Miss Richardson Comes of Age

My Lady Governess

Rules of Marriage

The Trouble With Harriet

The Wagered Wife

Willed to Wed

The Willful Miss Winthrop

The Viscountís Bride
by Wilma Counts
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN: 0-8217-7044-6
Rating a book can be a real challenge. Sometimes itís easy, especially with the very good or the very bad ones. Sometimes itís obvious, especially with the many average stories that a reviewer reads. But what does a reviewer do when she enjoys a book very much but has a sneaking suspicion that her response will not be shared by the vast majority of romance readers? This is the dilemma I face in evaluating Wilma Countsí new release, The Viscountís Bride.

There seems to be an unwritten rule in current romance writing that the hero and heroine must meet on page one, quickly develop a relationship, and then spend the rest of the book trying to overcome the various barriers to the happily ever after. Certainly the pair must spend most of the book in each otherís company or at least be thinking primarily of the other most of the time. There is certainly a rule that the romance must be the at the center of the story. Finally, especially with romances set during the Regency era, there is a general understanding that the unpleasant realities of the era should not intrude excessively into the tale. The Viscountís Bride breaks all of these rules and understandings, written or unwritten.

At least the hero and heroine are familiar characters. Theo Ruskin, Viscount Amesbury, is the heir to an earldom and a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. He has finally returned to England in 1817 after serving in the army of occupation in France. Newly elevated to the position of heir due to the death of his elder brother in a carriage ďaccident,Ē Theo is haunted by his wartime experiences and somewhat at loose ends as he tries to find his feet in the civilian world. Hence, when his father - at the instigation of several powerful politicians - suggests that Theo use his talents for disguise to try to discover the true state of public opinion among the lower orders by masquerading as a common laborer in the northern mills, Theo agrees.

Hannah Whitmore is a vicarís daughter, dedicated to the education of the poor. Her father holds the living in the Derbyshire town of Crofton, the seat of the Earl of Glosson, Theoís father, and the site of the Glosson woolen mill that adds considerable wealth to the family coffers. She has established the Crofton Parish Day School which is successfully educating a large number of the local children. However, she dearly wants the children of the mill workers - many of whom are already employed - to enjoy the benefits of an education.

Hannah and Theo actually meet first at a London ball. She has accompanied her school friend to the affair; he is there at the insistence of his mother who believes it is time for Theo to find a wife. The two dance together; there is an immediate spark between them. It looks like the romance is underway. But then the two do not really meet again until page 96. In the interim, Hannah has returned to Crofton, continued her educational activities, and joined the Crofton Corresponding Society, a local group associated with the then widespread political agitation for reform. Theo has found employment in the local cotton mill owned by the unpleasant Lord Mayfield, discovered just how demanding and demoralizing factory work is, and been unmasked. He is now trying to uncover the dishonesty of his steward and to find out who was responsible for his brotherís ďaccident.Ē

OK, you say; now our hero and heroine are in the same neighborhood and the romance can begin, however belatedly. Sorry. This isnít what happens. Oh, yes, the two begin to interact occasionally, generally with Hannah lumping Theo with the other antediluvian local factory owners, until he demonstrates that he is a different kind of employer. And yes, the attraction that was there from the start does develop. But they donít do much about it. Indeed, it takes their being unwittingly found in a compromising position on page 273 to bring them together.

So by all the standards and expectations of the romance genre, The Viscountís Bride doesnít work. Then why am I awarding the book the coveted four-heart rating? Simply because this is a very good work of romantic historical fiction, a genre which has fallen into disfavor since the rise of historical romance some twenty or thirty years ago.

Romantic historical fiction does have a hero and heroine; it does have a romance; it does have a happy ending, at least for the couple. But it has something more - an accurate recreation of historical events which impinge in a meaningful way on the hero and heroine. I think especially of the early works of Roberta Gellis which, though often categorized as romances, are really romantic historical fiction.

The Viscountís Bride fits very well into this almost lost tradition. The historical events upon which it is based are the widespread popular agitation for reform that arose out of the hard times that followed the end of the wars and the inhumane conditions of workers in the expanding industrial world of early 19th century England. The response of the fearful ruling class - those suave aristocrats who are the typical heroes of romance novels - was not attractive. The use of spies and agents provocateurs, the harsh punishments - hanging at worst, transportation at best - for those who sought change, the willingness to use force against peaceful protesters are all chronicled in The Viscountís Bride. This is the darker side of Regency England and Counts brings it vividly to life.

Thus, my four-heart rating. I enthusiastically recommend this book to those readers who are willing to accept The Viscountís Wife for what it is, a fine work of historical fiction.

--Jean Mason

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