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Gentleman Jack
by Margaret Summerville
(Signet, $4.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19797-6
***
It is always nice to find a somewhat unusual plot in a Regency romance. Margaret Summerville's latest, Gentleman Jack offers such a plot. While not unique (there are certainly other stories of a nobleman forced to descend from his rarefied heights and live among the common folk), at least this story is a departure from the norm.

Viscount Warrington is not a very promising hero at the outset of the book. He is a wastrel, a gambler, and a thoughtless snob. In desperation, his father offers him a bargain. If he can live for a month on a fixed sum without using his title, without visiting his friends and without gambling, the earl will pay his not inconsiderable debts. However, if the viscount fails, he will have to marry the dull and respectable X. Jack accepts the deal.

The viscount is a bit appalled at the small amount of money allotted for his support. A mere 50! (A year's salary for a very well paid governess). However, a bet is a bet and a deal is a deal. Jack decides to head for the wilds of rural Shropshire where he is sure he can manage on such a paltry sum.

Jack's success becomes more problematic when he is robbed of his clothes, his money and his horse, and beaten within an inch of his life, His bruised and battered body is found by Miss Antonia Richards, the governess to the two daughters of Sir Harold Mansfield and his rather unpleasant wife.

Antonia is the daughter of a naval captain who lost his life in the wars and an Italian opera singer. Her father's family had disowned him for marrying so far beneath him and her mother's death left Antonia without resources. So she finds herself governessing with all the attendant problems, including her employer's lecherous son.

Lady Mansfield's charity is limited, so Jack finds himself inhabiting the rooms of a recently departed groom. Having lost all his money, the viscount takes the groom's job as well as his quarters. At least he knows something about horses. Indeed, his skill in handling Sir Harold's difficult race horse gains him some security in his new position.

Antonia finds herself much taken by the man she has rescued. His gentlemanly speech and manners and his air of command are at odds with his new position. For his part, Jack is delighted to have the opportunity to pursue his acquaintance with the lovely governess, a woman he never would have noticed in his previous life.

Before the book ends, Antonia and Jack share many adventures, including a run-in with the villains who had attacked him, a stint as circus performers, and an encounter with the unfairness of the law. All of this bring home to the viscount the errors of his previous existence. He learns what true love and generosity and good manners are really all about from the ordinary people who are much nicer than their supposed betters.

Unfortunately, Summerville's telling of her story is not as effective as the story itself. In fact, it is the telling that is the problem. The author tells us that Jack is falling in love with Antonia. She does not show us. She tells us that Jack is changing. She does not show us clearly how the changes occur. Everything seems to happen on the surface. Which is a shame, because Gentleman Jack has the potential to be a first-rate Regency.

Still, if you are looking for a Regency with an unusual twist, you might well enjoy Gentleman Jack.

--Jean Mason


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