earl comes to appreciate the very qualities that once appalled him. Tessa comes to see that the earl is not the cold fish she believed him to be.

I liked the hero quite a lot and liked watching him fall under Tessa’s spell. His perplexed reactions to his growing attraction were both touching and sometimes humorous. I liked Tessa too. But I didn’t understand her very well. While Clay made a stab at explaining her motivations at the end of the story, for much of the book her passionate commitment to her Cause seemed somewhat inexplicable. Also, her decision at the end of the book seemed completely out of character.

Still, I feel that Miss Darby’s Debut has a lot of good qualities. Regency fans may well enjoy watching a proud and proper hero become more human and more likable thanks to falling in love with a woman who never would have showed up on his list.

--Jean Mason

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