The Winter Companion (Parish Orphans of Devon)
1860. Unlike his three childhood companions, Neville Cross, the fourth of the Parish Orphans in this series, has little expectation of finding love and marriage. The head injury he suffered in childhood has impacted his ability to put thoughts into words, with the result that many deride him as mentally defective. Understandably, he is more comfortable with animals, but when Clara Hartwright, a lady’s companion, intrudes into his refuge in the stables to ask his help to care for her aged dog during her employer’s visit, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to her. Clara is attracted to him too, and the relationship progresses steadily, but she must balance her personal feelings against obligations to her employer on the one hand and to her family on the other. She also hopes one day to find a more intellectually fulfilling career as her brother’s secretary. For his part, Neville believes he is in no position to marry. Dare they risk security, however unsatisfying, for a chance at love?
As usual, Matthews has done excellent research: the rigid class and economic divisions, the double standards in the treatment of men and women, Clara’s experience ‘shadow-attending’ Cambridge through her brother, and the plight of Dartmoor ponies, all offer keen insights into life in the Victorian era. And the author’s description of the symptoms of Neville’s brain injury gains intensity from personal experience. The issues explored, moreover, remain as pressing as ever, especially prejudice against those who are marked as different and the casual assumption of privilege, regardless of its consequences.
A worthy conclusion to a fine series. Highly recommended.