Oliver Marshall is the illegitimate son of the late Duke of Claremont. (His mother's story can be found in the prequel novella The Governess Affair.) He is quietly walking a line between the working class and the aristocracy, advocating for voting reform. He aspires to a seat in the House of Commons, and although he has great ambition, he applies it subtly, never giving the powers that be the opportunity to see him making a wrong step. The Marquess of Brandenton can carry the votes of eight of his friends to Oliver's cause if he can be persuaded to join him, but in exchange he asks Oliver to teach Jane where her place is through public humiliation. But Oliver recognizes Jane as another person like himself (it is common knowledge that her father was not her mother's husband) who has always been treated as if she did not belong.
I've loved Courtney Milan's writing since before any of her books were published; I loved it on her blog, first, and I love everything about this book. I love how Oliver shows Jane that she doesn't always have to stand against the world all on her own; I love how Jane gives Oliver the courage to be bold. I love how Jane's frenemies, to use a rather anachronistic but wholly accurate term, develop into real friends when they reveal that they have also been playing games on multiple levels.
But wait, there is more. There are subplots. Emily has become quite talented at sneaking out of her window during her mandatory afternoon rest, and has a secondary romance with a Cambridge student from India, Anjan Battacharya. Emily's story develops to show her quiet strength and competence; a lesser author would have had Jane and Oliver rescuing her at the climax of the story. And then there's the wonderful scene when Battacharya meets Uncle Titus. And Oliver's youngest sister, called Free, advocates for women's suffrage and aspires to attend Cambridge. I'm very much looking forward to her book, The Mistress Rebellion, which will be the fourth after The Countess Conspiracy, Sebastian and Violet's story, which is set up a bit in this book.
Courtney Milan is a big part of why I read historical romance. She gets the history right, her characters properly deserve the titles of "hero" and "heroine," the dialogue is always sharp, and the love scenes always fit the characters perfectly.
Overall Grade: A+