Like the Modesty Blaise books I’ve read by Peter O’Donnell, his Victorian romances (writing as Madeleine Brent) also follow a familiar structure. I’ve read three of his thriller/romances and they have much in common. Young women in impoverished circumstances (a fishergirl, a Yak-whisperer in Tibet, and a white aborigine with fiery red hair) encounter a handsome man, save his life, become (or are) orphans, are taken into a household that educates them and teaches them to be “civilized.” They are the secret children of extremely wealthy lineage and face many hardships before overcoming the villains trying to steal their money and marrying the handsome man they initially rescued. There seems to be a requirement for the hero to treat the young woman badly because of some artificial constraint against falling in love with her.
In Golden Urchin, a baby is stolen by ruffians from an English lord and his wife in Australia and abandoned in the outback. This pale red-headed child is saved by aborigines and raised as a “freak.” She learns to hunt, track, scent water, and survive until she’s fifteen and leaves the tribe on walkabout. She encounters a handsome white man, Luke, as he’s dying in the desert. At first, she’s shocked when there is water within digging distance and water frogs and grubs within reach. She saves him, unaware that her nakedness is causing him more pain than his dehydration. Luke saves her when she contracts measles on the way to his home. There, his wife, Rosemary, teaches Meg (as she’s called now) English, manners, and how to wear clothes and bathe.
As with all Brent’s heroines, they are chaste, honest, and eager to please. She works hard to help at the small raisin farm when she discovers Rosemary is dying from consumption and came to Australia for the dry air. When a stranger attacks Meg at the farm, she captures him and takes him to the police. No one knows why he tried to kill a nobody like her.
Recalling a map to a gold vein she discovered and hid when she found Luke, she returns to the outback (with her throwing club, killing boomerang, and spear) when Rosemary passes away. Instead of taking Meg into his arms (she’s now 18), Luke passes her off to a vicar and his wife to deliver her to a finishing school in France. Vicar Fordyce and his wife are unexpected treats to the usual Victorian novels. They are scamps and “adventurers” and not even married. They’ve been hired by “the man in the dark room” to protect Meg. I loved the Fordyces.
Luke, now a rich man, takes Meg from the finishing school and explains to her how she is really the long-lost heir to millions of pounds and several large estates. The Man in the Dark Room wants to see her dead before her 21st birthday when she’ll inherit. Still refusing to touch her, he takes her to the solicitor in charge of her father’s will. There, she becomes a member of the odd family (very familiar to the fishergirl’s experiences), and the reader figures out way before the heroine that the slimy lawyer is up to no good.
Of course, the Fordyces save her and take her to the Man in the Dark Room. An albino who never shows anyone his face, he was in love with Meg’s mother and only wanted to protect Meg. The lawyer has been lying about the will, wanting to dispose of Meg quietly so his embezzlement of her estate will not be discovered.
After convincing the albino that he is not a freak, she introduces him to the public. Then, she and Luke (even more depressed that he’d delivered Meg to the villainous lawyer), the Fordyces, and the albino depart for South Africa to get her away from England until she’s of age.
The ship goes aground off treacherous reefs. and the albino, four crewmen, the Fordyces, and Luke join Meg on the craggy beach with few supplies and no help within hundreds of miles. Not only that, but Meg’s sensitive nose recognizes a surviving crewman as someone dangerously familiar. The survivors have no hope of reaching the nearest village until Meg reveals that she can find food and water in the desert for the trek south. Dressed only in a slip with her boomerang and throwing stick, she scouts a way for the travelers. The albino and a crewman with a broken leg struggle with the others as Meg finds grubs, brackish water, and an occasional jackal.
Luke, believing he’s dying, confesses his love for Meg, ashamed of dishonoring his dead wife’s memory. She is happy to reciprocate, having always been in love with him. As they kiss, a ship sails by and a shot rings out.
Usually, someone saves the heroine, but in this instance, Meg saves herself (mostly) and the other survivors. Not only is she unbelievably wealthy from her parents’ estate, but the albino also leaves her his considerable inheritance. Funny how the heroines always end up filthy rich and madly in love with a man who loves them. Maybe that’s the genre and not the author’s lack of originality.
I couldn’t help but like Meg. She can take care of herself (and others). I’m not sure how much of the aborigine research is correct, but it was interesting.
I’m not going to read any more Brent. It’s just not my cup of tea, but I did enjoy the writing and the plucky heroine’s journey.