Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Book CoverLynneC’s review of A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
Historical Romance published by Bantam 27 Dec 11

I nearly DNF’d this book. The heroine is worthy, the hero isn’t and they get together because she wants a baby to save the estate from the Evil Heir. By page 100 I was starting to skip, which is never a good thing, but I decided to persevere and stop skipping. While I applaud the author for writing a detailed historical romance without cliché, and that’s no mean feat, I did find the heroine very hard to like.

This book purports to be a Regency, but to me it reads more like a Victorian, although the details about enclosure make it clear that it’s set in the earlier era. The morals, personal and societal, certainly seemed more Victorian in tone, but there was nothing that I could fault about it. Grant is comfortable in her era and works in a lot of detail to get it right. In a way, that detail was one of the factors that held me back. I want a romance, not details about the heroine’s personal living space, if you see what I mean. Most of these details have significance, but you don’t get to discover these until later in the book, so they do read a bit like a shopping list earlier.

However, it’s a beautifully written shopping list. Grant’s style is probably the best thing about this book. She does describe a lot of things in sometimes suffocating detail. But it is a pleasure to read such well-researched, well-described settings, especially in a historical romance, rather than in a textbook. But the prose and the descriptions are much livelier in a real textbook, Dan Cruickshank’s recent book, The Secret History of Georgian London, which is a fantastic read, and one I should really make the effort to review. Grant works hard to get the descriptions and atmosphere in the book, and her prose reminds me very much of a Pre-Raphaelite painting – very worthy, with so many things depicted in painstaking detail that the human eye can’t possibly take them all in. I guess I prefer the Impressionistic way of focusing in on the salient parts of the painting, or even the more dashing approach of a Gainsborough or a Reynolds. Lawrence and Winterhalter rather than Ingres and Zoffany. I don’t know. Grant’s prose is incredibly reminiscent of Judy Cuevas/Judith Ivory, so if you love her work, you’ll love this book. So similar, I’m almost suspicious that Judy had taken another new name! Though I doubt that’s the truth, this book isn’t a first book. It might be a first published book, but it’s too accomplished for the author not to have practiced a great deal.

The hero and heroine have a disconcerting habit of treating servants and workers as equals. Not just people in their care, but they talk to them as equals at times, and seem to expect the same response. That attitude is foreign and does stick out a bit, although I could accept it as part of the story. Both hero and heroine are incredibly naïve, which I think is part of the reason I think of this as more of a Victorian attitude. They didn’t know, although this can rarely be said of the Regency upper middle class. The structure of their local society seems very simple, but perhaps the local network of magistrates, social events, some of which couldn’t be ignored, and neighbourly behaviour so well described by Jane Austen doesn’t happen. A woman in mourning did have a certain leeway, but, again, Victorian society set much more store by such observances.

It’s interesting to read about this class, though for novels written in this period, I prefer books about people who could make a difference to society, but Theo and Martha certainly do their best.

This book has been the subject of some controversy, and since I don’t look at other reviews until I’ve written my own, I’m guessing it’s the initial plot and the character of the heroine. Martha’s unsatisfactory husband has left her childless, and she has a month to conceive before she has to leave the estate and become a dependent relative once more. I can’t say I bought the premise, because Martha is upright and moral enough to see this for the reprehensible act that it is. The heir is given the reputation of making free with the maids, and dark hints are given by one maid that it might be by force, an account Martha completely believes (told you she was naïve). That seems to me to be a bit of a plot device, giving Martha more “right” and less selfishness to do as she did. In fact, she is totally selfish, and when she first hears the news that she is to leave, all her thoughts are for herself. She has no sense of humour, no lightness of character, and although she pays lip service to duty and honour, what she does isn’t dutiful or honourable. In the only other book I could think of that has a similar plot, Jo Beverley’s Secrets of the Night, the heroine sets out to make an heir with the permission and connivance of her elderly husband, I found the heroine more interesting and the hero much sexier and more attractive. The reasons worked better for me in that book, even though the heroine technically commits adultery. The heroine in SotN was also more mature than Martha, who is only 21. I couldn’t understand her desperation. She could try again, at that age. All is not lost. Even with the revelations later in the book, it doesn’t entirely add up for me.

Theo starts the book as a man-about-town and a wastrel. He is rusticated and his allowance cut off, and he’s sent to a minor estate of his father’s to learn estate management. About time. He’s in his mid-twenties, and he should have been brought up knowing the things he learns in this book. The iniquity of enclosures and what it meant to the working man is well dealt with here, although the “Bread not Blood” riots aren’t there, and the rustic nature of the early industrial units not mentioned. The book takes the individual philanthropist attitude, which works in context. My problem with Theo, especially at the beginning, is that he doesn’t have a purpose – in fact, that’s his problem. He has no conflict, except that he wants his allowance back. Aimless, he agrees to provide Martha with her heir, for five hundred pounds. Her maid suggests that if the tactic works and Martha has a girl, she can either do a switch or “buy” a baby boy and say she had twins, as if such deceptions were normal. I don’t believe this was the case. Childbirth was a relatively public event, and it would have been very difficult to manage. Besides, it assumes that the British upper class is so morally deficient as to take such a course as normal, and that presumption doesn’t work well for me.

I have to give this book a B for the quality of the writing, but I would like to see a development in plotting and in pace in the next book, which I will be picking up if I can. Not to mention a more sympathetic heroine. One that only warms up later in the book doesn’t work enormously well for me and I had to work hard to retain my sympathy for both characters. But Grant is undoubtedly a new talent to historical romance, and I’m sure she will only be going onwards and upwards from here.

LynneCs iconGrade: B

Newly widowed and desperate to protect her estate and beloved servants from her malevolent brother-in-law, Martha Russell conceives a daring plan. Or rather, a daring plan to conceive. After all, if she has an heir on the way, her future will be secured. Forsaking all she knows of propriety, Martha approaches her neighbor, a London exile with a wicked reputation, and offers a strictly business proposition: a month of illicit interludes . . . for a fee.

Theophilus Mirkwood ought to be insulted. Should be appalled. But how can he resist this siren in widow’s weeds, whose offer is simply too outrageously tempting to decline? Determined she’ll get her money’s worth, Theo endeavors to awaken this shamefully neglected beauty to the pleasures of the flesh—only to find her dead set against taking any enjoyment in the scandalous bargain. Surely she can’t resist him forever. But could a lady’s sweet surrender open their hearts to the most unexpected arrival of all . . . love?

Read an excerpt.