The Marquis of Amberley is rich, assured and thirty-four years old, with the reputation of being a law unto himself and a degree of charm which even his friends consider disastrous. When his coach is waylaid by highwaymen and his coachman shot, he is forced to take shelter at the first house he finds and is subsequently trapped there for a week by a severe snow storm. Oakleigh Manor is the home of beautiful, twenty-two year-old Rosalind Vernon who lives alone but for her devoted servants and an ill-natured parrot, cut off from the outside world by the tragic result of a childhood accident. But Rosalind is brave and bright and totally devoid of self-pity – and it is these qualities which, as the days pass and the snow continues to fall, cause Amberley to fall in love. On his return to London, the Marquis persuades Rosalind’s brother, Philip, to bring her to town for a taste of society – a move which, despite her handicap, Rosalind handles brilliantly. But the course of Amberley’s courtship is far from smooth for, due to a misapprehension, Philip Vernon actively dislikes him and Rosalind appears to be falling under the spell of the suavely elegant Duke of Rockliffe. Worse still, Amberley is haunted by a dark and terrible secret that, if revealed, may cause him to lose Rosalind forever.
I’m a big fan of Stella Riley’s civil war/restoration books, but have never read any of the other titles she published under the pseudonyms of Judith Blyth and Anna Marsh, so I was delighted to see from her bio on Amazon that she is revising all of her books for Kindle.
The Parfit Knight was published in 1987 (by Judith Blyth) and it’s utterly delightful. I imagine that some may describe it as formulaic, as it does indeed employ some of the devices regularly used in romance – past tragedy, secrets, misunderstandings –but those are all handled with such a light, sure touch, that this reader certainly didn’t feel as though I was treading any previously well-trodden paths.
I enjoy Riley’s writing style very much. Her descriptions of people and places are always evocative without being over-long, and her dialogue sparkles and is never anachronistic. But what really stands out for me is her characterisation. The few novels of hers I’ve read employ a larger “cast” than many traditional romances, but she handles all her characters extremely well, and you are never left feeling that anyone is surplus to requirements, or has been employed simply to further the demands of the plot. She also has a talent for creating the most wonderful heroes – witty, charming, intelligent, intuitive and honourable, all underneath a worldly-wise and laconic exterior; I was head-over-heels for Amberley within pages of meeting him!
The relationship between Amberley and Rosalind is wonderfully drawn, a true meeting of minds. Most importantly, he is able to immediately understand that what she needs is to be treated like a “normal” person, rather than pitied for her situation.
The moment when Amberley realises he has fallen deeply in love is beautifully written; it hits him like a coup de foudre, and Riley’s writing at that moment is so skilful as to make the reader feel it, too. Their parting, shortly afterwards is so emotionally charged as to be gut-wrenching. I freely admit to having a lump in my throat at that point!
Naturally, the course of true love cannot run smooth, and there are a number of obstacles to be overcome before the HEA, not least of which is the fact that Rosalind’s brother is set against Amberley due to a number of misconceptions. There is a secondary romance in the book – involving Rosalind’s brother, Philip – and a number of well-drawn supporting characters, including Amberley’s friends, Jack Ingram and the Duke of Rockliffe. As in The Marigold Chain, Riley writes these friendships incredibly well; these are men who would do anything for one another, although they are always making jokes at each others’ expense and speaking slightingly of each other.
The Parfit Knight is a beautifully written and characterised romance and I can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m now waiting eagerly for the next reissue, which, according to the notes in this edition, will be “The Mésalliance”, which continues Rockliffe’s story.