In this, her third Regency historical novel, Julia Justiss revisits two of the attractive characters from her first book, The Wedding Gamble. Lord St. John Sandiford had been the childhood sweetheart of Sarah, but the impoverished state of both their families had made their marriage impossible. To save her family, Sarah had married the Marquess of Englemere. It was not a love match when they wed. Englemere was marrying to insure the succession; Sarah still loved Sinjin. But by the end of the book the two had fallen in love.
Sinjin had returned to the army where he served with distinction through the end of the Peninsular War and at Waterloo. Now he is returning home. The family coffers remain bare and Sinjin realizes that he will have to marry for money, just as Sarah had. A viscount who is a war hero should be able to attract a proper wife. Sinjin does not expect love or passion; he wants a wife whom he can respect and admire and who will be willing to help him restore his home. Convinced that a tonnish young lady is unlikely to meet his criteria, he thinks to find his bride among the merchant class.
One of his first encounters in London reinforces his conclusion. Drawn to Sarah’s home, he watches as a fashionable beauty rides recklessly to the door and mistakes him for a groom, thanks to his unfashionable civilian clothes. He departs in high dudgeon, convinced that this woman represents all that is unsuitable about society women.
This woman is Clarissa Beaumont, a red haired, green eyed stunner who is one of the toasts of the ton. Four years earlier, she had broken her engagement to Englemere, only to watch the marquess marry her best friend. Clare and Sarah have remained friends, although their personalities are very different. Although Clare has become more responsible, she is still restless and chafes against the restrictions society places on young women. She has numerous suitors; after all, she has both looks and fortune. But she has found no man whom she is willing to marry.
Thus has Justiss set up her romantic relationship. Clarissa is not what Sinjin is looking for in a wife. She is headstrong and fashionable, the antithesis of the quiet, responsible woman he is seeking. Their encounters usually lead to clashes, as Clare bridles at Sinjin’s disdain for her and women like her. But when a too daring wager leads Clare into danger, she is most grateful that Sinjin is there to rescue her. Sinjin is very impressed with Clare’s cool headed bravery in the face of danger. But, despite the physical attraction and the admiration he begins to feel, Sinjin remains convinced that Clare is not the proper wife for him.
Justiss is very good at showing that Clare is not the heedless belle she appears to be on the surface. She finds the ton’s constant round of amusements increasingly boring. Her kindness in helping Sinjin’s friend, Alexander Standish, to win his lady love leads the hero to reevaluate his first impression. But Sinjin’s continues to pursue his purpose in finding a suitable wife, despite the attraction he is coming to feel for Sarah’s friend.
One of the interesting aspects of The Proper Wife lies in the relationship between Sinjin and his lost love. Sarah’s and Englemere’s realistic understanding of Sinjin’s feelings and their sympathetic support help him to understand that there are different kinds of love and that he can love again. Maturity and wisdom are always appreciated by this reader.
If the ending is a bit melodramatic, it does help convince both the hero and heroine and the reader that the two are well suited. If Clare is not Sinjin’s vision of the perfect wife, she is the perfect wife for him. If The Proper Wife is not a perfect love story, it comes darn close.