Miss Jane Fairfield can’t do anything right. When she’s in company, she always says the wrong thing—and rather too much of it. No matter how costly they are, her gowns fall on the unfortunate side of fashion. Even her immense dowry can’t save her from being an object of derision.
And that’s precisely what she wants. She’ll do anything, even risk humiliation, if it means she can stay unmarried and keep her sister safe.
Mr. Oliver Marshall has to do everything right. He’s the bastard son of a duke, raised in humble circumstances—and he intends to give voice and power to the common people. If he makes one false step, he’ll never get the chance to accomplish anything. He doesn’t need to come to the rescue of the wrong woman. He certainly doesn’t need to fall in love with her. But there’s something about the lovely, courageous Jane that he can’t resist…even though it could mean the ruin of them both.(
Ms Milan’s novella The Governess Affair, which is the prequel to this series, was one of my favourite books from late 2012, and I’ve listed Hugo and Serena from that story as one of my favourite couples on my reviewer profile here at AAR. Oliver Marshall, the hero of The Heiress Effect is their son, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his story since I read the prequel in December.
And yes. It was well worth the wait.
Oliver bears many similarities to Hugo who, although not his biological father, is his father in every way that matters. Like Hugo, he is ambitious, fiercely intelligent, tenacious, and not above getting his hands dirty when something unpleasant needs to be done. He aspires to a political career and is slowly and carefully making a name for himself in the right circles, even though he is well aware that he doesn’t quite fit in with those he would join in Parliament.
Right at the end of The Governess Affair, we got a glimpse of the young Oliver at Eton being taunted and bullied by the boys there who considered themselves his betters, and then being befriended by Robert, heir to the Duke of Clermont (who was also Oliver’s biological father). That Clermont is now long dead, but Robert regards Oliver as his brother and has publicly acknowledged him as such. But even the acknowledgement of a duke cannot redeem Oliver in the eyes of some members of society; and he has to navigate carefully between two different worlds, the working class one of his parents and the higher echelons of society that contain the men of power and influence he needs to impress if he is to achieve his ambitions. As he has grown older, Oliver has realized that the best way to get what he wants is to stop standing up and standing out; and he has instead cultivated an appearance of calm acceptance and good sense, even though it sticks in his craw to have to kowtow to some of these men. But by doing so, he believes he can use the people who would use him, and has had some degree of success with those tactics.
But there is an “angry young man” bubbling beneath the calm exterior. Oliver is a passionate advocate for voting reform, and has his eyes firmly trained on his goal – until, that is, those eyes land on Miss Jane Fairchild for the first time.
Jane is already a laughing-stock among polite Cambridge society because of her terrible dress sense and her unerring ability to insult anyone and everyone. But there are one hundred thousand very good reasons she is tolerated – and she is well aware of it, even calling it The Heiress Effect. It suits her to appear stupid and to put up with the cruel comments and insults she knows are directed at her behind her back (and sometimes to her face) because, like Oliver, Jane Has. A. Plan.
Jane needs to remain unmarried for the next eighteen months, until her half-sister, Emily, reaches her majority. Emily suffers from some form of epilepsy (I’m guessing), although in general her seizures are mild. But the girls’ uncle, (and Emily’s guardian) Titus Fairfield, believes her to be an invalid, keeps her confined to the house, and persists in finding doctors and quacks who insist they can cure her, while subjecting her to the most horrendous treatments. He is desperate to get Jane married off and out of his house and Jane is equally as determined not to leave Emily to be poked, prodded and God knows what else while she remains under his roof.
Having never had a mother’s care, Jane grew up with nobody to guide her as to correct deportment and behavior or help develop her taste in clothes. As a result, she has always been different and an object of derision – so it was a simple matter for her to build on her lack of taste and manner in order to scare off potential husbands.
The first time she meets Oliver Marshall, she assumes he’s like all the other men she’s met – interested in her fortune – and immediately sets out to insult him. Naturally, he is taken aback – but being a gentleman, he behaves beautifully and doesn’t rise to any of her slights, all the time wondering why on earth she dresses so garishly and makes herself such an easy target. Reluctantly, he is intrigued and sympathetic, recognizing in Jane someone like himself, someone who doesn’t quite fit in. The more he sees of her, the more curious he is as to why nobody ever gives her a taste of her own medicine and the more appalled he becomes – not at her behavior, but at the fact that she seems to be oblivious to what people are saying about her.
Having been, while at Eton, on the receiving end of many insults – both verbal and physical – Oliver is determined not to join in with the general badmouthing of Miss Fairfield’s dress sense and manners; but the moment when he snaps is really rather lovely. She has deliberately referred to him as “Mr Cromwell” throughout the evening, and when she offers to send him the recipe for a cure for lumbago, he tells her to send it to him at his London address:
”Oliver Cromwell, care of the Tower, London, England.”
It’s at this point that Jane realizes that the quiet, unassuming Mr Marshall is very likely not at all what he seems. His demeanor has led her to believe:
”…that he was a quiet little rabbit. He wasn’t. He was the wolf that looked as if he were lounging about on the outskirts of the pack, a lone hanger-on, when in truth he had adopted that position simply so that he could see everything that transpires in the fields below. He wasn’t solitary; he was waiting for someone to make a mistake.”
I really liked the ‘wolf’ analogy, which I thought was a nice nod to Hugo’s having been known as “The Wolf of Clermont”.
Throughout the course of several meetings, Oliver and Jane strike up a deep and genuine friendship, which I thought was one of the highlights of the book. They truly are kindred spirits; in each other they have found someone with whom they can be themselves, and the scenes between them at this point are funny, tender and brimming with romantic tension. Oliver speaks with heartfelt intensity about what he wants to achieve in politics and about his motivations and his desire to make a difference – but more importantly tells Jane that he has figured her out, and that he knows what it is like not to be ‘one of the crowd.’ The scene where he tells her she is not alone is simply beautiful. In return, Jane opens up to him, telling him about her sister and her need to protect her until she comes of age. She thinks he’s lovely – and tells him so! – but what Jane doesn’t know is that Oliver has been approached by the Marquess of Bradenton, a very influential man in the political circles Oliver moves in, because the Marquess wants Jane brought down a peg or two (or several) in public. Bradenton has borne the brunt of Miss Fairfield’s misplaced wit one time too many, and wants her silenced; in return for this, he offers Oliver his support, and that of his cronies, for the voting reform bill.
Oliver is hugely torn. On the one hand, Jane is like him – an outsider, someone who has known derision and cruelty and he is reluctant to inflict more. On the other – Bradenton’s support would mean the enfranchisement of thousands and he tries to set one woman’s humiliation against the betterment of many. In a lovely scene, Oliver seeks his father’s advice; which is basically, “you already know the right thing to do”.
Which he certainly does.
There is quite a lot going on in this novel, but everything is woven together so skilfully that it flows naturally and none of the different elements is left unaddressed or unfinished. We meet Oliver’s youngest sister, Free (whose story will be told in a future book in the series) who is an advocate of universal suffrage and who wants to study at Cambridge; and we are reacquainted with Oliver’s aunt Freddy (Serena’s agoraphobic sister), who is as ascerbic and strangely insightful as she ever was, and his rakish cousin, Sebastian Malheur, whose appearance in the final section of the novel has well and truly whetted my appetite for his story , which I believe will be the next in the series. There is also a secondary romance in the book, at which I admit I balked a bit, because I’m not normally keen on having attention taken away from the primary couple – but I needn’t have worried. The relationship between Jane’s sister Emily and the young Indian barrister Mr Battacharya is established simply and realistically, and the scenes which take place during their stolen afternoons together are sweet and full of the shyness of first attraction.
As one would expect from Ms Milan, the historical detail is well researched and the central romance is beautifully written. Oliver and Jane are immediately engaging and very real; alike yet unalike they draw strength from each other even as they face up to the reality that they cannot be together. I think it’s important to say that the reasons for that are not external; they are not the result of a Big Misunderstanding, or an evil, interfering relative, but rather due to Oliver’s belief that Jane is not the sort of woman he needs at his side. She’s brash and wears garish colours and she doesn’t care what people say, but she’s comfortable with who she is, even as she knows she will never be the kind of submissive, “don’t notice me” kind of political wife that Oliver wants.
Even though it’s immediately apparent to the reader that Oliver is utterly and completely wrong in that particular assumption, I found it impossible to think any less of him because of it. His willingness to sacrifice his personal happiness for something bigger and his struggles between his desires and his conscience don’t diminish him in any way. It might not make him the perfect romantic hero, but it certainly makes him an interesting human being.
(He’s also auburn-haired and bespectacled. I think I may be in love.)
The ending was really lovely, with a poignant and unexpected twist that finally brings Oliver to the realization that, in his own way, he’s been just afraid of going “outside” as his aunt Freddy ever was. But unlike her, the walls which have constrained him have been of his own making; and while he has certainly accomplished more by biding his time and being quiet than he did by lashing out, he discovers that he doesn’t much care for the person he has become, the man who has “made a career of quiet.” He wants to step into the sun and live his life in noisy, messy color –and there is only one woman who can help him to accomplish that.
The Heiress Effect is intelligently written and full of warmth, sensuality and humour, a real treat for anyone looking for a well-written story with memorable characters. I wouldn’t say it’s absolutely necessary to have read the preceding books in the series to enjoy this one, but if you haven’t read The Governess Affair or The Duchess War, you’ve missed out on a couple of superb reads!