The basic story is the Duke of Jervaulx, a womanising rake with an unexpected genius for mathematics, suddenly becoming unwell and ending up in an asylum. Our 21st century eyes tell us he’s had a stroke, but I suppose in the 19th century these things weren’t understood and his inability to communicate meant that he ended up incarcerated.
Our heroine, Maddy, is a quaker girl who looks after her father – also a mathematician – and through her father’s work with Jervaulx she first meets him, before his stroke, when he is the darling of society. He barely notices her initially, although he is charming when she and her father spend some time with him at a meal.
Then his stroke, he disappears and with that his promise of a mathematics chair for her father at a seat of learning, causing Maddy eventually to have to take a job working in an asylum to make ends meet. Where she meets Jervaulx again.
Some people have commentated that it’s tiring trying to understand what he’s saying and what he understands Maddy is saying in this part of the book. Indeed it is, that’s the whole point. The frustrations that a very intelligent man must feel when reduced to almost child-like abilities is brilliantly portrayed. His vacillating emotions, his anger at Maddy when she doesn’t understand him, are beautifully written.
I thought that most of the book would take place in the asylum but no, Maddy helps Jervaulx to get well enough to go home – at least to have his sanity officially questioned so that his grasping relatives can try to get their hands on his money. The story twists and turns in unexpected directions but is throughout so well written that we are carried along with them both, rooting for them to find a way to exist together in an unfriendly world.
This is a love story which is gently drawn and the two main characters come from utterly different social backgrounds and ways. Laura Kinsale has done a brilliant job of portraying Maddy’s Quakerism and how that affects her relationship with Jervaulx. Several portions of this book brought tears to my eyes, and that doesn’t happen very often.
It is clear that Laura Kinsale is very familiar with her historical period – there were none of those awful errors that American authors often make, such as carriage journeys round England taking just half a day. She knows London of the time and none of her characters do anything which isn’t right for the period. Bravo!
What would have really ruined this book was if Jervaulx got completely better. He doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter. He has been shown as a man whose utterly heedless life is completely turned around and who understands far more Maddy’s worth in comparison to his own. He was a duke and she a nobody, but he learns to understand her true value and the valueless nature of worldly rank.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough
I've bought copies of this book for a number of people whose relatives have suffered from strokes and they in turn have passed the books on to others - no way could I ever give up my copy. All have said what a revelation it was to read the thoughts and frustrations of a stroke victim.
The ending was realistic, not a complete recovery, which would have spoilt the whole book and made it less believable. One of my favourite books of all time.
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