Dearly Beloved by Mary Jo Putney

Dearly Beloved Cover

Regency historical romance with a classic redemption plot, first published 1990, reissued 2004 and 2019

Dearly Beloved by Mary Jo Putney

Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: June 25, 2019
Publisher: Zebra
Pages: 304 pages
Source: NetGalley
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

The prologue of this Regency romance novel occurs in a small, country inn located in Scotland. A wild-eyed, pistol-wielding cleric, named Hamilton, catches intoxicated, 23-year-old Gervase Brandelin, who is sole heir to a fabulously wealthy British viscount, in the midst of compromising the cleric’s 15-year-old daughter, Mary Hamilton. When Hamilton melodramatically discovers Gervase in Mary’s room, which Gervase has drunkenly mistaken for his own room and Mary for a lusty barmaid with whom he has made an assignation, Mr. Hamilton rouses the entire inn with his bellowed accusation that Gervase has seduced his daughter. It is not only the man’s pistol, but the code of honor Gervase has been raised in that prompts him to surrender to the cleric’s demand that Gervase marry his daughter: “A clergyman was by definition a gentleman, and the nubile daughters of the upper classes were sacrosanct.” The cleric marries them on the spot since marriage could be instantly achieved in Scotland at that time, unlike in England. Because Gervase is both mentally impaired due to being drunk and filled with righteous fury at what he decides is a heinous extortion plot of Mr. Hamilton that he believes Mary has colluded in, as well as the fact that her own father calls her a “slut,” Gervase viciously accuses her of being a whore. He then proceeds to, as a self-admitted revenge on Mary, “claim a husband’s rights.” When he realizes in the process that she is a virgin, guilt and self-disgust sober up Gervase fast, and he mentally defines the angry consummation of his marriage as rape, though he does not admit that out loud to the sobbing Mary. Gervase also links in his mind the rape of his wife to another, unnamed traumatic event in his life that occurred in 10 years ago, which he also clearly blames himself for, even though he was a child of 13 at the time. He considers both events unforgivable transgressions on his part, making him beyond redemption. In a state of rage and betrayal, toward himself as much as his unwanted wife, Gervase tells Mary to contact his lawyer, whom Gervase says he will order to support her amply the rest of her life. However, Gervase proclaims, he never wants to see her again. Since he has already taken a commission to serve in the British army, Gervase immediately abandons his presumably despicable, and possibly simple-minded, young wife and sails to India to join his regiment.

The main story begins around seven years later. We are introduced to the heroine of this novel, 23-year-old Diana Lindsay. She is living as a “Mrs.” in a small village in a remote corner of Yorkshire, at her commodious home, High Tor Cottage, near the village of Cleveden, but no mention is made as to whether her husband is dead or alive–or if she has never been married at all and is faking the “Mrs.” because she has a child. A pivotal and compelling female relationship is established when Diana rescues a beautiful woman named Madeline Gainford from a blinding blizzard. Though Madeline is only in her early 30’s, she has come home to Cleveden, the village of her birth, to die from an “alien growth” in the form of a lump in one of her breasts which she assumes is terminal cancer. Her sister, who lives in Cleveden, has refused to take her in, and Madeline has nowhere else to go to die with dignity. But even so, Madeline confesses to Diana, with great bravery and honesty, that she has been a renowned courtesan in London for many years, so that Diana can deny Madeline hospitality if that sordid fact repels her. Madeline is therefore extremely grateful when Diana, clearly understanding the threat to her own reputation of taking in a prostitute, willingly offers friendship and shelter to Maddy anyway. She mentions as her example Jesus’ acceptance of Mary Magdalene and further states, “We are all outcasts here,” referring to herself, her five-year-old, epileptic son, Geoffrey, and her friend and maidservant, Edith, a middle-aged, plainspoken and loyal countrywoman.

Diana and Maddy soon become close friends, and due to Diana’s assiduous care and affection, Maddy completely recovers her health. Over time, Maddy confides in Diana all the colorful details of Maddy’s life as a courtesan. At first Diana is somewhat shocked, then later grows accepting, and finally, intrigued. To the point that, in spite of living a quiet, safe and prosperous life, which is in her son’s best interest, Diana makes a huge decision to drastically alter her circumstances, follow in Maddy’s footsteps and become a courtesan herself. This massive turnaround is due to the promptings of her very strong intuition. She states to Maddy, “I am all emotion and instinct, and they are what rule my life.” She explains that she does not know why there are some things she *must* do any more than she knows why the wind blows. For that reason, she is compelled to follow the promptings of her intuition which insists that “her only hope for a complete, happy life” is to be found “in London, pursing the life of a fallen woman.” Maddy informs Diana that she certainly has the stunning beauty, sweet nature and high intelligence to qualify her for a massively successful career as a highly paid, top-level courtesan. And though Diana is currently almost 24, a bit old to launch a courtesan career, fortunately she only looks about 17. Diana learns from Maddy that a big benefit of being a courtesan is that she will not solely be valued for her beauty. Unlike the poorly educated matrons of the aristocracy, whose husbands treat them as if they are mindless fools, aristocratic men actually talk politics with their courtesan mistresses, and Diana will be encouraged to educate herself and use her mind to the fullest.

Diana is attracted to that part of the courtesan lifestyle, but she also fully understands the massive social stigma attached to becoming a prostitute, even if a sophisticated, elegant, and very highly compensated one. Her son Geoffrey will be an outcast even more than he already is due to being epileptic if his mother becomes a woman of easy virtue. Diana’s intuition blares far louder, however, than pragmatic logic, and she doggedly persists in pursuing her eccentric goal. Over the course of six months, Maddy carefully and completely trains Diana in everything she needs to know to be a successful courtesan, including self defense with a knife.

A year after Diana and Maddy meet, they arrive in London to launch Diana as a courtesan. They live, along with Geoffrey and Edith, in a beautiful mansion gifted to Maddy by her most recent lover, whom she abandoned when she assumed she was going to die, and Diana enrolls Geoffrey in a private day school.

It is eight years after the events in the prologue and Gervase is now 31. He returned to England two years ago when he inherited the title of viscount upon his father’s death. In India, he tried to “expiate his sins” by fulfilling his duty to his country with diligent, honorable service, first in the military and then as a spymaster for the British government. He has avoided thinking about his disastrous, legally binding marriage, but the cause of it has strongly affected his behavior. He has avoided ever again losing control over himself by refusing to drink to excess and closing himself off from all strong emotion, other than physical passion with a long-time, complacent mistress in India. He does periodically check in with his lawyer, and has learned through him that his wife is currently alive and well. The mysterious, traumatic event which occurred when he was 13 years old continues to prey on his mind, though no details about it are yet given as to what it was.

At a party held at the home of a famous courtesan whom Maddy knows, Diana encounters Gervase. She recognizes him immediately, but the reader does not learn through her thoughts how or why (though there have been enough strong hints so far, that the author clearly assumes readers will figure out how she knows Gervase). Gervase does not recognize her. He only sees a gorgeous, charismatic woman, and the attraction between them is immediate and intense. Gervase impetuously asks her to become his mistress, even though he had not been in the market for a mistress before encountering her, but Diana refuses to instantly agree, even though she informs Maddy that the same intuition that led her to London to become a courtesan is now announcing that Gervase is her “fate.” She is determined that Gervase must court her before she gives in to him, and if they form a relationship, he must be an attentive, respectful and considerate lover.

Readers who enjoy strong friendships between women in novels will greatly enjoy the warm and wonderful, BFF connection between Diana and Maddy. Maddy is a fascinating character, and there is an enjoyable secondary romance between Maddy and her former lover. The relationship between Diana and her adorable son is also very well done. The approach to dealing with his seizures in the Regency era is fascinating and historically accurate.

There is a spy-vs-spy subplot with an evil villain who is a French spy. It feeds into and supports the trajectory of the main romance plot seamlessly, and the way that this subplot is resolved by Diana’s well-foreshadowed, extremely brave actions is quite well done.

Diana’s choice of a career as a courtesan is very much out of keeping with expected behavior for a lady of her station who is not in desperate financial straits and, as such, is an unusual plot choice for a Regency romance that some readers may find a refreshing change within this genre. In addition, the intuition that prompts Diana’s extraordinary choice provides a slight paranormal twist to the story that is a unique motivator for her actions.

Regarding the central plot, the romance itself, this novel was written early in Ms. Putney’s career, in 1990, and reflects a classic type of historical romance of that era, a “redemption plot” in which there is a “dark and dangerous” (D&D) hero with a traumatic childhood. Such novels, to be successful, must have a powerful and believable growth arc for the hero, which is only possible through earning forgiveness from the one(s) he has wronged and, most importantly, forgiveness from himself. Though this novel is not, per se, Christian fiction, it contains frequent mentions of God, and certainly, a major focus of Christianity is the concept of forgiveness and redemption through repentance and reparation. However, these principled ideals are not limited to Christianity and exist as universal, ethical themes among honorable people everywhere. As such, they are a crucial factor in the way that all historical-romance redemption plots play out, including this one.

It is, of course, quite anachronistic for Gervase to instantly recognize and admit to himself after raping his wife that nonconsensual, forced consummation of his marriage is rape. Rape is not mentioned in the 10 Commandments, and I find it hard to imagine that a man like Gervase, at that point in history, would have defined the nonconsensual consummation of marriage as rape, because there was no such thing as married rape. The marital rape exemption was not abolished in England and Wales until 1991, and it was not until 1993 that marital rape became a crime in all 50 states in the USA. However, the genre of historical romance has been, since its inception in the early 1970’s, filled with anachronistic, modern sensibilities in the attitudes of its heroes and heroines, and true fans of the genre, therefore, have never considered this to interfere with a “willing suspension of disbelief” which allows them to fully enjoy the relationship between the romantic protagonists. For that reason, I have no quarrel with Gervase having a very modern conscience. In fact, for a plot like this to work, that type of conscience is essential to the first step of redemption, admission of guilt.

Another issue with a romance-novel, redemption plot, in general, is that romance readers tend to either love it or hate it. They are rarely lukewarm toward redemption. This is because, in order to create a redemption plot, the hero (or in much rarer cases, the heroine) has to commit a major sin to admit, repent, and make restitution for. One is not redeemed from a peccadillo. It must be a huge, moral infraction. Unfortunately for the success of a particular redemption romance, some romance readers consider two major sins of heroes to be unforgivable: striking the heroine or raping her. Many of these same readers also cannot accept as sympathetic, believable or admirable a heroine who, over the course of a redemption novel, forgives the hero for his “unforgivable” sin of either striking or raping her. Such readers will therefore probably not enjoy or approve of this book and may grade it down in their reviews for being the very thing it is. On the other hand, readers who approve of redemption plots, especially if the author writes a particular redemption plot convincingly and with great artistry, as does the very talented Ms. Putney with this story, will very likely greatly enjoy this book. My approach to this review is to rate this novel based on the principle that redemption plots are a viable and acceptable trope in the historical romance genre, and I am grading this book’s success based on how well the author has created this specific redemption romance.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 5

Hero: 4

Subcharacters: 5

Redemption Romance Plot: 4

Spy Plot: 4

Writing: 5

Overall: 4.5 rounded to 5 stars

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