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When Juliana Milford first encounters Captain Harry Fanton, she finds him arrogant and rude. There’s no way she’ll fall for his dazzling smile! Her visit to Chadcombe House was always going to prompt questions over her scandalous family, so she’s touched when Harry defends her reputation. She’s discovering there’s more to Harry than she’d first thought…
A man so plagued by the demons of war, he’s sworn he’ll never marry, no matter how tempted…
The Captain’s Disgraced Lady is Catherine Tinley’s second novel, and tells the story of a young woman whose family history has always been shrouded in mystery and an army officer who is so haunted by the things he has seen and done that he believes himself defiled. It’s not an especially original plotline, but it’s generally handled well – until Ms. Tinley decides to introduce a number of extraneous plot points that clutter up her canvas to the extent that everything starts to feel overly contrived and which, ultimately, led to an overall feeling of dissatisfaction on the part of this reader.
The book opens as Miss Juliana Milford and her mother, who normally reside in Brussels, have returned to England for a short time in order to visit Juliana’s dear friend, Charlotte Wyncroft, who has recently married the Earl of Shalford (Waltzing with the Earl). Mrs. Milford has been greatly unsettled by the channel crossing and seems to Juliana to be unnerved by simply being back in England, but Juliana is used to her mother’s somewhat uncertain health and mental state, having run their household since she was twelve. The ladies are settling into a private parlour at the nearest inn when they are interrupted by two military gentlemen, one of whom – who introduces himself as Captain Harry Fanton – assumes they will happy to share the parlour with them. Infuriated by the captain’s arrogance – and concerned for her mother’s health – Juliana tells him what she thinks of him in no uncertain terms and sends him away with a flea in his ear.
Subsequent encounters with the terribly handsome but extremely annoying Captain Fanton only serve to reinforce Juliana’s opinion of him as conceited and rude – although she has to begrudgingly admit that she is grateful for his solicitousness towards her mother and eventually to acknowledge that perhaps she allowed her temper to get the better of her. But as she is unlikely ever to see the captain again, Juliana doesn’t dwell on it – even though she finds it difficult to banish his handsome features from her mind.
A few days later sees the Milford ladies settled at Chadcombe House, the Earl of Salford’s estate, and Juliana happily catching up with all her friend’s news and reminiscing about their time at school in Brussels. I’m not sure how Juliana fails to connect the name Fanton with Charlotte’s new husband, but in any case, Harry is the last person Juliana expects to see at Chadcombe, and she is astonished when Charlotte greets him and introduces him as her brother-in-law.
Juliana and Charlotte also make the acquaintance of their nearest neighbours, the social climbing Mr. and Mrs. Wakely who have recently taken up residence at Glenbrook Hall. It seems there is a dispute as to the Hall’s ownership and the Wakelys have been allowed to live there while the executors of the estate of the late Baron Cowlam (a relative of Mrs. Wakelys) establish her claim.
During their stay at Chadcombe, Juliana and Harry are thrown into each other’s company on several occasions and find themselves gradually warming to each other, enjoying their spirited discussions and verbal sparring matches. Harry, who has determined never to fall in love, finds it increasingly difficult to ignore the truth of his feelings for Juliana, but he can’t bear the thought of tying her to a man as broken as he is. When the spiteful Wakelys make public some information they have learned concerning Juliana’s parentage – which, Juliana realises, must account for her mother’s nervousness at being back in England – Harry is forced to face the truth; he’s fallen irrevocably in love with a woman he can never marry.
With Juliana’s reputation now severely blemished, she and her mother arrange to return to Brussels, no matter that it seems as though England and France will very soon be at war once more. Harry rejoins his regiment and finds himself in the thick of the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo…
As soon as I’d finished reading, I realised that the main thing I’d taken away from The Captain’s Disgraced Lady was that there was rather too much going on, which gave the impression that the author wasn’t quite sure what story she wanted to tell. Is it an opposites-attract romance? Is it the story of a young woman searching for the truth of her birthright? Is it the story of a couple separated by war? It’s all of those things, but the narrative feels episodic – shifting from one plot point to the next – rather than cohesive with the various threads woven together throughout. The final section – which sees Juliana returned to Brussels and Harry to the army – is the most gripping; before that I was only mildly interested in the romance because Juliana’s instant dislike of Harry has such a ridiculously flimsy basis and is so obviously a contrivance to kick-start an antagonistic relationship. And the clues as to the identity of the missing heir and Juliana’s identity are so clearly telegraphed early on that there is no surprise when the reveal is finally made. On top of all that, we are informed – around a third of the way though – that Harry believes himself to be some sort of monster; and later that he’s too flawed and broken to deserve someone so innocent and pure as Juliana and the only thing to be done is to protect her by breaking with her without explanation. The whole “I am not worthy, so must cut you from my life completely” plotline is one I dislike intensely, so that aspect of the story didn’t work for me at all; plus, Harry’s self-loathing and inner torment never really feel integral to the story (and vanish quickly), and instead come across as yet another contrived road-block on the path to happy ever after.
With all that said, there are things to enjoy in The Captain’s Disgraced Lady. Harry is an attractive, if somewhat stereotypical hero, and while I didn’t like Juliana that much to start with, she grew on me, proved to be possessed of good sense and courage, and by the last part of the book I was rooting for her to succeed and to find her HEA with Harry. The writing is solid, and the middle section of the story – in which Harry and Juliana begin to lower their defences and allow each other to see their true selves – is nicely done, with, as I said earlier, the final part being the most compelling. Unfortunately, however, those things are overshadowed by the overabundance of plotlines which make the book feel overstuffed; and I can’t help thinking that perhaps a firmer editorial hand could have helped thin them out and develop the rest into a more cohesive story.