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Journey of the Heart

 
Red, Red Rose by Marjorie Farrell
(Topaz, $6.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-40817-9
****
I love romances set against the background of the Peninsular War. I count among my favorites Georgette Heyer, The Spanish Bride, Roberta Gellis, Fortune's Bride, Mary Balogh Beyond the Sunrise and Gayle Wilson, Honor's Bride, to name those that I think are the best of such books. Now I have another addition to this list. Marjorie Farrell's Red, Red Rose uses Wellington's defense of Portugal and the Regency crisis of 1810 as the backdrop for her heartwarming romance between two people whose place in society is ambiguous, at best.

The prologue introduces us to the hero, Valentine Aston. At eight, Val's life falls apart. His beloved mother dies and he discovers that his father is not a dead hero, but rather a live earl. He is a bastard, as his vicious uncle and new guardian never ceases to remind him. Seven years later, Val has survived his uncle's brutality and learned the trade of a blacksmith.

One day a luxurious coach pulls up to the smithy and an open-faced, charming young boy introduces himself as Val's half-brother. Charlie has recently lost his mother and has discovered Val's existence. He wants his brother to visit him and his father so they can get acquainted. Val can't help but love his brother, but he keeps his emotional distance from his father. When Charlie insists that Val come to school with him, Val finds he can't refuse.

Val finds that he cannot accept the casual brutality that was typical of schools during that era. When he beats the nasty Lord Lucas Stanton for debauching a young student, he is sent down. Rather than return to his father, he joins the army.

Twelve years later, Val is now a lieutenant in the 11th Foot. After a decade in the ranks during which he rose to sergeant, he accepted his father's offer to buy him a commission. He is one of Captain Colquhoun Grant's exploring officers, the eyes and ears of Wellington's army. One day, while returning from a scouting expedition, he comes across a coach under attack by Portuguese bandits. Discovering a young woman as the victim, Val races to the rescue. He succeeds only because the woman bravely shoots one of the bandit's brains out. Thus Val meets Elspeth Gordon.

Elspeth, although the granddaughter of an earl, has followed the drum with her mother almost all her life. She attended school with other upper class girls, but felt out of place in such a hothouse atmosphere. Rather than "come out," she has chosen to rejoin her parents and the army, where she feels much more at home.

Val's rescue and the fact that they are together overnight places him in a difficult situation. As a gentleman, he should offer her the protection of his name; as a bastard, he feels unworthy. Elspeth's parents insist that a forced wedding is unnecessary and take the young officer under their wing. Thrown together, Val and Elspeth fall in love, but Val believes that anything other than friendship is impossible because of his lowly birth.

I am particularly fond of the heroine in Red, Red Rose (although the hero is no slouch.) Like most contemporary readers, I like my heroines spunky. But I also want them to be Regency characters, not 20th century women dressed up in Regency clothes. Elspeth works for me because her atypical upbringing makes her atypical attitudes and behavior understandable.

I should make it clear that Red, Red Rose has a strong plot that, while it doesn't overshadow the romance, is at least as central to the book as is the relationship between the hero and heroine. Also, the historical setting is an integral part of the story, not merely wallpaper, as has come to be the case in many historical romances lately.

If you like your historical romances historical, if you like strong and admirable heroines, if you like brave and dashing heroes, if you like well drawn secondary characters, if you appreciate writing that can, when appropriate, bring tears to your eyes (I'm not going to tell you why), if you like an accurate rendition of life in Wellington's army and the nature of war, then you will like Red, Red Rose. I certainly did.

--Jean Mason


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