Is it a crime to steal a heart?
Hounslow, 1768. Jack Blythe, heir to the Earl of Lampton, is a man with great expectations.
So when his stagecoach is held up by a masked woman, brandishing a pistol and dressed as a gentleman of the road, he wholly expects to have his purse stolen. And when he senses something strangely familiar about the lovely little bandit, Jack also expects to win his cousin Rupert s wager by tracking her down first.
But as Jack and the highwaywoman enter into a swashbuckling game of cat and mouse, uncovering an intricate web of fiercely guarded family secrets, the last thing Jack expects to have stolen is his heart.
By the looks of it, The Highwayman’s Daughter has all the ingredients one would need to make an exciting romantic romp – a resourceful highwaywoman heroine, a handsome, noble hero, a dastardly villain and a well-drawn cast of supporting characters to contribute colour to the story. But somehow, the novel taken as a whole turns out to be somewhat less than its constituent parts, and never really delivers in terms of either excitement or romance.
Cora Mardell lives with her father, Ned, a former gentleman of the road himself. Ned is ill, and the only way Cora can find the money to purchase the medicine he needs is to take to her father’s old profession and rob the rich travellers who pass through Hounslow Heath. One night, she gets a little more than she bargained for when she holds up the carriage containing Jack Blythe, Viscount Halliford and his wastrel cousin, Rupert. She gets away with the robbery, but only just, and leaves behind two very disgruntled men who are determined to hunt down their attacker, whom they have both realised is a woman and not a boy.
Jack and his cousin are on the way to his father’s home at Lampton. While Jack is the earl’s son and heir, the earl shows a decided preference for Rupert who, along with the latter’s sister, was left orphaned in childhood and is under the earl’s guardianship. Rupert idles most of his life away in London engaging in the dissolute pursuits favoured by the young men of the time, and Jack, who is becoming increasingly worried that Rupert’s debts will eventually bankrupt the estate, stays in town to keep an eye on him and tries to curb his worst excesses.
After the robbery, they make a wager as to who will find their mysterious highwaywoman and bring her to justice first.
It doesn’t take long for Jack to find her, and before she escapes him, he is struck once again by her unusual eyes, which he is now sure he’s seen somewhere before. His investigations lead him to suppose that Cora is in fact the illegitimate child of a relative of his, and he decides that it is only right that she be restored to her rightful station. It’s arrogant of him, of course, and he later comes to see the error of his ways in trying to force Cora into an unwelcome and unfamiliar situation.
While Jack and Cora are playing their game of cat-and-mouse, Rupert is making plans of his own. He has long been resentful of Jack’s position as Lampton’s heir, and that resentment is now boiling over into a full-blown hatred.
Add in the twenty-year old mystery surrounding the death of a well-born lady and her child, Rupert’s search for Cora among the dregs of society and his spiteful allegations as to Cora’s parentage, the strained relationship between Jack’s parents… and the story started to get bogged down in too much plot.
That being the case, the author does tie all the strands together at the end in a satisfactory – if somewhat confusing – manner. But the multiple plot strands have a negative impact on the pacing, which is uneven, and the romance, which isn’t very well developed. Jack and Cora are physically attracted to each other from the outset, but because Cora seems to be forever running away from Jack, they spend quite a lot of time apart and we never get to see them actually getting to know each other and falling in love. The characterisation of the leads is lacklustre, and the action is frequently slowed down by large chunks of internal dialogue or descriptions.
Ms Gyland’s writing style is enjoyable and easy to read without being overly simplistic, her research into the period and the area in which she has set the story is evident (sadly, that area of west London is now pretty much buried under Heathrow Airport), and she makes good use of historical detail and background.
Overall, The Highwayman’s Daughter is a decent read, but the problems I experienced with the pacing, the overly complex plot and under-developed romance prevent me from rating it more highly.