Mrs. Joanna Merrill is a proud woman: when her husband dies, she is unwilling to throw herself into the care of her older brother. Instead, she works as a governess. When her lecherous employer forces her to flee with pennies in her pocket, she travels across the country to her brother’s house. When she arrives–famished, dirty, and frozen through–at the estate he manages, she learns he’s been dismissed from his post. In his place she finds the new manager, Ned Greaves, and promptly faints at his feet. As for Mr. Greaves, he has bigger problems than a mysterious woman at his doorstep. He is, in fact, Sir Edward Greaves, new owner of the impoverished and ruined estate, operating in disguise to uncover the criminal elements who are inciting locals to violence.
While he investigates, the supposed Ned Greaves seeks to revitalize his new property, rescue its suffering tenants from horrible living conditions, and find a way to bring prosperity to the region. Faced with the mysterious Mrs. Merrill–an attractive and sensual woman who may or may not be what she claims–he must come up with a way to justify her continued residence in his home. What better excuse could there be than the founding of a local school?
As Joanna and Ned become closer and she throws herself into her new project, she lets down her guard and expresses her disapproval of the aristocracy to her new ally. Little does she realize that she is exposing her unconventional opinions to a member of the very class she denigrates. Meanwhile, Ned finds his disguise to be more and more of a burden. He has feelings for Joanna–but his deception puts an insurmountable barrier between them, no matter how liberal his politics may be.
From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife has strong points: both Joanna and Ned are appealing characters, and there is humor in their interactions because of Joanna’s basic misunderstanding about Ned’s class. I appreciate the book’s frank treatment of the abuse of tenants by unscrupulous managers and Joanna’s gradual revelation that her older brother might not have been turned off unjustly is well-handled and poignant.
The secondary character of Davie–a local boy who had been abducted and forced to work in a city factory before escaping and returning home–is refreshing. His keen intelligence and his drive to learn and become upwardly mobile, as well as Ned’s cultivation of the talents of a boy who is far from noble in birth (but definitely so in character), deftly reveals the true nature of Sir Edward Greaves.
At the same time, I found many aspects of the story to be implausible. Even if Mr. Greaves the estate manager is quite different from Sir Edward the aristocrat, the fact that he and Joanna live in the same house without concern for propriety is inconceivable. Moreover, Joanna’s reaction to Ned’s true identity is overblown. She’d already seen his worth and character, and his deception is amply justified by the situation. Why so much outrage, except to give Julia Justiss a reason to send Joanna to visit the Marquess of Englemere and his wife–the main characters of Justiss’s The Wedding Gamble?* It is an unnecessary and unconvincing detour.
In terms of “Hotness,” Justiss’s book suffers from the kind of “insta-chemistry” that seems to be a requirement of the Harlequin Historical line. Even when Ned first encounters Joanna–soaking wet, muddy, and unconscious at his feet–the mere feeling of her breasts as he lifts her up gives him an erection. I really, really don’t buy that. He thinks she’s a doxy, she’s ruining his carpet, and she’s an unwelcome intruder. How is that dream-hauntingly hot for an aristocrat?
Moreover, the book’s one sex scene happens at the worst possible moment–after Joanna is seriously injured (what is it about heroines getting badly hurt that drives them into the hero’s bed–even though such physical exertions must be extremely painful to their battered bodies?) and just before Ned’s true identity is bound to come out. Why consummate the relationship at the moment when his “betrayal” is most likely to injure Joanna? Why not confess the truth before it’s too late–before they tumble into bed? The shoe-horning of the sex scene goes against Ned’s character. Just pages before, he is pondering the fact that now is the time to come clean. But he doesn’t. It makes no sense!
From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife is a mediocre book that had potential to be better. The promise is there, but Justiss manipulates her characters to the point that they become–well, out of character and illogical. Yes, I enjoyed reading it. I appreciated the political context, the class issues, the “upwardly mobile” Davie, and the hero who loves to get his hands dirty, fix up hopeless properties, and better the life of his tenants.
Honestly, From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife would have been better as a Gothic novel than straight historical romance. Then, the mystery, deception, and criminal aspects of the book could have been better woven into the whole, and Ned could have had a compelling antagonist and competitor for Joanna’s affections in the leader of the local uprisings.
But I guess that true Gothics are out of style nowadays. It’s a shame, isn’t it?
* From Waif to Gentleman’s Wife is also tied by character to Justiss’s A Most Unconventional Match, but there is no overarching “continuity title” for the series.