Miss Bates can’t tell if it’s something in the air, but this is the second second-chance-at-love romance she’s read this month. It’s not a favourite trope (hello! marriage-of-convenience 😉 ), dependent as it on filler-back-story, but it does have richness potential. Neville’s latest London-set Georgian romance, Lady Windermere’s Lover, did not disappoint. Though it wasn’t as perfect as Ruin Of A Rogue, Miss Bates read it in one sitting because, even imperfect, Neville’s characters and the unfolding of their relationships engage Miss Bates emotionally, the tried-and-true test of any romance worth its mettle.
Miss Bates’s measuring rod for the estranged-couple trope is Balogh’s Counterfeit Betrothal, the most heart-wrenching-please-please-get-back-together marriage-in-trouble story she’s ever read. Lady Windermere’s Lover doesn’t have the gravitas of Balogh’s classic, maybe because Neville’s couple, Lady Cynthia and Damian, Earl of Windermere, are younger, apart only a year after a disastrous start. They don’t have children and the road to their HEA, though painful in places, is lighter, with lovely humorous touches, like the kitten, Pudge, and a terrific larger-than-life secondary character, Julian Fortescue, the “lover of the title,” who often steals the show. There are echoes here of one of Miss Bates’s favourite romances, Rose Lerner’s marriage-of-convenience romance, In For A Penny. Like Penny, Lady Windermere’s Lover is a cross-class romance, of a cit and aristocrat who marries for lucre, and Windermere has a nice working-class history addendum in the struggle of the Spitalfields silk workers. Lerner’s hero is more sympathetic and heroine has greater depth and historical accuracy, but Neville also deftly navigates these elements. Neville is consistently worth reading; Lady Windermere’s Lover is worth reading. And awaiting that wicked, compelling, Heyer-esque Julian Fortescue to tell his story …
Lady Windermere’s Lover suffers from a choppy start: a narrative of stop-start flashbacks. It is the nature of the second-chance-at-love beast. This is also due to the additional friendship-in-trouble, estranged-friends thread: the story of the broken friendship between the “lover,” Julian, and hero, Damian. On the other hand, this secondary thread added richness to the narrative and Miss Bates quite enjoyed it: scenes between these two are riveting. Moreover, when the marriage looks to be mending thanks to a healthy attraction between Cynthia and Damian, the bedroom proclivities of the hero in particular made for a whole new Damian persona. In short, there is a marriage-in-trouble thread, a broken-friendship one, a lively bedroom out-of-character thread … and narrative threads involving the heroine’s charitable activities in the working-class neighbourhood of Spitalfields, as well as the hero’s diplomatic machinations entailing art works and the mercenary head of the British Foreign Service. Add a villain, A Big Miz, and some sad, orphaned back-stories for Cynthia and Damian, what you have is a spinorama of a plot. Lady Windermere’s Lover is better in its parts than its whole. And yet … Miss Bates couldn’t stop reading it, loved so many individual scenes and thought bromance as good as romance.
“He wished his mother was alive.” Damian, Earl of Windermere, returns to his abandoned bride, Cynthia, after a year (wherein he chose a diplomatic mission to Persia over his barely-begun marriage). His hand had been forced to marry her, thus saving his beloved mother’s ancestral home, Beaulieu. At the time, he dismissed his wife as uncultured, unattractive, uneducated, and socially inept. Resentful and sullen, he treated her abominably. He returns to rumours of infidelity and a beautiful, accomplished, and gracious woman … entangled with his former best friend, Julian, now Duke of Denford. Like Lerner’s Nev, a dissipated past and hoisted responsibilities force Damian to grow up … though his behaviour towards Cynthia is of the pouty ass variety … he’s now prepared to “set his house in order.” What Damian has to realize is that a house can only become a home, for which Damian yearns, when it’s a partnership of love and equality. Damian may think he’s austere, serious, and disciplined now, but he’s been plain mean to Cynthia. The reason for this lies in the loss of his beloved mother and sister, running with a wild crowd, the loss of his mother’s home to his youthful gambling, and an exacting, stiff, grief-stricken father. Years before he weds Cynthia, he promises his father, ” ‘All I wish to do is to serve my family and my nation as a staunch and virtuous Tory. You’ll see what a paragon of good sense I will be.’ ”
Somewhere along the way, and certainly by the time we meet him, Damian’s forgotten how to be kind. He’s equated punctilious correctness with virtue. He’s lost his sense of humour, as he sadly confesses to Cynthia when she admonishes him on this point, ” ‘When I was with Mama and Amelia I laughed.’ “ One of Neville’s talents is in showing her hero’s changing for the better. He starts by admitting how badly he treated Cynthia and how undeserving she was of such treatment. But his arrogance still doesn’t see that she is innocent of having an affair with Julian; his past wrongs admitted, only to himself, he’s ready to magnanimously forgive and forget, “He wanted confession, pardon, and absolution to dissolve his black melancholy.” His “black melancholy,” however, is where his transformation begins. It is the point at which he admits his feelings for his wife. Neville is so good at a hero who knows when to admit he’s wrong, begin a process of redressing, and seek the other in love, “If he could only resolve what trouble lay between them, she might care for him too. Lady Windermere’s affection would be worth winning.” Eventually, Damian’s character exhibits a beautiful innocence and earnestness that Miss Bates found most appealing, especially when he relinquishes his stiff-upper-lip-and-think-of-England attitude and embarks on his wooing-and-winning-Cynthia campaign.
“Because she was, despite everything, a married woman and she would not betray her husband, however much he might deserve it.” Cynthia’s character was immediately likeable. She is an innocent when she marries; her wedding night is a disaster. She retains an appealing freshness and honesty throughout the narrative, without ever being a doormat. Even in circumstances where she skirts the edges of doormat-hood. What Cynthia has is a lovely combination of integrity and intelligence. When her husband abandons her, she sets out to be the best wife she can be. Even though she IS attracted to Julian, she never loses sight of his flaws, nor succumbs to his charms, not because of social codes and conventions, but because she would betray her own notion of right and wrong. She is a woman, though not blue-blooded, of wealth and privilege. Yet, when she realizes how her family exploits workers to gain wealth and privilege, she does something about it. She’s as level-headed as she is loving, witness her thoughts upon the occasion of her husband’s return, “She couldn’t tell the truth, that she’d started out to learn how to be the perfect wife so that her husband would love her when he returned. She was different now. She no longer knew what she wanted of him, except that he should be sorry for the past and – perhaps – do better in the future.” She has a wonderful combination of optimism, affection, and humour.
Before Miss Bates closes, she’d like to give a nod to Neville’s wonderful ability to create a moment, a scene. Miss Bates loved this winsome moment between Cynthia and Damian. She offers it as proof of the charming writing. The scene is set with Cynthia and Damian, on horseback, in a snowstorm, making their way to an inn:
Threading one hand inside his coat, she felt the beat of his heart.
“What?” he asked.
“My hand is cold,” she lied.
One word and a world of feeling blossoms.
Neville’s Lady Windermere’s Lover is not without flaws, but Miss Bates, in light of the wonderful writing, loveable characters, and well, the irrepressible Pudge, would have to say that, in it, she found “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Miranda Neville’s Lady Windermere’s Lover is published by Avon Books. It’s been available in “e” and paper formats, at the usual vendors, since June 24th.
Miss Bates is grateful to Avon Books and the author, for an e-ARC, via Edelweiss, in exchange for this honest review.
(The slightly-modified quotation that makes up the review’s sub-title is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s line, “I know I am but summer to your heart, and not the full four seasons of the year.”)
Lady Windermere’s Lover is as much a “marriage-in-trouble” romance as it is a “second-chance-at-love” one. Miss Bates is not as familiar with the “marriage-in-trouble” scenario: do you, dear reader, have any thoughts, feelings, or favourites?