A Common Scandal
Having heard good things about Amanda Weaver’s début novel, A Duchess in Name (which I haven’t yet read), I was keen to read and review this second novel in her Grantham Girls series. In it, each of the heroines are young ladies who don’t quite fit the norm as far as English society is concerned, so they are taken under the wing of Lady Grantham, one of society’s most formidable ladies, and taught to navigate the minefield of social convention. I’m sure I’m not the only one for whom that name conjures the image of the great Maggie Smith!
I was very quickly impressed by the quality of Ms. Weaver’s prose, which is lively and intelligent, and by her ability to swiftly establish the personalities of her two leads in such a way as to start the reader rooting for them immediately. The romantic chemistry fairly smoulders between the couple and she clearly and skillfully shows that these two people are soul-mates through their interactions with together and with others. With so much going for it, then, it’s reasonable to ask why I haven’t rated the book more highly, and the answer is simple. The plot is horribly contrived and the characters’ motivations make very little sense.
The heroine of the previous book was an American heiress; the heroine of this is an English one, Miss Amelia Wheeler, whose father made his fortune in manufacturing. As any regular reader of historicals will know, breeding always trumps money, so while the Wheeler’s fortune means they are tolerated within the upper echelons of society, their lowly origins mean that they will never be fully accepted. And, naturally, the brunt of that disapproval falls upon Amelia, whose spirited nature and unwillingness to meekly swallow the insults she is regularly dealt have only added to her reputation for being something of a hoyden. For herself, Amelia couldn’t care less about the behind-hands-sniggering, but she knows that her invalid mother’s dearest wish is for her to make a good marriage to a titled gentleman, so she has put up with the snide comments and censure for three seasons, knowing all the while that the only title she is going to attract is an impoverished one, and that the man bearing it will be interested only in her money.
Amelia grew up near the Portsmouth docks, and had been used to running wild with the other local children, even though, aged ten, her father had already begun to rise above his humble origins and to make his fortune. Her mother, the daughter of a viscount, fell in love with and ran off with a man far below her in station, and even though she has never regretted her decision, she now wants Amelia to have the life she didn’t have. Having been disowned by her family and given that Amelia is an only child, Mrs Wheeler naturally wants to see her daughter well married and securely provided for, and for some reason, believes that only a man with a title will be able to do that.
Amelia’s father is just as keen as her mother for his daughter to marry a title and makes it clear that this must be the season in which she clinches the deal. But a large, ruggedly handsome spanner is thown into the works in the form of Nathaniel Smythe, a childhood friend from Portsmouth who went to sea when Amelia was ten and whom she had thought never to see again.
Amelia and Nate always shared a special bond, and even though they haven’t seen or heard from each other in ten years, that connection has never broken and, even from their very first interactions, is clearly as strong as it ever was. Yet now, that connection is complicated by the stirrings of physical awareness and attraction, and Ms Weaver does a tremendous job here of portraying their visceral reactions to each other and that instant, inner recognition that yes, here is “the one”.
The problem however, is that neither of them is placed to be able to be anything more than mere acquaintances. Amelia wants to please her mother by marrying a man with a title; and even though Nate has made a fortune in shipping, he can’t afford to marry a girl like Amelia, whom society will never accept. He aspires instead to the hand of the Lady Julia Harrow, daughter of his main business rival, the Earl of Hyde. As a member of the aristocracy, Hyde has access to lucrative government contracts that are awarded principally by other peers and the old-boy-network – something of which Nate can never be a part. He had thought initially to approach the earl to propose a business merger, but on realising that the man is fairly ignorant of his business and leaves all of it to his manager, knows that the only way he is going to get a foot in the door is to marry Lady Julia.
So here we have two people who are wildly attracted to each other, who know each other on an instinctual level and who share a deep and strong connection. Yet they decide they can’t be together because they are supposed to marry someone else. It’s not a particularly strong premise, especially as both characters are wealthy; often in stories where one character has to marry someone other than their heart’s desire, it’s because they are in need of money, but that’s not the case here. It’s not really clear why Amelia’s mother thinks an impoverished man with a title will be able to provide for her better than a wealthy man without one and I also had to ask myself why two people who obviously care about their daughter as much as Mr and Mrs Wheeler do aren’t principally concerned that the man she marries is one who will make her happy.
When the story moves from London to a country house-party, the canvas broadens and we are introduced to a cast of well-drawn secondary characters, from the spiteful Kitty and her set to the worthy but dull Lord Radwill, whom Amelia thinks would make a decent – if boring – husband. Then there’s smarmy Mr. Cheadle, who has set his sights firmly on Amelia and isn’t above resorting to underhand means to secure her, and the lovely Lady Julia, who turns out to have unexpected and hidden depths. All of them have a part to play, and the scenes that take place at the country estate are never less than entertaining. In fact, the same is true of the whole book, and the fact that I’m able to rate A Common Scandal as highly as I have in spite of major misgivings about the premise is surely testament to Ms. Weaver’s ability to tell a story and to her talent for creating attractive and compelling characters. She’s definitely an author to watch, and I plan to go back to read A Duchess in Name while I wait for the next book in this series.