A lady’s companion ought to blend in with her surroundings, but it’s impossible for Clara Hartwright to remain invisible. Forced into genteel service in order to support her brother’s studies at Cambridge, Clara yearns to be a student of natural philosophy in her own right. When her position takes her to the freezing winterscape of Greyfriar’s Abbey in Devon, she forms a connection with Neville Cross, the tongue-tied Nordic giant who is a perplexing mix of gentleman and stablehand.
Abashed by his speech impediment and difficulty in articulating his thoughts, Neville works up the courage to befriend Miss Hartwright. When she’s not catering to her elderly client’s whims, Clara seeks out Neville’s assistance with her little pug dog, and he invites her to help him with the rare Dartmoor pony whose injured leg he is tending.
Their shared love of animals sparks a mutual interest, and before long, Clara realizes that Neville has depths that very few people have plumbed. But when Neville discovers that Clara’s dream is to travel the world as a naturalist (or, at least, a naturalist’s secretary), his own fears of leaving the Abbey go to war with the burgeoning love he has for his winter companion.
This book was, to put it succinctly, a wonder. The fourth book in the Parish Orphans of Devon series, it explores the story of Neville, the orphan boy who was injured long ago in a fall from the cliffs, giving him a permanent brain injury that makes communication difficult. When involved in active labor in the outdoors, his mind is clear enough, but the sustained effort of dealing with ledgers, administrative tasks, or conversational pleasantries makes his mind drift elsewhere. Clara, never at a loss for words, understands Neville in a way that not even his three friends (Justin, Tom, and Alex) can, lending him just the right amount of support to stand on his own, encouraging him in his own dreams of conserving the endangered Dartmoor ponies.
This story was a simple and poignant one with no major villain to be overcome other than the internal struggles of both protagonists. Clara’s unkind betrayal at the hands of those close to her unfolds gradually, with a perfect sense of mystery, and Neville coming to Clara’s rescue was one of the sweetest things I have ever read. Tennyson has always been my favorite poet, and if you have a soul, you will weep when Neville shares his favorite poem with Clara in the railway coach.
After seeing Neville in the previous three books as a minor character, I didn’t know how Mimi Matthews was going to make a romantic hero out of him, but once again, she proves that she is the mistress of proper Victorian romance, creating a love story for the ages that uplifts, inspires, and satisfies.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in this review are my own.
See the rest of my reviews of the Parish Orphans of Devon Series: