I'm not even sure how I stumbled upon Julie Klassen but having just finished reading this novel, I can definitely say I will be reading more of her books. I don't read very much romance and it's hard to find good, well-written romances, even harder to find well-written Christian romances that don't come off preachy. But Klassen has this sub-genre down to a fine art.
I chose to read The Maid of Fairbourne Hall because this novel has garnered many positive reviews, although all of her books to date have been well received. Margaret Elinor Macy lives with her mother and her stepfather, Sterling Benton, in London in 1815. Her mother remarried after the death of Margaret's beloved father and after selling the family's beloved Lime Tree estate, they now live in Sterling's home at Berkely Square. Sterling Benton, is a controlling, manipulative man who has Margaret followed and her mail opened. He refuses to give her any money further increasing his total control over her. Margaret is due to receive a substantial inheritance from her Great Aunt Josephine, when she turns twenty-five. Because of this inheritance, Margaret decided to wait and marry for love or not at all. Not that long ago, Margaret had rejected Nathaniel Upchurch's marriage proposal in the hopes of winning his handsome brother Lewis' heart. But Lewis, although initially interested in Margaret, didn't seem to follow through and Margaret now finds herself in a predicament with her stepfather determined to see her marry his nephew, Marcus Benton.
The novel opens with Margaret attending a masquerade ball where she hopes to once again attract Lewis Upchurch's attention. But Lewis isn't interested in Margaret and her attempt is rebuffed. The ball is marred by a brawl between Lewis and his brother Nathaniel who has unexpectedly returned from the family's sugar plantation in Barbados. To Margaret's surprise, Nathaniel is a much changed man, well muscled, handsome and tanned, and no longer the quiet bespectacled man she brutally rejected a year ago.
The next day Margaret's situation becomes dire when she learns that her stepfather has advised Marcus to "compromise" her if necessary, in order to force her to marry. Margaret decides to flee at once and does so with the help of her maid, Joan Hurdle who has been fired for stealing. Margaret and Joan end up at Joan's sister, Peg Kittleson's home. Peg puts them up for a few days and during their stay, Margaret does a man a good turn by preventing a robbery. This good turn will end up being the salvation of Margaret.
Joan and Margaret manage to flee London, and make their way to Maidstone where they must try to get hired on. Both Joan and Margaret do get hired but to different houses. In a strange twist Margaret finds herself hired by the man she helped in London and even stranger yet, she ends up as a maid in the Upchurch household. Having fled her home in a disguise of a black wig and servant's clothing, Margaret must continue to hide her identity. If she can just hold out until she turns twenty-five in eight months, she will receive her inheritance and be free of Sterling and Marcus Benton. But can she work and live in the Upchurch household without her true identity being discovered? Should she approach Nathaniel or Lewis and divulge who she really is and ask for their help? And can she remain hidden while Sterling Benton frantically searches for the stepdaughter whose wealth he covets?
Klassen skillfully portrays the evolution of Margaret's character throughout the novel. Margaret changes from a spoiled, self-absorbed, young woman to one who cares about others. At the beginning of the book she is insensitive to the feelings of Joan, her maid, even when Margaret's theft of Sterling Benton's money causes Joan to lose her position at Margaret's home. But she soon discovers that the life of a servant is a hard one, with little respect and poor pay. And she comes to understand that Joan's situation in a difficult household is directly the result of her actions. She tries as much as her situation will allow to alleviate some of Joan's difficulties and at the end does make reparations to Joan.
Working in the Upchurch's household provides Margaret with a unique chance to learn the truth about both the characters of Lewis and Nathaniel and how appearances can be deceiving. The handsome Lewis is, in reality, messy, dissolute and insincere. On more than one occasion, Margaret catches Lewis returning late at night after some escapade. He has allowed the estate to fall into ruin in his father's absence. Lewis has no qualms about the family's wealth being obtained through the practice of slavery. In contrast, Nathaniel proves to have the character of a true gentlemen. He treats the staff respectfully, and has a strong sense of justice as evidenced by his feelings about the family making a living off of slavery. His experience in Barbados has changed him forever.
Because of both her change in character and her new information about the Upchurch brothers, Margaret begins to deeply regret turning down Nathaniel's marriage proposal and wishes she could apologize for the hurt she caused him.
The Maid of Fairbourne Hall is historical Christian romance at its finest. Although the plot is predictable and the ending too, getting there is half the fun. Klassen builds the romantic tension gradually and repeatedly by throwing Margaret and Nathaniel together in countless ways. Added to this is the increasing suspense as Sterling Benton searches for his missing stepdaughter. He shows up at Fairbourne Hall in search of Margaret and later on he tries to flush Margaret out by a carefully planned ruse. The ending is as satisfying as it is romantic.
There is great attention to detail in the lives of the serving class in the 1800's. It is evident that Klassen did much research in order to portray her characters as realistically as possible. The storyline is told from the point of view of both Margaret and Nathaniel, often providing the reader with insight into how each character views a particular event. Each chapter begins with a from servants manuals and guides from the 1800's. Klassen toured the belowstairs and attic servant's quarters of several homes in England as part of her research for this novel. You can learn more about Julie Klassen and her writing from her website, http://www.julieklassen.com/
I highly recommend this novel, especially to those who enjoyed Downton Abbey.
The Maid of Fairbourne Hall by Julie Klassen
Minneapolis, Minnesota. BethanyHouse Publishers 2011