REVIEW: Portrait of a Scotsman by Evie Dunmore
Going toe-to-toe with a brooding Scotsman is rather bold for a respectable suffragist, but when he happens to be one’s unexpected husband, what else is an unwilling bride to do?
London banking heiress Hattie Greenfield wanted just three things in life:
1. Acclaim as an artist.
2. A noble cause.
3. Marriage to a young lord who puts the gentle in gentleman.
Why then does this Oxford scholar find herself at the altar with the darkly attractive financier Lucian Blackstone, whose murky past and ruthless business practices strike fear in the hearts of Britain’s peerage? Trust Hattie to take an invigorating little adventure too far. Now she’s stuck with a churlish Scot who just might be the end of her ambitions….
When the daughter of his business rival all but falls into his lap, Lucian sees opportunity. As a self-made man, he has vast wealth but holds little power, and Hattie might be the key to finally setting long-harbored political plans in motion. Driven by an old desire for revenge, he has no room for his new wife’s apprehensions or romantic notions, bewitching as he finds her.
But a sudden journey to Scotland paints everything in a different light. Hattie slowly sees the real Lucian and realizes she could win everything–as long as she is prepared to lose her heart.
Dear Evie Dunmore,
I was so excited about this book and in dreadful anticipation of its release. I had the happy butterflies in my belly that only happen when a new book by an author I love is being released. I have read (and re read) the previous book in this series, (The League of Extraordinary Women) A Rogue of One’s Own, which I absolutely adore. This series is composed of three interconnected books following the lives of three suffragettes in late Victorian England. The first book, Bringing Down the Duke, documents the love story between a Duke and Annabel, suffragette scholar and vicar’s daughter, the second book follows the romantic entanglements of Lucy a suffragette leader and her arch-nemesis Lord Ballantine, as they duel over ownership of a publishing house, and this third installment follows the story of Hattie, the daughter of a wealthy banker and financier Lucian Blackstone, who fall into a marriage of convenience.
The plot centers around the differences—in both class, temperament and ambition—between Hattie and Lucien. They are from two different worlds, but come to share a world together. She is sunny natured and optimistic, he is cynical and brooding, she is from a wealthy banking family looking to climb the social ladder, he is a financier with a shady past and unknown origin, her ambitions are to marry well and continue to develop her ‘art’, his is to make money and gain access to power. The only thing they share at the start of the story is their appreciation for art and an elemental attraction. The first section of the book builds on this tension—what kind of relationship can two people that are so different and seemingly unsuited to each other, have? This book has many tropes–marriage of convenience, class difference, and also road trip romance.
Generally there are two types of romances (in real life and in books)—between people who appear dissimilar but are actually very alike, and between those that really are different. In your book A Rogue of One’s Own, Lucy and Ballantine appear very dissimilar, but actually the whole romance is about how they discover how alike they actually are (I elaborate on this in my review of that book.) In Portrait of a Scotsman, one of the tensions of the book is around the differences in Hattie and Blackstone’s personality. Hattie is sunny natured, optimistic, prone to flights of fancy and profoundly innocent. She is also directionless and spoiled and lacks knowledge and experience of the real world. Blackstone on other hand, is cynical and emotionally scarred, driven by a desire to accumulate power and by revenge. He is also cold and calculating and controlling.
The book can be divided into three parts—the first part is where the hero and heroine meet, then fall into an arranged marriage, the second part is what happens during the hasty and unhappy marriage, and the third part takes place in Scotland where they go on a ‘honeymoon.’ I devoured the first half of the book, which I thought was well paced and beautifully written, but once the action moved to Scotland, I started to lose interest. At 448 pages, the book is too long and parts of the narrative especially towards the end, really dragged. There are so many conflicts introduced, I stopped believing that they could really make it work. I didn’t spend enough time with Hattie and Lucien being ‘happy’ or together.
The first part—the meeting/courtship phase—was wonderful. The book begins with one of the cutest first meet scenes I’ve ever read. Hattie arrives on the wrong day during a storm, for a tour of a private art collection. She has a tension filled—and romantic—encounter with Lucien Blackstone that sets the story into motion. The dynamic that unfolds between them is rooted in a strong physical attraction and the simmering energy between them is thrilling—you evoke that feeling of attraction so very well. The writing in this first part really shines. Hattie is an innocent sheltered girl but her innocence is not ignorance. She is not timid or shy, but she is also not worldly. She is described by Lucien as a new woman “ A woman with opinions, a bluestocking.” Where he is calculated, she is guileless, where he is world weary, her knowledge of the world is still fresh. After his first encounter with Hattie Lucien thinks to himself, “ It would explain the visceral pull in his gut when first clapping eyes on her, a sensation every seasoned thief knew when he spotted something precious.” For Hattie, the attraction is more basic. She shivers at the memory of his kiss, she experiences a kind of physical awakening or sharpening of her senses. This is epitomized in a scene early on where she debates the relationship between art and experience with a potential suitor in art class. “ Do you think it is possible to make good art without experience?” Hattie asks. This becomes a central concern in the book, the matter of what art means, what its impact is, the role it can play in society. Hattie wants to create something that is moving and true—she wants to connect experience with empathy, she wants something above the ordinary concerns of her class and her gender. This flourishes into her artistic pursuits and the discovery of hidden talents later in the book. This is one of the kernels of interest that makes the book so compelling—as with the best romances, it is not only about her and Lucien’s relationship, it is about her own awakening as a person. In fact, she is searching for awakening, for knowledge, for experience, for purpose, before she even meets Lucien. Her relationship with him becomes a conduit in a way, to her flourishing and growth. She grows separately from him, and with him, and in spite of him.
There is an aspect of realness, rich detail and historical accuracy that you excel at in all of your books. The brief encounters that happen between Hattie and Lucien were achingly romantic, and their consequences were gut wrenching and tragic.
Blackstone was an interesting and complex hero. I found him less easy to love, but easy to admire. He is described in various parts, as pirate like (when she first meets him his house and art collection is described as a “pirate’s lair” full of “treasures”). This story is very much a Hades/Persephone retelling. Blackstone (even his name is a play on the myth), like Hades, is stuck in darkness, capturing or stealing Hattie/Persephone and her ‘sunshine’. But even though a lot is revealed about his childhood, what he has suffered, and how he has made himself into someone of authority and power, he remains enigmatic. I honestly don’t know how to feel about Blackstone—he wasn’t a dream lover that’s for sure. He was less compelling than Hattie, and though he grovels a lot at the end, I never really felt that Hattie had the kind of sympathy or empathy for what he overcame that would have pushed the story into the next level for me. They didn’t seem like partners, like the heroes and heroines of your previous books.
A couple of final thoughts. I loved the cover! In fact, all the covers of your books are charming. The things I really loved and worked so well—the setup, and the way the book begins, the Persephone/Hades imagery, the circle of strong female friendships, the wedding night discussions, the reunion at the end and epilogue or afterword with her photo exhibit. I loved the setting, and while some of the Scotland scenes seemed cliched, I LOVED the Scottish Inn and the descriptions of it. I loved the literary allusions and how you wove in classic ‘romantic’ novels like Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. The scene where Hattie discovers Blackstone reading Wuthering Heights is AMAZING and one of the best in the whole book. I loved the “Mr. Bingley” trope (I’ve always been partial to Rochester or Darcy!!). Analogies are made between Blackstone and Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights, and I loved how Blackstone very cleverly mocks that allusion.
If A Rogue of One’s Own was about the misery or dangers of marriage, and loss of control, then this book was about the rigid restrictions and dictates on women’s public behavior, the cult of modesty and the way women are kept ignorant of their bodies. It also attacks the desire for conformity, and you made me feel very deeply the injustice of a society that condemns a good girl whose always behaved, for simply leaning in for a kiss.
I have two measures for a good book-one is if I want to re-read it, another is if images or ideas or characters linger. I don’t want to re-read Portrait of a Scotsman—in the end it was too long and bogged down in too many places. Hattie and Blackstone suffered too much and I needed more of seeing them happy together, even after their happy ending. The language and writing is very rich and evocative and clever, and the plot and the chances you take are so compelling. The level of historical detail and research is also very rich. I loved the series overall, and while I didn’t love this book, I stayed up all night to finish it. I would most definitely recommend!
My grade: B+