I was pleasantly surprised at the complexity and page-turning élan of Sarah M. Eden’s The Lady and the Highwayman. Eden is a new-to-me author and I’m glad I’ve discovered her romances; this first read won’t be my last, thanks to her robust backlist.
Victorian-set among the humble and working-class, Eden’s thriller-melodrama-romance boasts a former-“guttersnipe” hero, now successful penny dreadful author, and girls-school headmistress heroine. Fletcher Walker struts the streets of 1865-London with the swagger of a man who brought himself out of the gutter and into success. But Fletcher is not an advocate of the every-man-is-an-economic-island making his own way in the world. He is the defender, rescuer, and fighter for the poorest of the poor and the most vulnerable of London’s invisible people, the widowed, fatherless, and orphaned; the sweep’s agony, the harlot’s cry come under Fletcher’s protection and his penned stories tell of their pathos, endurance, and spunky survival, the importance of helping one another, and defending those who cannot defend themselves. His author’s income isn’t for himself alone, but largely given to the poorest of the poor.
In the meanwhile, Miss Elizabeth Black, in more rarefied circumstances as Thurloe Collegiate School’s headmistress, does the same for faculty and students, running her school and penning, by day, respectable novels for Victorian ladies; by night, she turns her pen to her penny dreadful pen name, “Mr King,” and his tales of distressed damsels’ displays of bravery and intelligence, as well as finding true love, a rival to Fletcher’s success and income. What is marvelous about Fletcher and Elizabeth is their incomes are not for themselves alone, but for the use of Fletcher’s fellow-band-of-urban-Robin-Hoods, the “Dread Penny Society, and Elizabeth’s faculty, servants, and students, respectively. Eden’s thriller-romance doesn’t rescind an iota of humor, banter, suspense or adventure to tell a tale of Victorian bleakness and suffering. Fletcher and Elizabeth are as witty and romantic as they are morally and socially conscious. (Their band of merry-men-and-women made this reader sequel-salivate with their possibilities.) It’s wonderful to read about good people doing good without making them saintly-boring.
Eden’s Lady and Highwayman also offers three-interwoven narratives: how Elizabeth and Fletcher meet to fight evil and rescue children, fall in love, enact their authorial rivalries, as well as their fictional creations’ adventures: Elizabeth’s eponymous penny-dreadful novel, “The Lady and the Highwayman,” and Fletcher’s adventure story of two urchins foiling and destroying a vampire to rescue their street-urchin buddies. The staid Miss Elizabeth Black yearns for adventure herself and it arrives in the form of Fletcher Walker when he elicits her help in discovering the identity of the mysterious Mr. King, Eden showing as sure a hand at this lovely touch of irony as she does at everything else.
Elizabeth and Fletcher are soon embroiled in saving girls from exploitative procurers and rescuing sweeps from abusive criminals. They maintain a teasing banter, an affectionate counterpoint, a tender repartee until the final, glorious saucy HEA, serving justice and making a delightful feminist point. Eden’s propensity for suspense, adventure, and twirling mustachioed villains too often takes precedence over Fletcher and Elizabeth’s wonderful budding romance, but I loved them so, and Fletcher’s fellow Dread Penny Society’s band of merry brothers equally, and the orphans, flower sellers, and sweeps I took to heart. Eden builds a marvelous world of the good, the bad, and the deserving, of justice, love, and fellowship, breaking barriers between low- and high-born and between common and high literature. With Miss Austen, I find in Eden’s Lady and Highwayman “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Sarah M. Eden’s The Lady and the Highwayman came out in September of 2019 and I’m sorry I waited as long as I did to read it. It is published by Shadow Mountain Publishing and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Shadow Mountain via Netgalley.