The Loving Highwayman by Helen Ashfield (Pamela Bennetts)
St. Martin’s Press, 1st US edition, 1983
Synopsis & Review: The Duke and Duchess of Kirkland are all but estranged, living parallel lives of gambling and licentiousness, but for the Duchess at least, it’s a façade, designed to protect her pride from her husband’s betrayals. Stung by his mother’s sordid reputation, their son Alistair Seymour, Marquis of Lingard lives his own riotous life as a rake, vowing to never love a woman. Like his parents before him, however, Alistair cannot resist a bet, and so he accepts two: first, to live as a highwayman for a month, and second, that he’ll not marry and fall in love before the year is out. Meanwhile, lovely Lady Anne Lydford, daughter to the Earl of Lomax, has been held up by a highwayman in Epping Forest, and a family friend abducted. Desperate to find Gem before her reputation is entirely compromised, Anne disguises herself as a man and searches the Forest for a highwayman. Alistair and Anne meet, and a comedy of errors and mistaken identity ensues.
I looked for this book for yeeeeeeears, years! I thought it was simply called The Highwayman, and so always came up blank—that is, till I went through every book with “highwayman” in the title on both LibraryThing and WorldCat, and compared listings to my memory. I finally succeeded just two weeks ago, and promptly found a copy on Ebay for myself. And it was every bit as ridiculous as I remembered. This must have been my very first trashy romance novel, mistakenly shelved in the Children’s Section of the Mililani Library (it’s a very slim volume). How old was I, eight? Well, it wasn’t very trashy at all, with nothing explicit, but it was quite titillating at the time. I probably checked it out a half dozen times to enjoy the mild naughtiness before forgetting all about it and moving on to Harlequins.
Did it stand the test of time? Yes and no. It’s not much like the romances being published these days, and it’s rather old-fashioned, but it still possesses charm and artlessness. The story is amusing and convoluted almost to the point of becoming ridiculous, but Ashfield carries it off with style, making it an enjoyable read. (And in all honesty, those silly situations influenced my imaginary games and Barbie escapades for nearly a decade.) Helen Ashfield was apparently quite prolific, mostly as Pamela Bennetts, but I haven’t yet read any of her others to compare. I will say that the humor and quality of writing is definitely above the chaste grand dame Barbara Cartland.
Cover: The silhouette of the highwayman galloping across the moors beneath a full moon, a coach-and-four in the background. I still love it.
“Not nearly as absurd as crawling through bushes and thickets in a sack-gown and slippers. And remember; if Gem had been wearing breeches and boots that wretch wouldn’t have bothered with her. The disguise will be a protection from anyone who has similar ideas and who would think to find Lady Anne Lydford in such garments? You needn’t worry about my safety or my reputation this way and Chuffey can alter my things so they fit me. Now don’t upset yourself any more. I’ll get her back somehow, I promise. And aunt; don’t tell Mrs Murray anything about this. Give Gem a chance. She deserves that, surely?”