A Most Unsuitable Match
Julia Justiss opens her new Sisters of Scandal series with A Most Unsuitable Match, in which a young lady tainted by a scandal not of her own making strives to obey every strict rule of society and to make herself into a pattern-card of propriety in an attempt to free herself from the unkind gossip that dogs her. Prudence Lattimar and her twin sister Temperance (sisters of Christopher Lattimar, hero of the author’s last Hadley’s Hellions book, Secret Lessons with the Rake) are now in their early twenties but have yet to have a London Season. There are various reasons for this – illness, mourning, a birth – but the most recent one is the worst of all; Pru and Temper’s reputations are already on very shaky ground thanks to their mother’s reputation for loose morals, and the fact that a pair of young bucks have just fought a duel over her promises to be the death knell of yet another Season. Lady Vraux is renowned for having had a string of lovers over the years and it’s common knowledge that all of her children have different fathers, only of them her husband – and gossip paints her daughters as chips off the old block. Prudence wants nothing more from life than a husband she can at least esteem, a home and family, and to live far from the bustle of London society and its attendant gossip – but her mother’s notoriety condemns her before she so much as shows her face in society, and she despairs of ever being able have the sort of life she wants.
Unlike Temperance, who would much rather go adventuring abroad hunting antiquities than stay in England hunting a husband, Prudence decides to try her luck in Bath. With the London Season starting, society in Bath will be a little thinner on the ground, but there will still be plenty to do and, no doubt, some eligible gentlemen who might prove to be to her liking.
Lieutenant Lord John Treadwell, youngest son of Marquess of Barkley, has recently returned from service in India and is visiting his aunt in Bath while he recuperates from a leg wound. After seven years in the army, he’s planning on resigning his commission and going into business; as the fourth son of a spendthrift father, he has to support himself by his own efforts, in spite of society’s horror at the idea of a gentleman working for his living. His aunt would be happier if he’d take the time-honoured approach of marrying an heiress, but Johnnie won’t hear of that:
“I happen to believe setting up a trading operation is a better route to wealth than sacrificing myself on the altar of some India nabob hoping to marry his daughter into the aristocracy.”
At his first sight of Prudence Lattimar, Johnnie is thoroughly smitten and engineers an introduction even though his aunt insists she’s precisely the sort of female he needs to avoid. Word is already circulating that he’s a fortune hunter, and given he’s the scion of a family of rakehells and widely known to be something of a rogue, the last thing he needs is for his name to be coupled with a woman of Prudence’s reputation. Yet right from the first, Johnnie gives no credence to the gossip, preferring instead to believe the evidence of his own eyes and ears – which have heard nothing to Pru’s detriment other than the scandal that is so gleefully circulated about her mother.
Pru is similarly attracted to the dashing young officer, but knows all too well that an association with him is something she can’t afford. With her own reputation in such a precarious state, she has to appear above reproach at all times, and spending time with a known rake will only serve to reinforce the completely unfounded rumours that continue to circulate about her. She recognises the longing he stirs within her as desire, but forces herself to set it aside, instead concentrating on a far more promising matrimonial prospect, Lord Fitzroy-Price, the handsome youngest son of a duke who is waiting to be appointed an ecclesiastical living. Being the wife of a clergyman would go a long way towards rehabilitating Pru in the eyes of society, so she determines to forget Johnnie and concentrate on realising her ambition to find a respectable husband. But she quickly realises that hers is not the only reputation being misrepresented; Fitzroy-Price may seem charming, but he’s self-absorbed and his motives are mercenary, and while Johnnie might be a rogue, his heart is true and he never pretends to be something he’s not.
A Most Unsuitable Match is a warm, tender romance between two people dogged by scandal for most of their lives, who connect with and understand each other on an instinctual level because of those shared experiences. Pru struggles every day to suppress her intelligence, vivacity and wit and has to endure completely undeserved censure, and Ms. Justiss makes some incredibly relevant observations about the ridiculous double standards that continue to exist for women almost two hundred years after the time in which this story is set. The way Johnnie supports and champions Pru is wonderful to see, and I loved that she felt comfortable and able to be herself around him, finding the sort of freedom in his company she rarely experienced with anyone else.
The secondary characters add richness and colour to the story, especially the two aunts, who care deeply for Pru and Johnnie and only want what’s best for them; while Johnnie’s tales of his time in India are fascinating, showing clearly how much he respects and loves the country, its inhabitants and culture. The predictability of an event that happens near the end kept the novel from DIK status by a whisper, but overall, A Most Unsuitable Match is a marvellous read. The leads are lively and charming, coming across as real people rather than two dimensional cyphers, the longing between them is palpable and the romance is very well developed. Add in some very pertinent social comment and vibrant supporting characters, and you’ve got an engaging novel that’s well worth a few hours of anyone’s time.