My Lady’s Honor, by Julia Justiss, is a 2002 Historical Romance from Harlequin. My copy was originally printed in England, so titled My Lady’s Honour and sold by Mills and Boon. I wrote about the book’s history in The Well-traveled Book. I can’t decide if this story is charming or annoying.
Gwennor’s father has died, and the estate has passed to her cousin Nigel. Nigel schemes to promptly marry Gwennor to an elderly man with five rowdy sons, in order to pay a debt and eliminate his costs of supporting her or finding her a more suitable husband. Gwennor’s mother died at her birth, her stepmother died when she was in her teens, and she has long cared for her stepmother’s son, an intellectually disabled young man, Parry. Parry is childlike, and prone to wandering the fields, but good at caring for horses and other animals. Gwennor would accept an unhappy marriage as her lot in life, so long as she can continue to care for Parry, but Nigel plans to separate them, and lock Parry away.
With the groom arriving the next day, Gwennor plans an escape to a distant aunt. To avoid pursuit, she arranges to travel with a company of gypsies, conveniently staying on the estate but leaving that night. Disguised as one of them, she quickly learns the work of picking up cash reading the fortunes and otherwise entertaining the locals, as well as the occasional group of gentlemen seeking diversion. The visitors may ogle the women dressed in clothes more revealing than a lady would wear, but there is a strict hands-off policy.
Gilen de Mowbry reluctantly joins his friends for a visit to the gypsies, and is entranced by a veiled woman who seems more refined than the others, and responds to his literary double entendres in kind. He requests his palm read, taking every advantage of the close contact, then requests a dance, and risks a kiss, which is reciprocated. As I have said before, there’s something about kissing a stranger, and being disguised only makes it better. The gypsy leader intervenes at the forbidden contact, and sends the guests away. Gilen wishes to learn more about the mystery woman, and returns to the camp the next day, but the gypsies have moved on.
A few weeks later, Gwennor is happily receiving court from two suitors, one elderly, and one young, and both pleasant enough. The younger man has been unwisely impulsive in his affections before, and his friend, Gilen, comes to town to meet the lady. Gilen and Gwennor soon recognize each other from their encounter at the gypsy camp, and the dance begins.
This is what I call the French Lieutenant’s Woman plot – man is attracted to fallen woman, who he can have sex with but cannot love or marry, only to discover she is a virgin, and therefore was suitable for love and marriage until he ruined her. Perhaps it reflects the times, but I still find the whole concept unpleasant. And Gilen is particularly repulsive in his treatment of Gwennor. No matter how many times he tells himself that his behavior is only acceptable because she is a fallen woman and deceitful, he still comes off as crude, arrogant, and short-sighted. His awareness of his rudeness just makes it worse. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but my idea of a hero is a man who treats all women with respect, not just those he deems worthy of it.
That’s the annoying aspect of the book, but there are many charms. Gwennor is a wonderful character. Practical, resourceful, smart, and willing to take pleasure in a one-night-stand if that’s the best arrangement that can be obtained. Gilen’s insults set up situations where she can slap him, kick him out of a carriage and abandon him on a country road, and go after him with a whip. There are entertaining twists and turns in the plot, and they are narratively justified. Scenes like the whip attack build erotic tension, and there is fun dialogue, such as when she honestly identifies the man who took advantage of her:
“Are you ever going to tell me the truth about how you ended up with the gypsies?”
“I’d rather not talk about it. Besides, what difference could it possibly make now? You formed your opinion of me long ago.”
“Perhaps, but I’d like to know which of my theories is correct. . . . your ravisher let you slip away. Should I shoot the careless bastard for you?”
“That would be suicide.”
Gilen is eventually punished for his boorishness, but I’m not sure it’s enough. It’s also worth noting that the ‘bloody sheet as proof of virginity’ cliché is mercifully absent here.
It’s a fun story, well told, with a tone that suggests it is not taking itself too seriously. The presumed fallen woman plot is annoying, but that attitude existed, and sadly still exists, so that’s an element of realism, unpleasant as it may be. Gilen is not much of a hero, at least for me, but Gwennor is a great heroine. For a similarly well written story where the hero and heroine are both great, see my review of Justiss’s later and better A Most Unconventional Match.