I have a hard time finding historical romance to enjoy, most are trite and tired, but not Matthews. She never fails to engage and I easily immerse myself in her fictional world. It was so with The Work of Art and “Fair As a Star,” and it was certainly so with Gentleman Jim. I stayed up late and woke up early to read; groggy as I am, I’m here to praise it. The blurb will launch us by filling in some details of character, plot, and setting:
Wealthy squire’s daughter Margaret Honeywell was always meant to marry her neighbor, Frederick Burton-Smythe, but it’s bastard-born Nicholas Seaton who has her heart. Raised alongside her on her father’s estate, Nicholas is the rumored son of notorious highwayman Gentleman Jim. When Fred frames him for theft, Nicholas escapes into the night, vowing to find his legendary sire. But Nicholas never returns. A decade later, he’s long been presumed dead.
After years spent on the continent, John Beresford, Viscount St. Clare has finally come home to England. Tall, blond, and dangerous, he’s on a mission to restore his family’s honor. If he can mete out a bit of revenge along the way, so much the better. But he hasn’t reckoned for Maggie Honeywell. She’s bold and beautiful–and entirely convinced he’s someone else.
As danger closes in, St. Clare is torn between love and vengeance. Will he sacrifice one to gain other? Or, with a little daring, will he find a way to have them both?
Hmmm, I’m not sure St. Clare is concerned with restoring his family’s honour so much as his grandfather is. With a scoundrel son, notoriously reputed to be the highwayman Gentleman Jim, the Earl of Allenby has put his energy and vast fortune into ensuring grandson St. Clare inherits. Rumours simmer about John Beresford: who was his mother? Were his parents married? Is he legitimate? To Maggie, after a long illness and years of mourning her father and aunt, her beloved Beasley Park is bound to her marrying her hated neighbour, Frederick Burton-Smythe, the very man who exiled her beloved Nicholas from her love and protection.
Gentleman Jim is made of pure drama, swashbuckling confrontation, and the loveliest, most heartfelt romance I’ve read this year. I adored Maggie and Nicholas-John, together and apart, but especially together. The novel’s opening captured my attention despite a to-do list a mile-long. After years of solitary illness and mourning, Maggie arrives in London to stay with her friend, Jane Trumble (a wonderful character, btw), against Fred’s wishes. She has six months before she must marry him to keep Beasley Park. When she arrives, Fred is set to duel with the Viscount St. Clare. Afraid St. Clare will kill Fred and she’ll lose Beasley Park, Maggie goes to St. Clare’s private rooms to stop the duel. On seeing “John,” she faints … St. Clare swoops her into his arms and their recognition moment is divine. John denies; Maggie insists … their love and care for one other shine from this moment till the novel’s final sentences. Matthews does the BEST recognition moment:
Their eyes locked for an electricity-charged instant. For that timeless moment, he looked stunned. Stricken to his core. Maggie saw the emotion in his eyes, as plain as anything. But as quickly as it manifested, it was gone, lost beneath an air of glacial reserve.
Matthews can also do great internality, as John Beresford, with one glance at Maggie, is transported to his former life:
One moment he’d been John Beresford, standing in front of the library fireplace after a night at his club. And the next he’d been Nicholas Seaton again. As if a crack had opened up in the universe and wrenched him back to Somerset. Not to the loose box in Squire Honeywell’s stable, but to the forget-me-not grass where he’d lain with his blue-eyed love, his heart full with the promise of tomorrow.
I cannot say how much I loved these two together. Matthews conveyed their attraction, their love, their friendship and something more, that can make or break a romance, an ability to combine these things to reveal their compatibility. Here is a snippet of conversation as John-Nicholas and his Maggie are going into danger, searching for the truth of his parentage; Nicholas is reluctant; Maggie, eager:
“Very well. I’ll go myself if it will put the matter to rest.” She brightened. “And take me with you?” He gave her a forbidding look. “On no account. I told you, it’s too dangerous. I’ll go at night, and I’ll go alone.” “You can’t go alone,” she said. “You have your injured arm to think of.” “Maggie –” “And besides,” she continued determinedly, “I’m the one who discovered the existence of Father Tuck. It’s not fair that I should wait at home while you get to enjoy the adventure.” He recognized that subtle lift of her cleft chin. Her mind was made up. She wouldn’t be swayed, neither by threats nor reason. He nevertheless made one final effort. “It’s not about fairness. It’s about your safety.” She smiled up at him. “You’ll keep me safe. I have every confidence in you.”
(Thank you, Ms Matthews, for an excellent heroine-chin moment as well.) Maggie is not a TSTL heroine: she is brave, smart, intrepid. She’s a tiny ball of fire, brains, and bravery. John-Nicholas is made of pride, arrogance, and love for Maggie. They’re perfect together because they complement each other. He gives her free rein to be herself and she gives him the unconditional love he never had. It’s rare that a baby-filled epilogue feels full and believable instead of tacked-on, but Gentleman Jim‘s does. I loved it and so did Miss Austen and I encourage and urge you to read it for the élan in its adventure, the sensitivity of Matthews’s characterization, and that rare thing, a kisses-only romance that is more passionate than any number of requisite love scenes. I believe what it comes down to is simply that Matthews writes so well. This isn’t the first highwayman, hidden identity, reunited sweethearts romance I’ve read, but it is one of the few I’ll remember because of the tenderness, wit, and vividness with which Matthews tells her story. With Miss Austen, we agree that in Gentleman Jim “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Mimi Matthews’s Gentleman Jim is self-published. It was released in November 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from the author, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review.