The handsome, brilliant minister Robert Montague returns to Victorian Scotland to set up his ministry. A beautiful young girl named Cassie Amittage yearns to escape the boredom of her upper-class life. In spite of the interference of her envious little sister, Pippa, Cassie and Robert announce their engagement and marry.
Sound like the end of a romance novel? Actually, it's just the beginning of ``The Workhouse Girl'' (St. Martin's Press, $25.95), the latest novel from Jessica Stirling.
The title refers to the servant girl Nancy Winfield, who prostitutes herself so her little girl, Daisy, will be safe from the horrible workhouse Nancy escaped. Although Nancy was raised as a ``workhouse brat,'' in reality she is ... but that would spoil the rest of the story. Suffice it to say that she helps her employer, Cassie, escape a suffocating marriage, expose the sadistic, greedy minister's schemes and find true love at last.
Although ``The Workhouse Girl'' is set in Victorian times, it's refreshingly free of the sentimental stereotypes which usually populate novels about that era. Stirling combines the social conscience and comic caricatures of Charles Dickens with the crisp, dry prose of Colleen McCullough.
Although she skates perilously close to the bounds of probability, Stirling avoids pat answers and easy ciphers. Even the comic characters reveal unexpected depths, and the disillusioned find causes worth fighting for.
The violence may prove a little rough for a few romance fans, but those who like their heroines strong and their heroes true will find ``The Workhouse Girl'' enthralling.
-- Jean McIntosh is a part-time
employee at the Lawrence Public Library.