REVIEW: His Lordship’s Mistress by Joan Wolf
Dear Ms. Wolf:
I re-read your book recently in preparation for a year end list. I was shocked when I checked the DA Archives and did not see a review for it. I had to rectify that immediately. His Lordship’s Mistress is one of my favorite books and your work in the Signet Regency line was really wonderful. There are so many that I enjoy revisiting and I am so grateful that you decided to resell your ebook rights to Belgrave House so that I could buy ebook copies of many of them. I do think that His Lordship’s Mistress is the best of your stellar work in that line and I’ll do my best to convey why.
As Janine noted in the review of another of my favorite Wolf traditional regencies, A London Season, your writing style is simplistic and spare. I really enjoy that style and it’s out in full force here. His Lordship’s Mistress contains all the classic elements of a Wolf book: the heroine in trouble, gambling leading to despair, Shakespeare, and horses.
Jessica Andover has just buried her stepfather, a wastrel that gambled away her mother’s small fortune and left Jessica and her brothers with a crushing load of debt and no way to support themselves. Jessica is quite lovely and so a neighbor buys the mortgage and tells Jessica she must either marry him or he’ll foreclose on her home. Jessica refuses. She would rather sell herself than indenture herself in marriage to a man who will have control over her and her property again.
Marry for money she would not do. The thought of putting herself into the power of some man for the rest of her life filled her with horror. She might as well sell herself, she thought.
Which had brought her to her second option. She knew the amount of money her stepfather had spent on women. It appeared, she thought grimly to herself, that there was a good chance of making money by selling oneself temporarily.
Jessica tells her family that she is going to Scotland to take care of an ailing aunt who might leave her some money. She then goes to London to borrow money to pay the mortgage. The loan allows her six months to pay it off. She goes to the Convent Garden Theatre because “Men looked for mistresses who were actresses or opera dancers, so Jessica’s limited worldly wisdom told her.” She hopes to get a small part but when the manager hears her clear, beautiful voice and her aristocratic carriage, he realizes he has a find. He casts her as Juliet and a star is born.
Philip Romney, Earl of Linton, arrives in London from his country estate to find everyone talking about Jessica O’Neill. Linton is an aristocrat among aristocrats. His lineage can be traced back to the seventeenth century. He is proud but likeable; utterly correct in his aspect; and unappreciative of excess. Upon seeing Jessica perform, he determines that he’ll have her.
Everything about this book has a refined feel to it. When Linton asks Jessica to be his mistress, it is done in the most mannerly way conceivable:
"I have a house in Montpelier Square that is standing empty at the moment," he had said thoughtfully. "It would make me very happy if you would move into it and let me take care of you.”
Even in the dim light of the carriage she had been able to see the blue of his eyes. "I cannot afford to run a large establishment," she had answered in a voice that was not quite her own.
“It is not a large establishment," he had returned gently, "and of course I should make you a monthly allowance to enable you to cover all expenses."
When Jessica set out on this course to regain her independence and secure a future for her brothers, she did not imagine she would become famous or catch the attention of such a man as Linton. Linton does not expect to fall in love with his mistress. But they fall in love with each other for Jessica is a woman of depth and strength and Linton is a man of honor and purpose. Phillip begins to inexorably draw Jessica into serious society in an effort to pave the way for them to be together but everything is set against them. A man does not marry his mistress and he certainly does not marry an actress.
Their relationship and their love and their seemingly helpless situation changes them. Jessica comes to realize how foolhardy she was:
She thought back now to the arrogant, innocent girl she had been. Not for her the sitting back and allowing destiny to take its course. Not for her a convenient marriage to some unknown, boorish, rich man. It was all right for other, less proud, less determined women. Not for her. Not for Jessica Andover
Phillip’s changes aren’t as visible. While we get omniscient views of his life away from Jessica, we never get his point of view. But as a proud man whose life was smooth as glass, his will was thwarted more than once. Phillip is always viewed through the lenses of others, but we do get a full picture of who he is through his actions, dialogue, and perceptions of others.
Throughout the story, Jessica’s roles in the theatre, first Juliet and then Macbeth, provide a sort of backdrop for the movements in the book. Juliet as the young, innocent, arrogant when Jessica starts out, believing herself to come out of this unscathed. The story then moves into darker period where Jessica and Phillip are in love. Phillip, though, is more Lady Macbeth urging Jessica to screw her courage to the sticking point. (Neither are trying to kill anyone but perhaps societal expectations). Both plays represent the tragedy and doomed nature of their relationship. Despite the references to Shakespeare, this novel is not heavy. Instead it is balanced with humor, love, sadness, and, yes, sexual tension.
While the love scenes are delicate, there is something inordinately sexy in the way that Phillip would say to Jessica:
Silence had fallen, but it was the rich silence of deep, inarticulate companionship. He put down his cup and smiled at her, long and lazily. "Let’s go to bed," he said
Part of the reason, I think, is because of the restrained nature of the prose that once the reader falls into the book, like the titillation of the ankle in the Regency period, the mere reference of “bed” is provocative in His Lordship’s Mistress. This is one book in which the two acknowledge their love for each other early on, but there is significant external and internal conflict for Jessica which provides the drama for this powerful love story.
The book also contains one of my favorite romance declarations of love which Jessica makes some time after Phillip’s initial proclamation:
"I love you," she whispered to him deep in the night. "You own me, body and soul, do you know that?”
His mouth was on her, feeling her silken smoothness as she lay there, open to him as a flower lies open to the sun. His voice, when it came, was husky and unsteady. "The things a man owns, my darling, hold him far more securely than he holds them," he replied.
I don’t know what you are writing now and while I haven’t loved your recent works, I never fail to be swept away in your short novels published back in the 80s. A
This book is out of print but can be purchased in digital form from Fictionwise in DRM free formats.
What a magnificent review of a book that is consistently on my top ten … and is a frequent and beloved re-read. I hope Joan Wolf gets to read this review … I can’t imagine as an author how much it would mean to know that people were so affected by my work. I especially liked how you explained how spare and elegant was the prose … but how effective and moving it was.
I’m now eating my hat because if I said I could come to DA everyday and not need a review to entice me, I was clearly wrong. Thank you.
I do love this book. It has a couple cringe-ish moments, but the emotional message is pure and heart-rending. Jessica’s love for her family is so powerful that she takes an unheard-of step and literally climbs DOWN the social ladder just to make some money. Of course, in real life such a move would almost certainly have been disastrous, as the social code back then was inviolate. But Wolf addresses that and her happy ending doesn’t seem implausible.
My highest praise for this book (which made my Winsor list!) is that I have in my head images and scenes, such as of Jessica when he gives her a gift she can’t feel good about and of Phillip as he calmly eats his peas.
I’m very fond of this book too. I like that Wolf doesn’t shy away from testing Jessica and Phillip’s love with real hardship and adversity.
What other Joan Wolf books would you guys recommend? I read and enjoyed A London Season as well as this book, but when I tried The Counterfeit Marriage, it did not work as well for me.
I’ll check my keeper shelves when I get home and rank them … oh, I could stay here all day and just talk top 10 mistress books but tick tock, back to work!
Oh, that would be great. I love mistress books. Maybe sometime.
I love Joan Wolf’s regencies! And His Lordship’s Mistress is an annual reread for me. I also love her first-person regencies published by Warner Books in the late ’90s. My favorites are The Gamble, The Deception, and The Pretenders. I also reread them every year. I also love Golden Girl. My other very favorite is a Signet Regency The American Duchess.
She’s a prolific author who has written in a number of genres and her prehistoric and medieval books are in my TBR pile. I’ve read most of her contemporaries and enjoy them but not as much as her “older” regencies.
I think the word refinement describes her writing perfectly. Because of her refinement, though, I think that’s why we don’t see much from her lately. I don’t see refinement in many of the romances I read.
If you’ve never read Joan Wolf, you should seek out her older regencies. I love them!
I’ve never read anything by Joan Wolf. Yes, another huge hole in my romance experience! Looks like this might be a good place to start. I also have a very limited experience of mistress books. What others should I read, ladies?
This was one of my favorites too, way back when. :) Joan Wolf was definitely one of the best, if not the best, writers of Regencies during the height of the genre. Excellent stuff.
@Janine: Fool’s Masquerade is another of my favorites. It’s a chick in pants story. American Duchess is excellent. There is another one with a Scottish heroine – The Scottish Lord is risk taking. The heroine actually marries another man in the book. Difficult Truce featuring a true Irish heroine. These I liked all to a lesser degree behind HLM and London Season.
@Karen: Love The Pretenders. The heroine is such the alpha in that relationship but Wolf makes the pairing still seem equal, probably because the heroine is still young and inexperienced. I feel like for all the flaws in The Pretenders, Wolf does some pretty genre bending things in it. Another favorite of her full length books is The Arrangement.
@Angie: She is able to imbue a real sense of history in her books without being too hamfisted (most of the time). You always feel like you are experiencing the way it was when you read her books.
@Janine: Can I second the “making a list of good mistress books” idea? That would be a good “If You Like”- books about mistresses, courtesans, fallen women. I know I like it when the heroine isn’t totally squeaky clean.
@Moth: Yes, but we would have to exclude those faux mistress books. Didn’t Gaelen Foley have one of those? Hated it.
What do you say, Jane? Should I post my recs in this thread or should we do an “If You Like”?
So agree with you Jane — no faux! So real would be Blanche, in Beverley’s Rogue series, Priscilla in Balogh’s Precious Jewel — anyone who shows up in PUBLIC! (Because that’s the real no turning back part). I would say Jane too, in Balogh’s More than a Mistress. I need my keeper shelves. Just no one night and then they’re engaged and married the next week … that doesn’t say mistress to me. Another great mistress book: A Scandalous Proposal, Julia Justiss.
That’s all I can think of off the top of my head. I do think perhaps there needs to be a differentiation between mistresses and courtesans.
@Janine No, let me set up an If You Like.
Okay, cool. And thanks for all the Joan Wolf recs in this thread, Jane and Karen!
Janine, can you handle a few more recs? And in all honesty, my first over-the-top recs for Joan Wolf were found over at All About Romance — certainly His Lordship’s Mistress is a Desert Island Keeper :) … So, here’s the list. Plus I just ordered a copy of The Guardian (another first person Wolf). I’ve read more but these are on my keeper shelf. In re-reading/lurv order —
1. His Lordship’s Mistress
2. The Arrangement — horses, independent heroine, golden-eyed earl of a hero, first person: love it!
3. Beloved Stranger — perfect for baseball season: he’s the Yankee baseball superstar and she’s a shy writer. Summer Storm, the other book in the collection, is OK but Beloved Stranger is great.
4. A London Season
5. Golden Girl — access to art and independence is the attraction — the lure for her to marry the debt-ridden duke.
6. Someday Soon — a marriage of convenience. He’s Scottish, she’s the earl’s lovely daughter — they have nothing in common except chemistry. Check out how his dogs behave!
7. The American Duchess — similar to Golden Girl, don’t like it as much but it’s still got the magic
8. The Deception — first person, horses, intriguing but quite similar to The Arrangement. Definitely an “arranged” let’s say forced marriage.
Thanks so much, Janet!
This review explains why Joan Wolf sat on my auto-buy list for years.
Reading this made me stomach drop and is a great reminder that “hot” doesn’t always require details.
I hadn’t realized that Joan Wolf sold her rights to the older books, and that that’s why they’ve been coming out in ebook form. I am deeply appreciative! I still have my original print copy of The American Duchess. I’ve kept it through at least 10 moves. Because her books are coming out as ebooks, I’ve been working through the backlist, and haven’t found a single one I didn’t love. (I also really enjoy her newer books.)
His Lordship’s Mistress is a prime example of how a great writer can make any plot work. I actually don’t care at all for mistress books, but that didn’t bother me in the least when reading this book.
What I find totally fascinating is that you all remember Joan Wolf mostly for her regencies, which completely passed me by in the 80ies and I was already reading in English then, but I LOVE her two early medievals, especially the one with Alfred the Great as the hero, you so rarely get that time period
The Edge of Light (Onyx)
Born of the Sun (Onyx)
Apparently Born of the Sun is a follow-up to her Road to Avalon which I have never read, but I was able to read it perfectly as stand alone.
Both quotes from the Amazon Editorial Review section
[email protected] — I remember those, right. The Alfred book was very good. Wasn’t that a trilogy, though…? [squint/ponder]
@Angie: Well the on her website she groups The Road to Avalon together with Born of the Sun and The Edge of Light as Dark Ages of Britain. But you can read them all stand-alone definitely.
Joan Wolf Bookshelf
Oh God, I love her regencies!! Also those early contemporaries…….I kept them all, and some I paid a fortune for used!
But after the Pretenders, her books stopped working for me.
I read on her website that she had debilitating headaches which had interfered with her writing, but is now better. However, I think she is without a publisher.any publishing folks read this blog???She clearly still has an audience!
@Jane I love the excerpts you chose, which is why I must point out that “simplistic” is the wrong word for describing her prose.
Simplistic means “characterized by extreme simplism; oversimplified.” It has a negative connotation. What you meant to convey was probably “straightforward” or “unadorned.”
Also, is his name Linton or Litton? Both are used multiple times.
Otherwise, I find this book very interesting and will be hunting it down.
Anya Seton’s ‘Katherine’ is my favourite ‘Mistress’ novel – beautifully written, historically rich, heartbreaking and satisfying. On my top ten list of favourite books ever.
@Sherry Thomas Linton. I had to go look. If you are looking for a used copy, there was a re-release of the story in a duet with another story. Here it is.
His Lordship’s Mistress is probably my second favorite of Wolf’s regencies, after Margarita. I also recall being fond of The Scottish Lord, though to be honest I haven’t read any of them in years and I’m not sure how well they’d hold up these days. Margarita is very reminiscient of Mary Balogh to me.
When I went to grab His Lordship’s Mistress from the bookshelf for a re-read, I also picked up A Kind of Honor, which I think was second in the Signet Regency series for Joan Wolf (after A Counterfeit Marriage).
Here are a few reasons why I think AKOH is even better than HLM:
1. Awesome historical detail. I have no doubt that Wolf researched the actors she featured in HLM, but the standard Napoleonic Wars stuff that we’ve all read time and again seems brighter and more interesting in AKOH. First off, she’s got the whole of Europe in perspective, and second, it really serves the plot very very well.
2. Excellent depiction of spy craft, which is to say — it’s BORING. (My first husband was friends with a family devastated when the father died fairly young. Only when the obit was printed in the Times of London did his friends realize that he’d been the head of MI-6 for Eastern Europe. They just thought he was a civil servant.) AKOH isn’t boring, but then it isn’t actually too much about the spying. But it’s accurate that spying involved a lot more sitting around reading stuff than cliche cloak & dagger. Still, there’s a wonderful moment when Adam Todd, Viscount Stanford (the hero), admits to having read the baddie’s mail. This confession is met with real horror — a completely accurate historical detail from the 1950s. (Post WWII, the Brits discovered that we (US) were spying on them, and the British ambassador to the UN said, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.” That lasted for a few months…)
3. Real tension as to how things will be resolved. The conflict is very real, and apart from just a bit too much emphasis on how noble and self-sacrificing the heroine is, her choices look pretty meager indeed. And when they fall in love, it’s painful for them, and exciting for us. All of which is in HLM, but there’s a bit of coincidence necessary for the protags to have their HEA at the end of HLM, and no such slight of hand for the denouement of AKOH.
4. Gorgeous protags, although that’s hardly a leg up on HLM…
5. Far fewer instances of the adverb, “serenely.” In fact, I think the writing is noticeably better in AKOH, and I have a very high opinion of Wolf’s writing style. It’s just that she falls back a bit on some tired tropes, and they wear thin (for me) in HLM. Okay, so supposedly the protags in AKOH are all self-contained but every single one of their friends can correctly interpret the briefest of looks they give each other and suddenly Know All, but even that sort of thing seemed easier to swallow in AKOH. With HLM, I kept wondering — if she’s such a great actress, how come everyone knows what she’s trying to hide all the time?
6. Good, maybe even great, use of kids in AKOH. They aren’t merely dei ex machina, they actually have personalities and opinions. It’s true the plot wouldn’t work without them, but they’re mini-secondary characters. By contrast, I noticed something with HLM that I’d not thought of before. When Jess goes to London but tells her family she’s going to Scotland, and the kids are at school, who’s actually running the stud at Winchcombe?
Okay, I’ll shut up now.