Dear Ms. Burrowes—
I’d read your debut novel, The Heir, and enjoyed it. When Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal came available for review, I snapped it up and I’m glad I did. It’s not the best historical romance I’ve read recently–2012 has thus far been a very good year in historical romance–but it was a pleasure to read and routinely made me laugh. However, before I launch into a more detailed analysis of it, I must make a declaration to the readers of this review.
Many reviewers of historical romance care deeply about the accuracy of the temporal period rendered in a novel. I don’t. To paraphrase the grand Rupert Giles from (my favorite TV show of all time) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “if it’s an investment in historical authenticity you’re looking for, Dear Author readers, I’m not your girl. All you will get from me is a complaint if and only if the error is so great it derails my enjoyment of the story.” I couldn’t tell you whether or not the historical details are correct in this book. At one point, when the hero marvels at the lack of paint of the heroine’s nails, I wondered if all titled ladies of the time wore nail polish. I then continued to read.
This novel is the fifth featuring the interwoven tales of the Windham family. I’ve only read The Heir, but found this book to function fine as a stand-alone. There is lots of information about the heroine’s family and their lives, but, with the exception of how her two eldest brothers died, I was able to understand most of what came before this tale. Maggie Windham is, at thirty, the oldest daughter of the Duke of Duke of Moreland. She’s a by-blow—Maggie’s mother is a vile monstrous strumpet with whom the Duke slept with prior to his long and loving marriage to the Duchess of Moreland. The Duke and Duchess adopted Maggie when she was a young child and have treated her as one of their own ever since. Maggie loves her family deeply and will do and has done anything to protect them.
It is the aspect of Maggie’s nature, her fierce, even irrational desire to shield her family from scandal, that propels the plot of this book. Maggie is missing her purse in which are letters she is determined no one see. After searching for a week or so on her own, she turns to help from the Hon. Benjamin Hazlit, a man who has previously helped her family with a discrete investigation. Ben, a man with secrets of his own, agrees to help her and is immediately stymied by her utter unwillingness to disclose any information about what was actually in the reticule and why she is so terrified of these unknown objects falling into another’s hands.
Ben, who has long been attracted to Maggie but believes—those secrets again—he’d best not marry, is determined to find out what on earth it is that has Maggie Windham so scared. He suggests to her the two pretend to be courting which will give him an excuse to be in her household and company without her reputation suffering. She reluctantly agrees—she does want him to help her get her bag back, but she does not want him to learn the truth she’s kept secret from her family for the past fifteen years. (Readers: don’t panic. This is not a Secret Baby story.) As the two spend time together, their fake courtship slips precariously into something real and, despite how marvelously alive Ben’s kisses and caresses make Maggie feel, she is adamant nothing may come of their relationship. She believes the secret she keeps in order not to have her family shamed would also shame any man she married and, because she genuinely cares for Ben, she’s resolute her scandal will not touch his life.
I loved Ben—he’s a fabulous hero. Ben is actually the Earl of Hazelton but lives as though he’s not—the reasons he does so are complex and he wonders daily about the choices he’s made. He’s very witty—as are many of the characters in your book—and he has wonderful sense of self-awareness. Perhaps my favorite scenes in the book occur between him and his cousin, co-hort, and heir, Archer Holloway. Archer is wonderfully written—he’s a sidekick who transcends that role by dint of wit, intelligence, and very funny insights into Ben’s life. Archer works with Ben and, unlike Ben who is ready to hang up his Sam Spade shingle, Archer loves all the skulking about that goes with discovering whose Lady is cheating on which Lord or where some young Earl’s pin money is really going. Each night, the two men sit and discuss the happenings of the day. These conversations are routinely amusing.
“You were off in the bushes with Maggie Windham,” Archer Holloway said, passing Hazlit a glass with two fingers of brandy in it. “That’s two encounters in one week, Benjamin. What’s afoot?”
“My ruin.” Hazlit nodded his thanks for the drink and settled on the library’s leather sofa. “No sign of Lady Norcross this evening, at least not on my territory.”
“I picked her up at Lady Bonratty’s musicale, but she left in her own carriage and took it all the way home.” Holloway pushed back to sit on Hazlit’s desk, his arse on a stack of reports.
“Wee, wee, wee, wee all the way home,” Hazlit quoted the nursery rhyme.
Holloway paused before sipping his own drink. “Did Maggie Windham strike you on the head?”
“No. She hired me, and it took me half my walk home to figure out what she’s truly about.”
“She wants to have her way with your tender young flesh,” Holloway suggested. “You’re overdue to get your wick dipped, you know.”
“Your concern is touching, Archer.”
“You always get short-tempered when you’ve neglected your romping. Maybe you should go a round or two with Lady Norcross.”
“Maybe I should find a partner who can think beyond his next swiving.”
“I like swiving.” Holloway pushed off the desk and refilled his drink, then came to rest on the sofa a couple of feet from Hazlit. “It’s normal to like swiving. Lady Norcross apparently understands this. You used to understand this. I certainly understand it. More brandy?”
Ben loves Archer as well as his two sisters and as he spends time with Maggie it becomes clear to him that all the Windhams love her deeply and that she, in the name of saving them from scandal, has kept them at a remove from herself. In Maggie’s quest to shelter her family, she has given up any real emotional closeness with them—she is afraid to let them truly know her and one who is not known cannot be truly loved. As Ben begins to take in how lonely and frightened Maggie has been for years, he realizes he wants to make her feel cherished and protected. His efforts in this regard are often overbearing but they are exactly right. Maggie’s choices have harmed her but she’s been making them so long she can’t see any other way to be. Ben, with his humor, his sensual wooing, and his conviction that the repercussions of Maggie’s secret scandal, whatever they are, aren’t worth the aloneness she’s limited her life to, is the perfect man for Maggie.
Maggie was a harder character for me. She’s, ultimately, a misguided martyr. This would have bothered me less had she been less intelligent. But Maggie is brilliant. She’s a genius with money, her family—all of whom are talented and smart—see her as the brightest of the bunch. The ways in which she’s viewed and guarded her secret for so long—and I could see this long before the truth was revealed in the end of the story—are, at best misguided and, at worst, unthinking. She has, for years, allowed Cecily, her birth mother, to blackmail her and, rather than taking action to solve this problem, she kowtows to Cecily’s demands, distances herself from all who love her and doesn’t use her big brain to devise some less devastating path for herself. I enjoyed Maggie as Ben’s paramour—their scenes together are engaging—but I found her passivity in the face of this threat that determines every choice she makes frustrating. Even as she falls in love with Ben she refuses to allow herself a future with him. I had moments when she says yet again
She would miss his embrace—miss it sorely, for all her remaining days and nights,
I wanted to give her a good shake and admonish her to stop being so unnecessarily tragic.
Maggie’s actions are even more baffling when taken in the context of her parents—the Duke and Duchess of Moreland. They, like Archer, are wonderfully depicted. Their marriage is a strong one—textured and real. Their love for their children and for one another is evident and yet is never presented as mawkish or unbelievable. At one point, the Duke is talking to Ben about his (the Duke’s) worries about Maggie.
She’s in want of… dreams, I think. My other girls have dreams. Sophie dreamed of her own family, Jenny loves to paint, Louisa has her literary scribbling, and Evie must racket about the property as her brothers used to, but Maggie has never been a dreamer.
Maggie’s father and adopted mother are strong, powerful, loving parents. It’s starkly clear they are not the sorts who need to be protected by one of their children. I accepted Maggie’s choices—without them there would have been no plot—but they didn’t ring true to me. I liked the story—I think you did a great job of resolving your tale—but I never made my peace with Maggie’s self-destructive behavior. I wanted her to want more for herself.
I did like this book. I found myself underlining line after line for their subtle hilarity. In one of their many conversations about their children’s wellbeing, Esther, the Duchess, asks Percy, the Duke, what he thinks of a young man who may or may not be interested in their youngest daughter. The Duke replies:
“He’s struggling a bit,” His Grace said. A neutral answer that applied to most men between toddlerhood and senescence.
Late in the book, when Ben and Archer are close to devising a plot to finally foil Cecily, Ben teases Archer about Adele, the woman Archer loves. Ben suggests,
“…when you again impale the fair Adele on your fierce blade, be sure and tell her she could be the mother of the next Earl of Hazelton. She might consider your suit despite the dimensions of your blade.”
Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal is, despite frustrating behavior on the part of Lady Maggie, a fine historical romance. It’s got a winner of a hero, great secondary characters, is well-written and amusing, and has excellent love scenes. I give it a B.