Groundskeeper/land-steward/gardener/gamekeeper/estate manager, an eminently attractive and endearing hero-figure to Miss Bates. This, ever since she read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a better novel than many give it credit for and more romantic than titillating. (It concludes with an HEA and baby-filled epilogue, folks.) There’s also the marvelous film The Go-Between, based on L. P. Hartley’s novel, the story of an innocent and humbly-originned boy carrying clandestine messages between the lord’s daughter and a local farmer.
The hero with deep roots in the land, in nature, manifests a special quality, a depth and salt-of-the-earth-ness. But, is that Miss Bates’ only attraction to these heroes? We must also know them by their relation to the heroine. Miss Bates draws one conclusion: simply put, she loves a cross-class romance, especially one centered on an aristocratic lady and a man of the land. (She’ll throw another narrative into the mix that compelled her: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, though the hero was not a man of the land; nevertheless, his origins are humble and he, and his mother, work for the lord of the manor. They don’t inhabit the manor. Nevertheless, it did contain an anti-romance conclusion that had Miss Bates sending the volume flying across the room.)
As for her latest read, Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince, it has it all: labourer hero, a man of the earth, and an aristocratic lady. As a sampling of cross-class romance, of the stoic farmer and his seemingly flighty lady (plumb the depths, reader discovers she’s no intellectual lightweight): well, it doesn’t get better than this. Miss Bates will temper her enthusiasm with reasons why this romance has its flaws, but her love and devotion will break through … as they do in every romance where the “marriage of true minds” overcomes “impediments.” For that is the essence, the core, of a cross-class romance done well.
Miss Bates loves that The Leopard Prince is light on plot and heavy on masterful characterization: strong, engaging, endearing … and that’s just the pro-George-and-Harry secondary characters. The villain’s, Lord Silas Granville’s, hatred and, well his villainy, makes sense, emerges out of his bad-egg-ness, and follows from the villain’s relationship with the hero. The Leopard Prince is also well-written. Its prose is smooth; it flows beautifully and dialogue alternates between witty and heart-wrenching, and sometimes manages to be both. An utterly winning combination because it makes the reader love the characters for engaging her, and feel for the characters by pulling on the sympathetic heart-strings. It makes you think and it makes you feel.
The story is simple. Lady Georgina Maitland, wealthy, land-owning spinster, is in a carriage accident in transit to her Yorkshire estate, Woldsly Manor. She and her land steward, Harry Pye, must spend the night in a nearby cottage until help arrives. In the aftermath of the accident, George notices that Harry “was a man … What she meant was that his maleness had suddenly become very evident.” While Harry has also noted George’s attractiveness, because of his social status, he squelches feelings and desires. Why wish for the impossible?
But George is attracted to Harry and she likes him, finds him interesting and enjoys talking with him. Much of the novel charmingly depicts how George spins a narrative web around Harry and his reluctance to have an affair with her that: a. makes for delightful reading and b. asserts the power of storytelling to change the expected/conventional narrative. Harry resists … beautifully Miss Bates might add … and even exacts a certain labouring-class studly vindication in the bedroom, but ne’er for a moment does this reader discover anything but love and care, compassion and respect between these two oh-so-loveable protagonists. George is Scheherazade to Harry’s “leopard prince,” a story wherein Harry is Cinderella and King. Miss Bates just loved that feminist role reversal. His nobility is revealed through George’s narrative web-spinning. As for George, she is exactly as Sir Richard Burton described Scheherazade in his translation of One Thousand and One Nights, “pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”
To the careful reader, Harry’s identity as the “Leopard Prince” is established at the moment he saves George’s life in the carriage accident, “Harry Pye had leapt from his seat to hers, rather like a large cat.” (Again, when Harry and George make love for the first time, Harry says to George, ” ‘I’m yours to do with as you wish, my lady,’ he said. The words came out a purr, as if a great cat had granted her leave to pet it.”) In that moment, George’s life changes; she has felt Harry against her and recognized him as a man and, by that evening in the cottage spinning her tale, as her man. Because George hasn’t ever encountered impediments to her wishes, she doesn’t consider the social implications of their union. For Harry, who is deeply attracted to George, it’s all he can think of. In the crofter’s cottage, as George begins the story of the “Leopard Prince” and then drifts off to sleep, it’s what Harry thinks of, “He drew the robes up over her neck and tucked them around her face … Slowly he stroked his thumb across the corner of her mouth. So warm. He almost recognized her scent, as if he’d inhaled it in another life or long ago. It make him ache. If she were a different woman, if this were a different place, if he were a different man … ”
The beauty of The Leopard Prince is that he is a different man, a noble man, a good man, and social impediments will not stand in George’s way because the only thing that matters is that she and Harry are perfect for each other. She need only, through the magic of story-telling, show him, and us, the readers, that the impossible can be made possible. While Harry gives life to George’s body, to her sexual awakening, she returns him to his rightful place as a “prince among men,” not for his blood, but for his soul. Harry recognizes this as he lies next to the sleeping George, “Perhaps he was like some enchanted prince in one of her tales and now she held the key to his heart. The key to his very soul.” George’s irrepressibly open heart has lured the leopard to take sustenance from her hand, but she cannot win her man until she sets him free.
Hoyt established Harry’s worthiness by showing him as a caring man, a man knowledgeable about the land and the people who work it. When Granville’s nastiness and ruthless spirit machinate that Harry Pye’s been poisoning the farmers’ sheep, Harry assumes that Lady George will dismiss him. George knows that Harry would never do such a thing, but shows her ignorance regarding the land and its people. Harry never hesitates to set her straight, to give her the truth and point to her responsibilities, ” ‘They’re life. Sheep are a man’s meat and his clothes. The income to pay the landowner his due. The thing that keeps his family alive.’ She stilled, her blue eyes solemn. He felt something light and frail connect himself and this woman, who was so far above his station.” George listens and she cares; while she gives Harry his dignity and place, he teaches her about the land and its denizens. He makes her a better, more responsible land-owner. He doesn’t let his diffidence over “his station” stand in the way of what he really cares about … happily, when the HEA comes, he doesn’t let his station stand in the way of his love either.
Miss Bates said initially that Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince has “flaws.” In a school-marmish fashion reiterating that there is no perfect romance novel, she’d better work up a criticism. Frankly, Miss Bates thought that George and Harry’s final re-united scene was unnecessarily amorous … even while the dialogue was wonderful. So there you have it, an excess of the amatory at conclusion. And this is a sexy book, but it is always fittingly so in light of the characters’ emotional maturity and genuine care for each other. A quibbling remark, but that final scene did inspire a moue of slight and forgivable disappointment from Miss Bates.
Nevertheless, Miss Bates says that Hoyt’s The Leopard Prince is as near-perfect a romance novel as one can write; in it, Miss Bates finds “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Harry and George are two of the tenderest hearts in romance fiction.
Hoyt’s number two in her Princes Trilogy, The Leopard Prince, was published by Grand Central Publishing in 2007. It languished for too long in Miss Bates’ TBR, even after she read, loved, and reviewed The Raven Prince.
Hoyt’s Leopard Prince approaches romance classic status. Miss Bates has joined its lauding quite late. Have you read it? What did you think? Have you read any other of Hoyt’s books? Have a favourite? Miss B. would love to hear your thoughts.