REVIEW: Bliss Bennet’s A MAN WITHOUT A MISTRESS, Or The “Primrose Path of Dalliance”

Man_W:O-MistressNow that Miss Bates has read Bliss Bennet’s second romance novel, she can place her in histrom-world with Rose Lerner, Cecilia Grant, and recent discovery Blythe Gifford. They all have the rare, and becoming rarer, ability to create main characters who reflect their times and are in turn uniquely, likably themselves. Their main characters’ constraints are not solely those of personality or circumstance, but political, economic, social, and/or gender strictures. Bennet creates creatures of their time and yet uniquely themselves, approachable and sympathetic to the reader. In her second Pennington romance, Bennet tells the story of Sibilla Pennington, sister to Rebel Without A Rogue‘s Kit Pennington. Like Lerner’s Lydia in True Pretenses, Bennet’s heroine is a young woman grieving her beloved father’s recent loss. Neither Lydia nor Sibilla were daddy’s-girls-spoiled-princesses. Their fathers’ love and acknowledgement allowed them the unique opportunity for women of their time, to lead lives of social and political purpose. Without their paternal lodestones, they’re adrift. Their only recourse is to place their political championing onto their reluctant brothers and make marriages of convenience to further their charitable causes. 

Sibilla’s arrival in 1822 London inspires her family’s match-making efforts: three brothers and one hilariously officious, proper, but secretly subversive Great-Aunt Allyne. Sibilla’s goal is to convince her morose older brother Theo to take his place in Parliament, as their father, with her assistance, did for years. As brothers Theo, Benedict, and Kit importune Sibilla to marry, she tongue-in-cheek agrees on the condition they find her a husband who’s never kept a mistress. Sibilla exposes their dalliances, indeed the common practice of aristocrats keeping mistresses, while their sisters, mothers, and eventually wives must tolerate admonitions regarding their sexual purity. Bennet’s novel reminded Miss Bates of Ophelia’s exchange with Laertes in Hamlet. Laertes warns Ophelia of the dangers to an unmarried young woman’s reputation. In poor Ophelia’s sole claim to histrom pertness, she retorts by saying, “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,/Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,/Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,/Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,/And recks not his own rede.” No one can match the intelligent, virtuous, and humorous young woman when she chooses to point to a young man’s hypocrisy, warning her to look to reputation and virtue while he dallies with the puppets (borrowing the priggish Hamlet’s crude and cruel phrasing to Ophelia).

Meanwhile in another part of London, hero Sir Peregrine Sayre dances to the Earl of Milne’s tune, labouring for his parliamentary causes with the hope the Earl will support Per’s claim to a political career. In one of the Earl’s many political machinations, he sends Per on a mission to identify a list of prostitutes under the protection of the Guardian Society, more of the judge-er than do-gooder variety of rescuing ladies of the night from the street. When Sibilla discovers a cartoon depicting her brother Theo cavorting with one such lady, the damage to her aspirations for his political career may be dashed. Sibilla sets out to discover the identity of the lady in Theo’s caricaturish depiction before it ruins her brother. Per and Sibilla’s paths cross, especially because Viscount Dulcie, the Earl of Milne’s son, is Per’s best friend, though two more unlike besties Miss Bates has yet to see. Dulcie’s the dilettante to Per’s sobriety. Per, however, carries guilt over his role in the ruination of one of the maids in his parents’ home. Part of the reason for his parliamentary ambitions are fueled by the need to help make these women’s lives better. Sibilla’s kind-hearted nature and strong sense of justice also spurs her to improve the women she and Per meet in the Guardian Society and out of it. At the core of Bennet’s novel is the question of women as commodity.

Man With A Mistress also meets the challenge of relating an engaging romance, a story of the heart and body. Bennet’s romance arc for Per and Sibilla, though slow and meandering, is beautiful. Her hero and heroine are beautiful, in body and spirit. Bennet makes of Per and Sibilla two opposites who find their way to each other through friendship and the mystery of recognizing one’s other half. Bennet’s “opposites” in Per and Sibilla are one of Miss Bates’s preferred bantering pairings: the stuffy, tormented hero and the effervescent, opinionated, and where-angels-fear-to-tread heroine. Per’s guilt over the exploitation of a woman named Mary Catharine has led him to place constraints on his sexuality and set him on the political crusader’s path. Every great love, however, begins with attraction. Per’s physical response to the ordinary-looking Miss Pennington surprises him: “He’d thought he’d trained his unruly body these past six years to disregard any such carnal urges. What the hell was it doing?” Per’s self-curbing contrasts with Sibilla’s spontaneity and eagerness for things unladylike: “Stop walking out without a chaperone. Stop scandalizing the neighbors by speaking ill of the government. Stop writing to Papa’s cronies, plaguing them for political tidings … ” While seeming opposites in temperament, Per and Sibilla are actually two peas in a pod: they both defy their society’s conventions in rejecting the Lothario role and the demure, self-effacing Almack’s-aspiring miss, respectively.

One of the aspects of Bennet’s novel that Miss Bates most enjoyed the trajectory of Per and Sibilla’s romance from physical awareness/attraction to friendship and love. Sibilla’s appreciation of Peregrine “reads” his facial features to glimpse the man beneath: “Her gaze was captured by eyes of the deepest blue, dark and unsettled as a stormy winter sea … a thin blade of a nose, nostrils slightly flared, as if scenting for danger; high, narrow cheekbones; a shock of midnight hair in danger of tumbling into short, spiked lashes. Only the shape of one eyebrow, curved at both ends like a tilde, hinted that humor might occasionally lighten that sober countenance.” Per’s awareness of Sibilla centres on her unruly curls, locks wild and constantly escaping ribbons tell him everything delightful about her personality: “Her hair … proved to be a wheat-tinged blonde, with the most amazingly springy curls he had ever seen. Even cut short as it was, it seemed a mass of wild exuberance … he had the maddest urge to take a curl between his fingers and pull on it, then watch as it sprang at his touch.” Per and Sibilla are caught up in many madcap adventures involving their pursuit of the Guardian Society ladies. Per’s seriousness and protective demeanor contrasts beautifully with Sibilla’s daring-do.

Sibilla and Peregrine don’t hit if off immediately and that makes for fun and bantery tension. But their journey through London’s seedier side allows them time and privacy to get to know each other. One of the romance genre’s strengths is its ability to portray how two strangers come to appreciate one another. For what is love if it isn’t seeing the best in each other and cherishing it? One of the most touching and engaging moments in Man Without A Mistress comes when Sibilla offers Per friendship: ” ‘ … I wish to accept your offer of friendship, if that offer is still open.’ Releasing her hands as if releasing her from any compulsion to agreement, he took a step back, waiting her response. She cocked her head then, a tentative smile  slowly turning up her mouth. “I would be honored to be your friend, Per … ‘ ” An even lovelier and winsome moment is Per’s realization of what Sibilla means to him: “Something beyond mere attraction, beyond desire, drew him to her, a ship to her beacon of light. He wanted her beside him, wanted her light, her fire for his own, even if it scorched his honor to cinders as he warmed himself by its blaze.” Love scenes are minimal and in keeping with the natural rhythm of a committed relationship’s development. As Per and Sibilla blindly and uncertainly make their way to each other, barely aware of what they will mean to each other, they couple. They satisfy physical needs. The love scene that ensues is, and appropriately so, un peu disappointing, not quite in sync, not quite perfect. When they acknowledge their love, the love scene embodies Miss Bates’s three C’s: culmination, celebration, and commitment. In this case, it is perfect. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says Man Without A Mistress shows evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Bliss Bennet’s A Man Without A Mistress is self-published. It was released on December 15, 2015 and is available in e and paper from your favourite vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to the author for an e-ARC.