Wednesday, December 26

Fairest of Them All – Josette Browning

Daniel Canty has worked hard to rise himself from the lowly station of second son of a tenant farmer to doctor, barrister and landed squire by the tender age of thirty. When elderly solicitor Larchmore approaches him on behalf of Sebastian Nash, ninth earl of Hawkenge, with a wager – to civilise a young English girl raised by wild dogs in Africa – he is more intrigued than tempted, though twenty thousand pounds is nothing to be sneezed at.
When the girl, a tiny, deer-like, skittish mute thing, dark hair shorn almost off, restrained in chains, is dragged into his library, Daniel is filled with pity for the savage creature and fury at the men who’ve so mishandled her. Though born out of wedlock, and in Africa, Talitha was raised by a proper English lady, her mother, until the age of six. Daniel is sure that she must distantly remember the language, her name, and some elements of behaviour, hidden though this information might be beneath the following six or so years of deprivation and bestial companionship. He accepts the challenge, with certain conditions – he must have until November 1st, 1874, to make her presentable, rather than “her sixteenth birthday”, for a lady’s age is apt to change. And Talitha will not be bound or restrained, but must not run away or she can never come back to his estate.
Talitha can tell from the first that he is the pack leader, for all that he is neither the oldest, nor the tallest, but unquestionably the most beautiful, and he leads with sure and clear command. He banishes the cruel ones with angry disdain, and his command to her – “Talitha, come” – brings back memories from before the pack. As is her right, he will be her mate.
I was braced to be irritated by this historical romance, given to me by Lynn following a clear out, but despite myself was captured by the strong characters, startlingly original plot, sensitive handling and wheels within wheels. I grant you, Canty managing to earn two professional qualifications, with no visible means of support, in less than a dozen years, does strain at credulity, but if we can accept that and move on the rest of the novel is quite digestible.
The number of palatable subplots, including the story of Canty’s mistress, the unhappily married lady Jane, the numerous men who want to discredit and incarcerate Talitha, and how she came to be abandoned in the first place, are artfully woven throughout the main text. We get both Daniel and Talitha’s perspectives, and Browning manages to cleverly convey a lot of information to the reader through the innocent lass who doesn’t understand the subtleties of some of what she sees and hears. The obstacles are plausible, and the resolution, though a little neat, was satisfying. Damn you, Lynn – now I’ll have to track down and try another novel by this author! – Alex

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