Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady, by Diane Gaston

15 Mar
Cover for Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady:  a white man wearing a red uniform and a sword, holding a white woman with loose long auburn hair; she's wearing a white gown or perhaps a shift with petticoats, that's falling down her shoulders almost to her elbows. The background is a hazy sunset over a grassy field.

This month’s TBR Challenge theme is ‘baggage’; as SuperWendy notes, ‘baggage’ is the bread and butter of genre romance, so I was spoiled for choices. Which of course meant that I couldn’t think of anything.

However, this book has been inching its way up the towering pile of print TBR books in my nightstand for a while (a long while–I’ve had this signed copy since 2009, gog help me), and with a hero who survived the 1812 siege and subsequent pillaging of Badajoz, “baggage” was a given.

Reader beware: descriptions of battle scenes, PTSD, attempted rape, sex on the page.

Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady, by Diane Gaston

The novel, first in the Three Soldiers trilogy, starts with a prologue set in Badajoz, the night the city fell to Wellington’s forces. In those six pages or so, and without providing too much detail, Ms Gaston lays down vividly the horror of those hours and days, and their impact on all who survived it. It is then that three honorable British soldiers meet, setting the stage for the trilogy. (see footnote 1)

The novel proper starts a couple of years later, in London, as two of Jack’s paintings are selected for the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition. It is there he first meets the lovely Ariana Blane, a young and talented actress. It is not until half a year later that they are properly introduced, however, and it’s then that the true extent of Jack’s ‘baggage’ is revealed.

This is the blurb in my print copy (which differs slightly from the one on amazon):

He’s fought for his country, now he’s fighting for his heart.

The battlefields of Badajoz are nothing compared to the cutting tongues of polite society, but Jack Vernon has never been very “polite”. A canvas is this brooding artist’s preferred company–having once been the outlet for the horror he witnessed at war, it’s now his fortune.

Painting the portrait of the stunningly beautiful Ariana Blane is his biggest commission yet. Learning every curve of her body ignites feelings he thought were destroyed in battle. But he’s not the only man who has Ariana in his sights…

So. Baggage.

Jack suffers from PTSD, mostly when in spaces that are too crowded and noisy, or when under too much emotional distress. Which, given the war is over (foreshadowing!), should not be too much of an issue, except that the the legacy of the war is actually the least of Jack’s current problems.

Turns out that soon after his father died, when Jack was barely a teenager, his mother became the mistress of a relatively wealthy and very married man. This fact, well known among the ton, ensured that Jack’s paternal great uncle, an earl, washed his hands off the whole family. Fifteen or more years later, it is this man’s money that still supports her and Nancy, Jack’s much younger sister, even as the man himself rarely “calls” on the widowed Mrs Vernon any more, as he inherited a baronetcy and became Lord Tranville.

Needles to say, Jack hates Tranville’s guts; not only for the pain the situation causes his mother, but also for the stain on his sister’s reputation: now that Nancy is old enough to come out in society, to meet eligible men and to marry, none of these things are open to her.

So when Tranville decides to hire Jack to paint a portrait of Ariana, and uses his own mother to compel him to accept the commission, things between them don’t start well at all.

As Jack fights his desire for the woman he believes to be Tranville’s current lover, he’s also aware that this portrait could open many doors for him as an artist, and help him find financial success–which would in turn help him free his mother and sister from any financial dependence on Tranville.

For her part, and despite her intense attraction to Jack, Ariana knows to be careful; as an actress, she’s no innocent, and cares little for the dictates of a society that looks down on her, but wealthy men like Tranville can destroy the careers of women who deny them what they want.

Of course, given they are forced to spend time together as Jack works on the portrait, things get…difficult. And then they get really complicated.

There’s emotional blackmail, threats, some violence, an elopement, Waterloo, oh my!

There are several things this book does well.

It is very clear that the author knows the period and the physical setting of the story quite well. Details such as what substances Jack uses to prepare his canvasses, where he buys his paints, the relative distances of the different locations where the story takes place, both in London and abroad, are slipped into the narrative unobtrusively, grounding the story to the period in history.

I really liked how the differences between the theater crowd and society are explored; artists, generally, knowing that their livelihoods depend on the whims of people with more money than talent (or, often, sense), and therefore having to swallow their pride and exercise delicate feats of diplomacy just to maintain even a semblance of independence in thought and action. At the same time, theater people as a class are far more open and accepting of each other, and of outsiders, than ‘decent’ people.

Jack’s episodes of PTSD, his fears over losing his sanity, and how he uses drawing and painting as coping mechanisms even more than they are records of the horrors of war, are sensitively written, as is his love for his mother and sister.

Ariana is a very satisfying heroine, especially for a Harlequin Historical. She’s not only a ‘natural child’ of a woman as notorious for her promiscuity as for her talent, but no one–including her mother–knows who her father is. Ariana is also a woman who makes no apologies for not being a virgin, but who has made the deliberate choice not to accept gifts from wealthy gentlemen, as those always have strings attached.

There’s a secondary romance involving Nancy that’s quite sweet; they are both young and they are written in a way that conveys both their innocence and their resolve, and I like the way Ariana uses Tranville’s own asshole move to help them escape his clutches. Poetic justice for the win!

However, there are some elements of the story that drove me bonkers.

One, Jack’s mother.

No matter what villainy from Tranville is revealed to her, she turns the other cheek, forgives him everything, including harm to her children, and keeps coming back for more. It’s not even that she’s passionately in love with the man, is that she just takes whatever he dishes out. Honestly, she’s written as the perfect doormat.

Then we have Ariana’s mother.

Because of course we had to have the mercenary barracuda who packed her daughter off to boarding school as soon as she was old enough, only to tell her later that she regretted having gone through with the pregnancy–but only after conspiring with Tranville to force Ariana to accept his ‘attentions’.

Which is bad enough, but then the plotline is dropped entirely, and the character doesn’t even show up again, and I have to wonder: apart from whorephobia, why was this character even introduced?

Seriously, every scene with Ariana’s mother could have been cut from the novel, and the narrative would hold perfectly well; just say that she’s the illegitimate daughter of an actress famous for her affairs as much as for her talent, and be done with it.

Finally, there’s Wilson, the footman-cum-manservant in the Vernon household; it’s not spelled out, but the impression I get is that the man is loyal to Jack’s mother because she’s his father’s widow. In a lot of historical romance, there’s always at least one “loyal retainer”, whose only ambition in life is to “serve the family”. And I understand that such characters solve a number of problems for the author: they exist to ensure that the young miss is safe, or to look after their master’s widow, or to provide key information at the right time.

But the immense privilege of having servants whose entire existence was expected to revolve around their masters’ happiness and wellbeing, without any regard for their own, is like sandpaper to the face, and the older I get, the more I resent having them exploited further in my fiction.

Still and all, it was an interesting novel, and a unusual historical in more than a few ways. The ending, it has to be said, is fairly rushed, and some of the threads in the narrative are short changed, while others are left dangling to be addressed in the next couple of books, I expect. In fact, in a neat bookending move, we meet the other two soldiers again, in another battlefield.

Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady gets a 7.25 out of 10.

* * * *

1 It looks as if these books were planned as a trilogy, and that later the final book was perhaps tweaked later to include a short story. Also, let’s hear it for a well set-up author website: no only each series in order and with buy links, but each title with a bit of “behind the scenes” authorial note. Well played, Ms Gaston, well played.

14 Responses to “Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady, by Diane Gaston”

  1. victoriajanssen 15/03/2023 at 2:09 PM #

    I almost always enjoy books with artist protagonists! That includes actors and musicians.

    • azteclady 15/03/2023 at 2:27 PM #

      I honestly wish we had had more time with Jack painting, and a bit less with ::gestures:: the emotional and financial blackmail, the doormat mother, and so on.

  2. willaful 15/03/2023 at 3:57 PM #

    Interest: piqued!

    • azteclady 15/03/2023 at 4:11 PM #

      I have the second one somewhere (another signed copy) and I hope I won’t take as long to get to it! (there’s a particular thread tying the three main stories together that I want to follow)

  3. Dorine 15/03/2023 at 9:28 PM #

    oh I do love books with artists in them. Nice find!

    • azteclady 15/03/2023 at 10:10 PM #

      Thanks! It didn’t set my world on fire, but it was a nice enough read.

      (And now I’m wincing, “damning with faint praise” and all that.)

      • willaful 15/03/2023 at 10:15 PM #

        Sometimes a nice enough read is exactly what I want.

      • azteclady 15/03/2023 at 10:37 PM #


  4. S. 16/03/2023 at 7:50 AM #

    Interesting way of describing it and your impressions while you read it but I admit it seems to have a lot of drama lol

    • azteclady 16/03/2023 at 8:37 AM #

      Yes, quite a bit of drama indeed!

  5. whiskeyinthejar 19/03/2023 at 11:45 AM #

    As Jack fights his desire for the woman he believes to be Tranville’s current lover, he’s also aware that this portrait could open many doors for him as an artist, and help him find financial success–which would in turn help him free his mother and sister from any financial dependence on Tranville.

    I was hooked at this moment. Before I went to Amazon to one-click, I checked my tbr list and yeah, already own it. Lol. Very curious to see what you think of the other two in the series because I’m thinking of moving this way up.

    • azteclady 19/03/2023 at 11:54 AM #

      I hope to find the second one soon–being print, it’s not as easy a proposition, this house is nothing but piles of books.

      (Okay, books and crafting supplies.)

  6. SuperWendy 19/03/2023 at 7:25 PM #

    This sounds right up my alley – and the cover looked really familiar. Sure enough – I’ve got it buried in my digital TBR. Also, now might be a good time to point out that next month’s theme is Unusual Historical 😉

    • azteclady 19/03/2023 at 7:55 PM #

      There’s a whole lot of soap opera interconnections of complications and personal ties and motivations; I think you’d like it even more than I did, but I’d really love to hear your thoughts once you do read it.

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