REVIEW: A Gentleman Undone by Cecilia Grant
Dear Ms. Grant:
As I read your novel A Gentleman Undone I brooded over words from one my favorite 18th century wordsmiths, the great Alexander Pope: “Honor and shame from no condition rise. Act well your part: there all the honor lies.” Here Pope asserts honor and shame are products of behavior rather than experience or birth. He pledges if we act honorably, we then have honor irrespective of what has happened in our lives. This is the premise of A Gentleman Undone. Both the hero and the heroine of your brilliantly written novel are consumed with shame; both, at times during your tale, act in ways they themselves define as dishonorable. And yet, by the story’s end, both are defined by their honor rather than their shame. It’s an interesting character trajectory, one that—like that in your first novel A Woman Awakened—takes tropes tried and true in historical romance and presents them in an utterly unique way.
It’s summer of 1815, the Waterloo Campaign is a deathtrap for a quarter of its soldiers, and Will Blackshear has made a medical misjudgment. He has carried fellow soldier and friend George Talbot, horribly wounded on the blood soaked grass of Belgium’s Quatre Bras, to a makeshift hospital in order to save him. Instead, by moving Talbot, he has damaged his spine. The man is now paralyzed, in great pain, and of no interest to any army surgeon Will takes him to. Will knows there’s nothing he can do to save his friend, but he can’t keep himself from lying and trying.
“I’m going to take you out of here.” The man’s eyes were closed, but his mouth tightened and he managed a sort of nod. “The wounded are too many and they can’t spare a surgeon or even opium. There’s no purpose in your staying.” There’s no hope. What good would he do the man by saying that aloud? “Another of the hospitals might be better appointed, and we might find you some gin, at the least.”
Gin. Not likely. Unless he proposed to start pillaging corpses in search of a flask. Of course that might come to sound reasonable, between now and when Talbot’s last breath left him.
Will gathered his dreadful limp form from the pew and nearly staggered, not under the weight of the man but under the weight of the man’s misguided trust.
A little less than a year later, Will, now in London, is still trying to atone for his sin. He is determined to provide for Talbot’s widow and child, who are now stuck living on the cruel whims of Talbot’s married sister, and to make enough money to invest in a shipping venture run by a severely burned fellow veteran. He’s promised the latter three thousand pounds in a little more than a month—Will has less than a thousand and much of that must go to his living expenses. Will decided his only chance is at the tables—despite the fact he’s not a stellar player. It is at the mediocre gambling establishment Beecham’s he first glimpses Lydia Slaughter.
She, along with a few other courtesans, is playing cards near the table where he is desperately trying to win at vingt-et-un. Will notices her—she’s no traditional beauty but she draws and holds his attention. She, however, is already taken. She’s the mistress of a fellow player, the square-jawed Roanoke. Will listens as Roanoke and his friend coarsely discuss Lydia.
“I should never have bet on you keeping her this long. Not half so comely as the one you were squiring about last summer. Pretty winsome thing, she was.”
A small compression of Square-jaw’s mouth was the only sign he took offense at the questioning of his choice. “That one gifted me with a bastard child.” Green-jeweled cufflinks glinted in the candlelight as he reached out to gather in the cards. “This one can’t.”
“Or so she tells you, I’m sure,” was the first gentleman’s rejoinder, his undertone abandoned to more generally air his wit.
“She can’t.” With the patience of a crown prince accustomed to dull-witted minions he made this correction. “Something’s gone wrong with her insides. No monthly courses.”
….Where did you come by her?”
“Plucked her out of Mrs. Parrish’s establishment.” Roanoke took his time squaring the edges of all the used cards before putting the stack faceup at the bottom of the deck. “And you may believe they trained her up proper. If there’s a thing she won’t do in bed, I have yet to discover it.”
An hour later, Will, who has slunk away to the library to think bleak thoughts, finds his privacy interrupted by Lydia and Roanoke who have come to couple in between hands. Initially, the two don’t realize Will is hidden away in the corner of the room, and he, after giving them a moment to shove up against a wall, rises, prepared to abandon them to their carnal encounter.
Slowly he eased up from the chair, angling round the bookshelf for a furtive glance to assure himself they wouldn’t notice him.
He stopped, half-risen.
He’d been prepared for something sordid, a brute coupling between an importunate boor and a harlot who’d learned her trade at Mrs. Parrish’s. And of course it was sordid by its very nature, this retreat to the library, and Square-jaw himself was everything sordid, with his mouth at the juncture of her neck and shoulder and his hands groping here and there.
She, though. She was … Confound him if he could even begin to find the right word. He only knew sordid wasn’t anywhere close.
She stood with her back to the drapery, eyes closed, chin lifted, whole person swaying with pleasure.
Lydia opens her eyes and sees Will watching her revel in her paramour’s attentions.
She said nothing. She didn’t jump away from her lover, or yank up the bodice he’d tugged down, or cross her arms modestly before her. Only her eyes, widened and showing an excess of white, betrayed her consciousness of exposure. And that, for only a second or two, though the interval was sufficient to make him feel like a thoroughgoing cad.
The bookshelf’s edge bit hard into his hand. He couldn’t seem to look away, let alone make an apologetic bow and hasten from the room. He stood, frozen, as she regained her composure and her face hardened into the unmistakable lines of defiance: Judge me if you dare. Then that expression too subsided and only her falcon-like blankness remained. She looked through him, and past him, and altogether away.
Will leaves, his desire for her now a thing of hunger. Later, the two come down, having missed dinner, and Roanoke again picks up his cards. This time, however, Lydia sits in his lap, and as Roanoke dozes, Lydia takes up his cards and plays in his stead. At first, she seems a mediocre player, but, by evening’s end, she’s won four hundred and eighty pounds, one hundred and eighty of which have come from William. Lydia scoops her winnings from the table and puts three hundred pounds in her lover’s pocket. The other hundred and eighty—Will knows exactly how much it is—she puts in her bodice.
Will is sure she has, with great skill, deliberately cheated him out of his money and the next time the two meet at Beecham’s, he finds her alone and tells her so. She, arch and erotic, tells him he has no proof. He tells her he needs the money and she says so does she. She is striving to save two thousand pounds—a sum she reckons will buy her an independent life. Will insists his need is more immediate and less selfish. He asks for her to be compassionate. She, as she leaves the room, says it’s three years too late in her life for that.
Later though, when Lydia goes to a bank—a place ladies do not go without a man of business—and tries to invest the money she’s been saving from her table winnings in an annuity, she’s treated like the whore she once was. So, when she next sees William at Beecham’s, as she sits in her sleeping lover’s lap, playing his hands, she restores William’s one hundred and eighty pounds. William wants to know how the devil she did it and, as soon as he gets the chance, he asks her to teach him her methods. She agrees, if he will help her find someone to act as her man of business. The two make a bargain, designed to win them both large sums in the gaming hells, and begin a partnership.
A Gentleman Undone is, albeit a dark one, a romance, and, from the moment Will first sees Lydia writhe in pleasure at Roanoke’s touch—and she sees him watching her—a strong sexual bond begins to build between the two. Though Will promises he’ll take no liberties and Lydia knows Roanoke would cast her out for sharing her body with another man, the two, through words, looks, and proximity, find themselves struggling greatly to keep their relationship strictly professional. Almost half the book has slipped by before the two kiss–although those hoping for incendiary passion will find their wait pays off in spades.
Lydia is an avid lover—she seduces Roanoke again and again in this book not just to keep his interest but because she likes to.
She’d never bedded a handsomer man—at least so far as she remembered—and this one prided himself on satisfying her. That was more than many women might ever enjoy.
She slid her hand over and let it rest on his thigh. She would lay waste to him tonight. To herself as well. She would hurl herself against him like a wave breaking over a rock. She would claw her way to oblivion as many times as she must, until no fragment of human feeling remained.
Her fingers inched along until they met his breeches-buttons. His eyes half-opened, groggily, and when he’d blinked about enough to sort out the circumstances, his mouth spread into a smile that promised her everything, everything, she could ever expect from a man.
This passage, though, hints at the contradiction that rules Lydia’s actions. Lydia seeks from men hard, rough, shattering sex which, though she enjoys, she also uses to destroy herself. Tormented by the role she feels she played in her family’s downfall, she became a whore with hope of literally having that choice kill her. She hasn’t any shame about the way she sells her body but, she hates herself for what she did three years ago.
This sense of shame is one that Will shares—he cannot forgive himself for what transpired between himself and Talbot. Will senses in Lydia someone who is just as dishonorable as he. He couldn’t give a damn about her sexual past or even the fact she’s fucking Roanoke—he feels a profound connection with her that he’s sure he’d never feel with an honorable woman. Or rather, with a woman society deems honorable. From the moment Will hears Roanoke speak dismissively about Lydia at the gaming tables, Will wants to defend her honor with all he has. To Will, Lydia with her brilliant mind, sly wit, and brash confidence, is honorable. Not only is she honorable, she’s worth fighting for and fighting with—Lydia does not see herself as a worthy choice for Will. Lydia sees Will as an embodiment of honor—she watches the way he is in the world and she sees him as ethically admirable. As their lives twine together, the vision each has of the other changes first the other’s self-perceptions, and next, actions. By the book’s end, Lydia and Will have embraced Pope’s belief—it’s how they live and act that defines them rather than the sins of their pasts.
This book, like its predecessor, is precisely and perfectly written. The language of the book, especially its descriptive similes and analogies are gorgeously done. There are so many places where the words on the page conjure instantly evocative, visual responses. I love the writing in this book. I love the way the reader expectations are satisfyingly confounded at every turn. I love Lydia and Will—both are absorbing characters I swear I’ve never encountered before. I like—only like–the affair between Lydia and Will. At the book’s end, Will and Lydia have put their pasts to rest and embraced each other and a committed future. But, in order to trust that happy ever after, I must trust Lydia can love Will (and herself) enough to stay with him throughout the years to come. I’m not sure Lydia, in particular, is capable of leaving her desire for self-destruction behind. I believe in the love Lydia and Will share at the book’s end; I have less confidence that Lydia will be able to sustain it.
A Gentleman Undone is a beautifully written book and one that rewards readers with a superbly novel take on historical romance. And while I lack faith in the implicit promise at the end of the book, I am wholly certain the book itself is a winner. I give it a B+