A Dark and Brooding Gentleman
I freely admit I mainly asked to review Margaret McPhee’s A Dark and Brooding Gentleman because the hero is not a duke, but an actual untitled gentleman. Plus, the novel is set in Scotland. What could go wrong? In the end, reading the book proved a mixed experience, but all in all I can give it a qualified recommendation.
Sir Henry Allardyce is in debtor’s prison in Glasgow, and his daughter Phoebe had to find a position as companion to elderly Mrs. Hunter. Phoebe has told her employer that her father is in hospital and so far has been able to visit him once a week. Mrs. Hunter’s house has been broken into, however, and she decides to spend some time at Blackloch Hall, her son’s country house just outside Glasgow. Travelling alone to Blackloch, Phoebe is attacked and almost raped by footpads, but a gentleman saves her at the last minute.
You wouldn’t have guessed – the gentleman is Sebastian Hunter, Mrs. Hunter’s son. He had a rather bad reputation as a wild young man, but since his father’s death some months earlier he has become a surly recluse who hardly speaks to his mother, so, however fascinating Phoebe may consider him, they rarely meet at all. The situation gets even more complicated when, during another visit to the prison, Phoebe is accosted by a stranger who blackmails her into promising to steal a valuable item from her host.
At first I didn’t like the novel overmuch, mostly for these reasons: I don’t like people, be they fictional or real, who give in to blackmail with hardly a whimper. Yes, Phoebe’s highly vulnerable father is threatened, but she never even considers confiding to Sebastian or Mrs. Hunter, and trying to find a solution with their assistance. Secondly, once Phoebe begins to prowl through Blackloch Hall, Ms. McPhee places her into a series of compromising situations that are so old they should have been retired years ago. Namely, when Phoebe searches Sebastian’s study at night, she naturally does so in her nightgown; and when everybody else is at a picnic and Sebastian returns to spy on Phoebe, she just happens to bathe nude in the loch … you get the drift.
But then something happened: I got captured by the characters’ interaction. Once they get over the stage of early lusting, they actually begin to talk. And although Phoebe proves wonderfully selfless (aside from being a thief, that is), she and Sebastian slowly became people to me. Their inner struggles, although not particularly original, are presented with empathy, and I felt with hero and heroine. I also liked the way that secondary characters like Mrs. Hunter were developed.
Then came the ending … oh, the ending. Actually, there are two endings, and they are completely contradictory in mood. The first, which I adored, came as quite a surprise in that it undermines the gothic mood that has gone before and is wonderfully simple and clever, while presenting a subtle twist to both main characters’ soul-searching that has gone before. The second ending had me shake my head with rueful laughter. The gothic returns with full force, everything is larger than life, and yet I was more amused than annoyed.
A Dark and Brooding Gentleman turned out to be quite an emotional roller-coaster of a read. I was exasperated and enchanted in turns, and that is not so bad at all. So for those who like historical romances with a strong gothic element and don’t mind a few clichés thrown in, you might enjoy it with the same mixed feelings as I did.