This is a Christian historical romance, set in 1813. Rees Phillips is working in London for the Home Office. He’s posing as Lady Wexham’s butler under a pseudonym, trying to discover if she is a spy for Napoleon. Lady Wexham is a young widow of a much older husband, who she married at her mother’s behest. She is a French émigré and she is, in fact, spying for Napoleon. Her reason for supporting him is partly that she sees Napoleon as a better leader for France’s future than the alternative of restoring the royal family and partly because her life feels quite empty.
Lady Wexham and Rees have a mutual attraction very early on. Lady Wexham’s maid, Valentine, is suspicious of Rees and tells her employer. Both Lady Wexham and Rees are hoping against hope that the other isn’t a spy, but as time goes on each becomes convinced that their fears are true.
‘Why was there this yearning in her heart for something genuine and honest from him?’
From Lady Wexham’s point of view, although she doesn’t view Rees in the same way as she views her other servants, because she knows he isn’t one, she has quite an egalitarian view of others, so that’s less of an issue for her. However, if he finds out the truth about her she could hang.
Rees is even more conflicted; he is tempted to put his growing allegiance for Lady Wexham before his allegiance to his country and he knows that she is very far above him socially.
‘The woman fascinated him more than ever. What other highborn lady would spend an hour talking with a servant? Was it because she was indeed a French Republican, seeing no class difference between the two – or was it that she knew he was no butler? More likely the latter.’
In addition to this, his faith is very important to him and he is unsure of how virtuous Lady Wexham is - he knows that she doesn’t attend church, but he doesn’t know whether she has taken lovers. This is not something that Rees would be able to overlook.
As time goes on, Rees realises that Lady Wexham is in danger from another source and his attempts to protect her brings them closer together. He comes to understand some of her political views and she tries to reconcile her idea of the God that she feels abandoned by with Rees’s view of a loving, guiding God. Both of them know that there can’t be any future together...
‘They were enemies. Repeating the facts did nothing to strengthen his commitment. It only filled his soul with a bleak desolation as he watched her perform the steps of a minuet.’
I thought this was an interesting premise for a story, and it highlighted parts of history that I was ignorant of previously, such as the fact that there was a court of French royalists in Buckinghamshire. Obviously since Rees was working as a butler his movements would be constrained by the demands and the limits of acting in that role, but I felt that the author worked hard to make any deviations from the role of the butler as plausible as possible, such as Rees accompanying Lady Wexham on her visit to Hartwell House, which you wouldn’t expect a butler to do.
I loved the romance between Lady Wexham and Rees. It was so restrained because of all the barriers between them, neither of them is even sure that the romance isn’t just one-sided, so it’s all glances and internal emotions, which was wonderful.
‘Perhaps the only words that could be communicated to each other were to be silent ones.’
This is a Christian book, which you wouldn’t really notice for a while. I am new to reading Christian fiction but I am not sure how well Rees’s faith fitted with the job he was doing and although this is mentioned I felt he seemed a bit blasé about this conflict, which in some respects didn’t fit with his character when you consider how he angsted about how good a Christian Lady Wexham was. Rees asked God for guidance and support more and more as the story progressed, and so the Christian aspect of the story increased as time went on.
The only real issue I had with this book was that to me, it felt more modern than the period. Things like the language used – not just individual words that were out of place, but the feel and flow of the sentences felt distinctly too modern to me. Also, some of the behaviour I am not sure was in keeping with the times, such as the familiarity between Jessamine and Rees, the fact that he was writing to her to me implies a commitment towards her that doesn’t seem to be the case. I also felt that the pacing of the storytelling really sped up at the end and it seemed a little rushed to me, and there were obstacles to overcome at the end which added little to the story while some real obstacles were glossed over. However, I enjoyed this book and I’d recommend it.