NOTE: This was orignally published under the title “The Respectable Miss Parkington-Smith.
“Vibrant, titian-haired Cassandra Shelbrooke adored her husband Francis. Not only had he taken her from the stage and made her mistress of his elegant home in Hanover Square, but he pleasured her in ways that none of her dozens of former suitors would ever have dreamed of. And yet, only six months after their wedding, Cassandra knew their marriage was on the brink of ruin.
Their wills were too strong for either to force the other in submission, their passion too great for compromise. But all at once they found themselves caught up in a dangerous affair of intrigue and violence that led them far from the fashionable world of the ton to the sordid depths of London’s criminal netherworld – and on Paradise Row, where rogues and cutthroats gathered, they found themselves fighting desperately for their lives … and their love…”
Wow, that’s a fairly dramatic back cover blurb. Watching the programs “City of Vice” and “Garrow’s Law” made me think of this Paula Allardyce novel that I’d read years ago and pull it out for a reread. One thing I really like about her books is that they’re different. Either the characters are different or she uses an unusual setting or features something in the plot that I’ve rarely – if ever – seen in other books. Here the married couple are now past that honeymoon happy glow phase and dealing with the humdrum of married life, she was an actress before her marriage, and he has a batty, old distant relative who is determined to stay in the home her papa left her despite the fact that the neighborhood has now deteriorated to the point that she basically lives in a slum. And not just a slum as she’s surrounded by London’s criminal world of pimps, prostitutes, thieves, counterfeiters, highwaymen and worse.
Most romances end with the HEA or maybe with an epilogue that shows how amazingly in love our couple is. If we see them in a series then usually it’s a fertility check and to watch them still making goo-goo eyes at each other 2-3 years later. Not here though. Okay, so we never saw the initial gushy romance but there are brief, yet eloquent, things that are mentioned that show Francis and Cassie were deeply in love when they married. Six months later it’s just that the routine of making the social rounds doesn’t hold the glitz Cassie thought it might since the catty wives tried to snub her – though Cassie has her own successful way of getting even – and the actual work of running a household is just that, work. Francis is still madly in love with Cassie but her love of drama and habit of turning everything into “playing a role” tends to wear if it’s done constantly. One major argument has now turned into an exercise in pride though everyone in the household is pulling for a reunion. Francis’s younger half-brother James – who is often truant from school – also plays a major role as do old family retainers, a transplanted African bare knuckles boxer, a highwayman and a young whore.
What turns out to save Francis and Cassie’s marriage, and gets James out of the boarding school he despises, is Miss Parkington-Smith and her stubborn determination to stay in her house. As with most Allardyce books, there is a villain and a mystery – both of which the reader soon figures out – and clues that various characters have but need to put together to solve what’s going on. There’s some commentary on the lives of the poor that is just as relevant today as it was then. Arabella Parkington-Smith is also a character not to be missed as I don’t think I’ve read about such a vinegary, sour, mule headed yet also staunchly brave person in almost any other book. You want to bop her in the head and haul her out the door of her house for her own good – as does Francis – but also stand up and applaud her stand against the bully boys sent to drive her out. For a trip into the dark world of the London slums of the 18th century and a marriage on the rocks, try “Paradise Row.” B