The Raven Prince and The Leopard Prince, especially the latter, are two of the best romance novels Miss Bates has read. With what enthusiasm Miss Bates delved into another Hoyt Georgian romance in Dearest Rogue. Eighth in the Maiden Lane series, Dearest Rogue, like the sublime, early Leopard Prince, is a cross-class romance. It opens on Bond Street, where bodyguard James Trevillion, formerly a captain in his majesty’s dragoons, saves his charge, Lady Phoebe Batten, from kidnapping. It’s obvious that James is sweet on Phoebe, but there be complications. Phoebe, sister to the powerful Duke of Wakefield, is blind and needs James’ protection from would-be kidnappers and to ensure her safety as she navigates city and society. (She is an innocent 21 to his jaded 33, so there’s a May/December trope as well.) Phoebe resents James’ close watch over her and her brother’s over-protectiveness. She imagines James dour and old, at least until Artemis, her sister-in-law, tells her he’s young, blue-eyed, and handsome. James, in turn, thinks he’s too old, too poor, too lame (he sustained an injury in the course of his dragoon duties) and too humble-in-origins to be anything but an annoyance to Lady Phoebe. Phoebe and James’ journey to love, friendship, and desire, while fighting kidnappers, Wakefield’s loving, controlling solicitude, and confronting James’ fraught family history, is told with Hoyt’s elegant prose and delightful humour.
Though Miss Bates enjoyed reading Dear Rogue, appreciated the smooth writing, characterization, engaging use of Hoyt’s signature epigraphs, and adorable dogs, it also felt like Hoyt was writing Leopard Prince over again. Except this time, without the freshness and urgency that the earlier romance had. Hoyt’s sensibility, her way of drawing character is most sympathetic to Miss Bates: she enjoys how decent Hoyt’s heroes and heroines are, without being stiff, or one-dimensional. They exhibit growth and understanding all the while maintaining their solid, moral cores. Her villains are deliciously vile, but with a touch of romance and colour to them. This is as true of Dearest Rogue as it was of Leopard Prince.
Dearest Rogue can be divided into three parts. In the first, we meet James and Phoebe, learn of the threat to Phoebe, and listen in on their banter. In the second, when threats escalate (James thinks he’s failed to protect her, leaves Wakefield’s employ and then has to rescue her anyway) his love for her sees him spiriting her to the safest place he knows, his ancestral Cornish home. This is the strongest section to the romance where the enclosed carriage and close inn quarters find James and Phoebe growing closer, becoming friends, surrendering to their attraction, and realizing their love. Cornwall is further complicated by James’ own family history. James’ father, sister, and niece are there, as is a warrant for his arrest. James’ reconciliation with his father is engaging, with shouting matches and manly backslapping reconciliation.
It is on the road and subsequent stay in Cornwall Phoebe convinces James her blindness should be not an impediment to her experiencing life. And one of her desired experiences is to make love to/with him. Hoyt’s portrayal of their passion is crude and tender and real. Phoebe’s experience of the world is sensual and funny too. There’s a hilarious running thread throughout their journey as Phoebe insists on tasting every kind of beer. Her insistence on trying something over and over again until she learns to like it spills into the bedroom and their feelings. Though young and inexperienced, Phoebe is engagingly brave and adventurous; she mourns, at times, the loss of her sight, but she’s a pick-me-up kind of girl who accepts the reality of her situation, all the while making the most of life’s pleasures. James’ stoic, stalwart love and support are equally endearing. It’s lovely how he learns to let Phoebe “fall,” as she puts it, lets her take risks and doesn’t coddle, or cage her. He learns how to love her without smothering her.
In the last third of the novel and the most pat/weak in Miss Bates’ estimation, James and Phoebe contend with the world, especially in the form of one very angry duke-brother. Once again, there are threats to Phoebe. Miss Bates thought, “how many times can this poor woman be kidnapped and rescued?” The cross-class romance, “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” aspect of the novel was unrealistically and anti-climactically resolved. It was also strange that despite all the unprotected love-making James and Phoebe indulge in, it never occurs to them she might be pregnant. Even Wakefield is angry about James’ ruining Phoebe’s reputation by absconding her, instead of worried what her reputation will be when she’s visibly pregnant. But it WAS nice to see these two loves get their HEA and return to Cornwall (what can Miss Bates say, Poldark‘s made her a sucker for that beautiful coast).
Hoyt didn’t bring anything new to Dearest Rogue, but Miss Bates will argue she is a great romance stylist. This is what keeps us reading and returning to her books, her ability to blend humour and pathos, tongue-in-cheek with sentiment. Note the succinct and delightful introduction to James and Phoebe: “The sister of the Duke of Wakefield, Lady Phoebe was plump, distractingly pretty, and quite pleasant to nearly everyone, excepting himself. She was also blind, which was both why she had her hand on Trevillion’s left forearm and why Trevillion was here at all: he was her bodyguard.” Who they are, what they are to each other, and the nature of their relationship, in that quipping “excepting himself,” in mere sentences. Their relationship is also captured in delightful banter: ” ‘Sometimes I rather dislike you, Captain Trevillion.’ ‘I am most gratified that it’s only sometimes, my lady,’ he replied.” Phoebe’s smart bluntness and James’ rueful sarcasm bode well for their marriage; the reader can imagine them teasing each other in comfort and love into old age. While it’s understandable to say that Hoyt’s handling of the cross-class element is more fairy-tale than historical reality, her portrayal of the love between a man and woman, irrespective of class, is simple, beautiful, and elemental. Here are James and Phoebe on the Trevillion horse-breeding farm:
He leaned his right hand on the fence, near her hip, and as they waited, she placed her own right hand over his. It was warm and soft, reminding him that she did no physical labour, this lady. She was an aristocrat – a world apart from his yeoman upbringing. But here, in this quiet paddock, the only sound the soft thump of horses’ hooves on grass, they were just a man and a woman. That simple. And that complex.
The complexity comes from their socially disparate positions, but the simplicity from their place in nature, from horses, earth, sky, wind. And the Cornish setting is perfect for bringing them together in physical awareness, being a part of nature, and closer to what they’re feeling, love. Here are James and Phoebe after they first make love on the beach:
… he knew he should feel shame for despoiling her, his charge.
All he felt was pride. He’d meant what he’d told her. Right now, here on this lonely beach, she was no longer the sister of the most powerful man in England. And perhaps he was no longer a man scarred by faulty decisions.
They were simply Phoebe and James, lovers.
One of the romance genre’s powers is its ability to re-make the hero and heroine’s social identities. They are made new, also returned somehow to the elemental: water, earth, skin on skin, sun, and breeze. Their natural selves and recognition of love of the other supersede their social selves. It may be quixotic, but it’s hopeful and lovely. Hoyt does this well. In the end, however, Miss Bates wishes she’d use all this sensibility and talent to break out of the tried-and-true mold. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Dearest Rogue, “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Elizabeth Hoyt’s Dearest Rogue, published by Forever (Grand Central Publishing), was released on May 26th. It’s available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.