A Lady Without a Lord
This third book in Bliss Bennet’s series about the Pennington siblings turns its attention to the eldest, Theodosius (Theo), who became Viscount Saybrook on the death of his father just over a year earlier. On the surface, it’s a simple story about childhood friends coming together after a number of years and starting to see each other in a different light, but there’s a lot more to it than that. One of the things I have enjoyed about this author’s other books is the way she has incorporated a sound historical background into the story in a subtle and informative way. The previous book, A Man Without a Mistress, featured a couple who were very involved in politics, and here, Ms. Bennet takes a look at the importance of community, the responsibility of landowners towards their dependents, and throws in a dash of local politics without any of that overshadowing the development of the romance or the personal issues faced by both protagonists.
Since inheriting his title, the new viscount has made no move to assume the responsibilities that go with it, or to visit his estate, preferring instead to continue to live it up in London, bedding beautiful women and carousing with his many friends and acquaintances. But the recent marriage of his sister (in A Man Without a Mistress), suddenly brings Theo’s unfettered existence to an end; a meeting with his solicitor in order to arrange the payment of Sybilla’s dowry reveals that something is badly wrong with the family finances, and he realises that if he’s to do right by his sister and her new husband – who are intending to use the money to finance his bid to enter parliament – Theo will have to leave London, head to Lincolnshire and try to find out what has happened to the missing money.
He is not an uncaring man. He knows he has people depending on him, but told himself he was doing the right thing by leaving things in the very capable hands of his father’s – now his – steward, Mr. Atherton. Theo has never had a head for numbers; in fact, his father believed him to be little more than an imbecile because Theo struggled with even the most basic of calculations as a boy, and his father’s disgust very quickly turned to disapproval of practically everything else about his heir. So when he was old enough, Theo decided he might as well live down to expectations and took himself off to London where he very soon acquired himself a reputation as a cheerful, good-hearted wastrel.
One of the first people Theo sees on his return home is Harriot – Harry – Atherton, the steward’s daughter. Theo and Harry practically grew up together, and it was Theo who gave Harry her very first kiss when they were both in their teens. Not long after that, Harry went to live with her aunt in Brighton, where she was expected to make a suitable match, but she has recently returned – unwed – and confused and humiliated by the young man she had expected to offer for her.
But her feelings of rejection are nothing compared to the dismay she experiences on discovering the great change that has come over her father. He has become forgetful, aggressive and confused – we would today recognise the signs of dementia – and over the past year, it’s Harry who has been doing most of the administrative work for the Saybrook estate. The account books were a mess and Harry persuaded her father to allow her to transcribe for him – although in fact she is doing the accounts herself, and the many letters she sent Theo – which he ignored – purporting to be from her father, were actually hers. She can’t afford for the newly arrived viscount to discover the truth about her father for fear he will lose not only his situation, but the respect of the tenants and villagers; or worse, be committed to an asylum for the insane.
Theo is pleasantly surprised to find Harry home – and more surprised to discover that she’s turned into a quietly attractive young woman. Harry is similarly struck by Theo, the awkward, unhappy boy she remembers having grown into a handsome, charismatic and vital man. They quickly fall back into the ways of their old friendship, talking about anything and everything (almost), and affectionately teasing one another – although that teasing is now laced with a strong undercurrent of a mutual attraction they both do their best to ignore. A steward’s daughter is not a suitable match for a peer, and besides, a man as good-looking and charming as Theo can have any woman he wants – but working together to solve the problems brought about by the mismanaged funds, or to resolve disputes among the community keeps the pair in close proximity and eventually their feelings become impossible to ignore.
Theo and Harry are likeable, attractive and fully-rounded characters whose flaws and insecurities make them seem that much more real. Theo is completely adorable; a loveable rogue who has spent so long believing himself to be the idiot his father kept insisting he was that he fails to see that his intelligence is of a completely different, yet equally valid kind, and that he is gifted in other ways. There’s a lovely moment when Harry’s eyes are opened to what I can only call Theo’s amazing ‘people skills’ after he is called upon to take a position regarding a local dispute:
“Do you think just anyone can walk into a room of squabbling gentlemen and create accord amongst them with a few well-chosen words? It’s an admirable talent, that.”
Harry is the sort of heroine who is very easy to relate to in that she is a caretaker; she is intent on doing the best for everyone around her and completely ignores her own wishes and desires in the process. She wants to look after her father, even though, in his illness, he treats her unkindly; she wants to preserve his health and to prevent Theo discovering that he is no longer capable of doing his job even as she wants to help Theo – although the two things are not really compatible. But she has to learn that perhaps sometimes, her instinct to protect those closest to her is not always in their best interests and may even, in some cases, lead her to act contrary to what is right.
Harry and Theo make a terrific couple whose similar aims and outlook on life leaves the reader in no doubt that their HEA will last long after their wedding. Theo’s journey from a man full of self-doubt to one who is prepared to accept his weaknesses and work to compensate for them is well told, and his charming self-deprecation and vulnerability make him a very appealing hero. Ms. Bennet does a terrific job of showing the ins and outs of life on a country estate in the early nineteenth century, and her writing is accomplished, warm and nicely laced with humour. The hints she drops about the next story (to feature the remaining Pennington sibling, Benedict) are intriguing and I am definitely going to be snapping up A Sinner Without a Saint as soon as it’s available.