REVIEW: A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal by Meredith Duran
Dear Ms. Duran,
To my way of thinking, a new book by you is always a cause for celebration, given that your previous books have all earned A minuses or B pluses from me. So I sat down to read A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal with high hopes – hopes that were luckily not disappointed.
The opening scenes of the book introduce us to two characters from very different stations in life, two characters who are about to meet and whose meeting will have an enormous impact on their future paths. Nell Whitby is leaving her job at the cigar factory, tired and dispirited. The work there is unhealthy (the lack of ventilation is problematic) and soul-crushing, but Nell is desperately poor and has to support her sick mother, who is bed-ridden with a lung ailment she contracted after years of working in the same factory. Nell also has to contend with her bitter, violent stepbrother Michael, who after an unsuccessful flirtation with political radicalism has descended into heavy drinking and who wants to whore Nell out to fund his vices. As Nell walks home from the factory with her best friend Hannah, they spy a photograph of a socialite in a shop window, a young woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nell (as you might guess, this resemblance does not turn out to be coincidental).
Simon St. Maur is introduced while in attendance (rather desultory attendance on his part, it should be said) at a sort of bacchanal/orgy/faux-Hellfire Club type party. Simon is on the lookout for a man he’s trying to buy a book back from. His mind is weighted down, though, by thoughts of impending financial crisis. Simon has recently inherited the titled of the Earl of Rushden, but the spiteful previous earl arranged it so that none of the wealth of the estate will go to Simon. Instead, it will go to the late earl’s daughter Katherine, and Simon will be left with a lot of debts he has no way of paying.
Back in the slums, Nell’s mother confesses that Nell is the Earl of Rushden’s daughter and that she’d stolen her away to protect her (a plot detail, that, come to think of it, is never really explained too well; Nell’s mother – who was actually servant in the family home – is depicted as being kind of nutty, but a clearer understanding of her motivation wouldn’t have gone amiss). Nell immediately writes Rushden, not realizing he’s already dead, seeking money for medical care for her mother. When her letters go unanswered and Nell’s mother dies, Nell goes to her father’s home, seeking revenge. She encounters the new earl, Simon, who happens to be buck-naked and more amused than alarmed by the guttersnipe holding a pistol on him. He quickly sees her resemblance to Lady Katherine (the socialite from the picture Nell had spied earlier), and just as quickly begins to see how he could turn the situation to his advantage. Simon has been battling Katherine in court over the fortune that comes with the title, but he’s just lost the case. He can’t get the money that way, but if he were to marry Lady Katherine’s long-lost missing twin, Lady Cornelia – Nell – then he would be entitled to half of the money, at least. (Well, Nell would, but in that era, that would essentially mean the money would be Simon’s.)
Simon seizes the opportunity with a very confused Nell, who doesn’t understand why he’s not calling the watch on her, since she sort of tried to kill him. She’s hoping he’ll just let her go, and hoping as well that she can take a few knick-knacks from the house on her way, to sell. Nell had been raised right, and it shames her to stoop to thievery, but she had been forced to in order to try to get money for a doctor for her mother. A friend was accused of stealing money that Nell actually stole, and now Nell sees the opportunity to scrape some money together to get her released from jail.
So, we have both Simon and Nell looking to use each other; Simon wants access to the money Nell will get if she’s declared to be the missing Lady Cornelia. Nell wants to stay around long enough to acquire dresses and various other items she can sell when she goes back to her old life. She’s concerned because she lost her job at the cigar factory after the hubbub with her friend being arrested; she’s also trying to dodge her stepbrother Michael, whose violent streak she fears.
The middle part of the book covers Simon’s Pygmalion-esque attempts to transform Nell into somebody he can introduce to society and have credibly accepted as the missing Lady Cornelia. Nell is alternately a defiant and compliant student; it does help that her mother (I’m using “mother” throughout this review to refer to Jane Whitby, the servant who stole Nell, just for clarity’s sake) did educate Nell pretty thoroughly – she may not know which utensil to use with which dinner course, but she can discuss Shakespeare.
I really liked Simon; this passage encompasses part of the reason why:
No day was brighter than those in which he discovered some new aspect of his power. The House of Lords was largely toothless these days, but he’d taken his seat at the first opportunity. He belonged to all the best clubs, though he had no interest in the company. Various corporations asked him onto their boards, not for his nonexistent business acumen but for the honor of having his name on the charter, and he always, immediately agreed. The fawning adulation of shareholders did not interest him, but he simply liked that he could have it, should the mood ever seize him.
I love the fact that Simon isn’t one of those business wunderkind English lords, and that he acknowledges it. There’s an honesty about the above passage that is rare in the characterization of romance heroes and heroines. Is Simon less admirable than one of those noble nobles? Maybe, but I find flaws more interesting than virtues in romance heroes and heroines, and it should be noted that Simon does grow and change in the course of the book.
Nell, too, is a bit of something different. She and Simon are naturally at odds early in the story, but at the same time she shows a natural and understandable longing for a connection with him:
The grin did it. Felt silly to be nervous when he was acting so companionable. And how much she’d been longing for a bit of friendly conversation! She hadn’t realized until this moment just how lonely she’d been feeling. Wasn’t much point to pretty clothes without a chance to try them out on a man.
Nell is lonely in the great big mansion she’s been plunked down in; the servants look down on her and she is unmoored from everything familiar. Her reactions are totally natural but I was still struck by the difference between her and a more stereotypical romance heroine, one for whom “spunk” and “pride” always takes precedence. It’s these little details, these vulnerabilities, which bring characters alive for me as a reader.
Despite the fact that I liked Simon, I was a little uncomfortable with the power imbalance between Simon and Nell through a good part of the story. Sure, Simon *needs* Nell, but given his gender and position in society, he’s too easily able to intimidate her into doing what he wants. I mostly didn’t mind him being a jerk, because I expected in the end that he’d reform, but a couple of times he pushed things to the point where I felt uneasy about it. It’s completely realistic that Nell would be cowed by Simon, but that didn’t mean I liked reading about it. To be clear, Nell’s not a pushover; she’s just realistic about what Simon can do to her versus what she can do to him. All she can really do steal knickknacks against the future possibility that Simon’s whole scheme will collapse. Actually, I found Nell’s petty thievery sad and rather touching:
By the light of the candle she arranged the items on the carpet: candlesticks; doilies; a slim, illustrated volume of Regency-era fashions; a silver spoon; an enameled bowl the color of the summer sky. The bowl fit perfectly into her cupped palm. It was small enough to be ignored and dismissed. But a canny pawnshop broker would recognize its weight and fine glaze as proof of its value. It might easily fetch money for five months of food.
This passage does a good, visceral job of illustrating to me as a reader the inequity between the wealth of the world that Simon inhabits, and the abject poverty of Nell’s world. A small, palm-sized bowl – probably nothing but a decorative bauble in Simon’s household – could keep Nell in food (probably not much food, and probably not good food, but food) for almost half a year. It’s certainly no wonder that she feels the differences in their stations so keenly.
Actually, Nell’s reaction to the abundance of food around her is even more touching. She is in raptures at every meal, though she becomes frustrated when the etiquette coach hired by Simon to whip her into shape begins observing her and correcting he on her eating. The problem is not so much the rules about how to sip soup from a spoon properly (from the side, never from the tip), but the stricture against eating everything on your plate, asking for seconds, eating more than the tips of the asparagus, etc. The rules become progressively more bizarre and byzantine – at the fruit and cheese course, Nell is told that ladies never actually eat the cheese. The stupider the rules got, the more I sympathized with Nell; given her background and past experiences with hunger, these rules probably seemed sadistic as well as pointless.
I keep going back to Nell’s vulnerability (and Simon’s, too, since it keeps him from being too much of a high-handed ass). I think why it worked for me so well is that I don’t like weak heroines, but I also certainly don’t like so-spunky-they’re-stupid heroines. Nell was neither. She acts tough (which makes sense, given her background), but as the reader is privy to her thoughts, we know how needy she feels inside, and we know when she feels afraid. On her wedding night with Simon, Nell has conflicting and complex feelings about the consummation of her marriage. She’s not simply in the grip of mindless lust (though that’s there, too):
She wanted to take the step. It scared her and it drew her. They were married now—before God and man, as the saying went. She wanted to stay on his side of the bridge. She wanted to be done with hunger, with cold, with fear. He was as beautiful as the world in which he lived. She wanted to stay with him forever.
Nell doesn’t yet love Simon, but she wants what he can give her, materially and physically. That doesn’t seem too radical, but for a romance heroine it’s refreshingly self-interested thinking. After all, how many romance heroines aren’t really allowed to have sex with a man, even a man they are married to, unless they are in the grip of True Love?
I waited anxiously for Nell’s twin, the Lady Katherine, to appear on the scene. It happens fairly late in the book, and though she’s the catalyst for some pretty big developments, she isn’t really as big a part of the story as maybe she should be, given that she is Nell’s twin. Nell actually evinces little interest in her “real” family – she’s somewhat curious about Katherine, but thinks of her father only once or twice and her mother barely at all. It’s actually Simon who is attached to memories of Nell’s mother (which makes sense, given that she raised him, more or less). He is trying to buy back books (as mentioned in his opening scene) that Rushden sold, books that were important to Nell’s mother. While I do like a tight focus on the h/h relationship, I think, given the circumstances, a bit more attention could’ve been paid to Nell’s feelings about having been deprived of her real family for all those years.
In the same vein, one thing did strike an odd note: Nell was supposedly taken when she was six, but she has very few, very hazy memories of her life as Lady Cornelia (and those only come up after she finds out her true identity). It’s indicated that Jane Whitby discouraged Nell from talking about the past, and thus Nell probably had something akin to repressed memories, but I would’ve liked to have seen that aspect of the story made a bit clearer. It seems strange that she would entirely forget her previous life, especially her twin sister, if she had lived that life until age six.
Nell and Simon have a weird symmetry in that each were taken away from their birth parents, and of course Simon was raised by the parents whom Nell was kidnapped from. Yet Simon’s childhood was less than idyllic, chiefly because Rushden was very hard on him. I like the way Simon’s complex feelings about Nell and her father are acknowledged:
When the mood struck, she could deal a set-down as sharp as any her father ever authored. The thought gave him pause. Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that the first woman to truly capture his interest in years also happened to be the first to disapprove of him so sternly. He wasn’t in the business of sticking his head into the sand: he could see that his feelings for her might contain an echo of his old, quixotic quest. In her disapproval, she bore more than a passing resemblance to Rushden—whom he’d tried to please, time and again, until it had become clear that his own spirit would be the cost for it.
Simon’s character really unfolds slowly; at first he seems to be a standard-issue rogue, though not quite as bad as society apparently views him to be. It only becomes clear later in the story that Simon’s self-assessment is somewhat skewed by his treatment at the hands of Nell’s father, who was his guardian. Simon spent his childhood in a futile quest to please the old earl. Much like Nell, thrust into this new world, Simon suffers from feelings of inadequacy. All the things he wants that at first seem to be superficial trappings – wealth, social position, title – are to him actually protection against being found inadequate. Seen in that light, Simon’s behavior is a lot more understandable, though still high-handed at times. Simon also has an avid interest in music; he composes pieces anonymously and sponsors talented performers. Though music is clearly very important to him, it’s hard for him to reveal the depth of his attachment, even to Nell once they are married. Simon and Nell are really very alike in the issues they deal with – insecurity and a fear of making oneself vulnerable.
You would think this would make for a frustrating and fitful romance, and to a degree, it does. Simon, having more power in the relationship (really, almost all the power), is more comfortable than Nell with expressing the growing depth of his feelings for her. Nell takes quite a bit longer to feel confident in the relationship, which given her background and what’s at stake for her, is entirely understandable.
The first two-thirds of the book are heavily character-based rather than action based; when the action kicks in starting in the last third, it does make the book feel a little unbalanced. But since I love character-based romances, I and quite liked Simon and Nell, it didn’t bother me too much. I didn’t mind the fact that Nell needed an external catalyst to really come to see that she trusted and loved Simon. The villains was fairly cardboard, though the participation of Nell’s twin Katherine in some unsavory behavior was intriguing. I wouldn’t mind Katherine getting her own book.
Overall, I really enjoyed A Lady’s Lesson in Scandal quite a bit. My grade for it is an A-.
And now, a word from Lazaraspaste:
Dear Ms. Duran,
With the exception of Written On Your Skin, I have read all of your previous books and have enjoyed them. Not only for the emotionally satisfying relationships portrayed, but because you employ a denser prose style than many current authors, a prose style that shows an attention to detail and language that I feel often enhances the experience of reading the romance. Moreover, you often choose characters outside of the usual types that populate the historical romance.
A Lady’s Lesson In Scandal is no exception to either of these traits.
Nell Whitby is a factory girl. She works long hours for little pay and what money she does manage to bring home is quickly spent by her step-brother, Michael. Any coin left over Nell spends on her mother, a woman who is slowly dying. Still, Nell dreams of a better life, just not one with fine carriages and silk dresses. Nell’s desires begin and end in her world, the world of Bethnel Green. What she wants is both idealistic and practical. She wants windows in the cigar factory where she and her mother worked, windows that would bring ventilation and prevent others from getting the lung disease that is slowly killing her mother. She wants to marry a man who loves her more than she loves him, someone steady and good who will not use her love of him against her like Michael does his wife Susie. And maybe, just maybe, she dreams of having enough money to buy a decent pair of gloves. But at the moment, more than any of these things, Nell wants enough money to hire a proper doctor for her mother.
But nothing really changes in Bethnel Green. Nell’s request for windows has singled her out as a troublemaker at the factory. And what money she does have is spent by Michael on drink. Michael, who was once an idealist like herself; wanting and working towards bettering working conditions and unionization until it was beaten out of him during a riot. Nell knows that no decent doctor is going to come to Bethnel Green to look at a dying factory woman. So she is careful not to hope, to keep the anger tamped down, and to carefully skirt disaster by remaining silent and anonymous. That is until she and her friend, Hannah, spot a picture of a professional beauty in the window of a shop, a professional beauty who looks just like Nell. But Lady Katherine’s likeness doesn’t flatter Nell, it doesn’t give her anything but a deep sense of foreboding, a foreboding that seems to manifest itself when that evening her mother reveals to her that Nell is not the daughter of a farmer, but of Lord Rushden.
Lord Rushden is dead and the new earl, Simon St. Maur is in a bit of a financial pickle. His predecessor, a distant relation, was not particularly fond of him and made sure that all the money associated with the earldom was settled on his twin daughters. Yes, every single sou that could possibly have been separated from the entailment was, leaving Simon St. Maur broke. The only choice he now has is to marry an heiress. So when a girl, a girl who looks exactly like Lady Katherine, comes barging into his bedroom intent on killing Lord Rushden, it is as if fate has finally smiled on him.
Simon believes that Nell is in fact the missing heiress, not just some look alike. Indeed, what is the likelihood of twins having a third and unrelated doppelganger? So I don’t think I’m giving anything away in saying that it is fairly clear to the reader that Miss Nell Whitby is in fact the missing daughter of the Earl of Rushden pretty much from the get-go. As such, Simon proposes marriage to Nell a solution both to his financial problems and a fitting revenge to the dead man who hated him enough to deprive him of the money to run the earldom. Nell, though, isn’t sure what to believe. She agrees because she is desperate . . . and yes, curious.
This then, is not a book about the mystery of Nell’s identity. Although, I would argue that all romances are inherently about the mystery of identity. But that’s just metaphysics. Rather, much like your other books, this is a carefully crafted character study about how two very different people manage to fall in love. And that is the heart of the conflict of this book. Nell grew up from the age of six years old thinking that she was a commoner, having the expectation of work, of knowing that work—hard work—was what her life was and would always be. Luxury in her mind is a slightly worn pair of gloves. Dignity is not having to kneel in the mud to pick a few extra pennies. Wealth is having more than enough food than you could ever eat. Whereas Simon is a man who understands that wealth is power, and power is being able to make people believe things, to bend them to your will.
“To ignore the world’s opinions,” he said against her skin. “Or to create their opinions for them,” He lifted her hand to his face, pressing her palm along his cheek. “That’s a heady drug,” he said, and for a confused moment, she though he meant the sensation of his skin, freshly shaved, hot and smooth.
What an odd thing to do, to make a woman touch your cheek.
Because of this distance in power and perception, Nell can’t allow herself to fully trust Simon, even though she wants to. She is wary of his motivations and believes that even if she was at one time Lady Cecelia, she is not now. That the years of being Nell Whitby, factory girl, have made her Nell Whitby, factory girl and no amount of fine dresses or dance lessons will change that.
Neither can Simon, despite proposing marriage and honorable intentions—honorable as far as a marriage of convenience goes—fully put his future in Nell’s hands. Even if she is the heiress, they have to prove it to the courts. And if they can’t, then he’ll still need to marry an heiress. So there you have it. She can’t totally trust him and he needs an exit clause. But even if they can come to some resolution regarding trust and money, the real gap between them is in their world views, in how they see the people, things and ideas around them. Even once they are married, Nell is aware of this fact, aware that Simon has a control over his universe in a way that she has never had and might never have even as the Countess of Rushden:
Nonsense, clever nonsense, all spun in Simon’s low, smooth voice. He was a bloody genius with these people, slicker than any confidence artist, more popular than whisky in a room full of Irishmen. People doted on his remarks. They courted him and he rewarded them for it, lavishing his charm on anyone who wanted it, using his free hand to flirt, to deliver glancing brushes over ladies’ wrists and solid, manly clasps to gentlemen’s shoulders. He radiated approval, amusement, belonging, and people gathered to him like stars around the moon. Under his influence, their avid curiosity about her shifted into simpler warmth; they looked at her anew, seeing not a grotesque surprise but a delightful discovery, Rushden’s discovery.
As I said above, part of what made this book for me a cut above the average is the way Duran uses prose. The characters and their relationship with each other, their romance is primarily developed through dialogue, through the exchange of language. This is important because the conflict is a conflict of ideas, of perspectives. The only way to bridge this gap, the gap between how Simon sees the world and how Nell sees the world, is to speak to one another. The reader is not simply told that the two grow closer, begin to understand each other, fall in love, etc. but shown throughout the book in scene after scene, in encounter after encounter. And those encounters do not use Simon’s good looks or Nell’s chin to make their point, but Simon’s words and Nell’s words. Because the really amazing thing about books is that they paint a world entirely in words. They give us the interior lives of people only through the manipulation of twenty-six letters in an alphabet. And somehow, in doing so a book can make me feel what the characters feel, make anxious and sad and happy, can make my heart palpitate and my eyes dilate. For instance:
He smiled against her mouth, delighted with himself, with how unexpected this moment was becoming: a hundred clichés came to mind as their tongues tangled, clichés made vibrant by the wondrous truths they suddenly appeared to contain. He closed his eyes, fighting the urge to gather her to him, to push himself up against her, into her, to crush her beneath him. My God, she is sweet.
A story is just words on a page, but a really good story makes me think that somewhere, somehow these characters exist, have bodies and thoughts separate from the author or the narrator. So snatches and quotations can’t properly convey why this romance works so well, because like all good romances the pleasure of the story is experienced best by reader when reading it from the first to the last page. A-