A Sinner Without a Saint
I’ve been looking forward to reading A Sinner Without a Saint, the fourth book in Bliss Bennet’s series about the Pennington family. It features the remaining unwed sibling, Benedict, and Viscount Dulcie, a long-standing family friend and former schoolmate of Benedict’s, with whom he appears to have a bit of a love/hate relationship. The snippets of them together we’ve seen in previous books have mostly consisted of Dulcie exercising his sharp wit and knowing manner in order to needle Benedict into reacting to him; it’s clear there’s a mutual attraction there and equally clear that Benedict isn’t particularly happy about it. This is a frenemies-to-lovers story with depth and originality; in each of the books in the series, Ms. Bennet has chosen interesting backdrops that are more than just window-dressing, and she ties her characters and storylines very closely to them.
The timeline of this book runs concurrently with those of The Penningtons books two and three and some events from those stories are referenced here, but I don’t think it’s completely necessary to have read those, as sufficient explanation is given to enable A Sinner Without a Saint to work as a standalone.
When he was just twelve years old, Benedict Pennington developed a severe case of calf love for the gorgeous Sinclair Milne, Viscount Dulcie, only son and heir to the Earl Milne. Dulcie is five years Benedict’s senior and for a time at school, Benedict was his fag (fagging was a traditional practice at British boys’ boarding schools wherein younger pupils acted as servants to the most senior boys). When Dulcie failed to return to school after the Easter holidays one year without explanation, Benedict was devastated and felt Dulcie had abandoned him. Years later, Benedict – a hugely talented artist – went to live on the continent, where he honed his craft and acquired a reputation not only as a fine portraitist, but as a connoisseur, and as such, his opinions are sought regularly by collectors. He continues to accept commissions, but his passion is the creation of a national collection of art which may be seen by all, and not just those who can afford the entrance fee to exclusive exhibitions. The prevailing belief among the artistic establishment is that the masses could have no appreciation for the fine arts but Benedict believes that art should be accessible to all and he has managed to persuade Julius Adler, a wealthy businessman and owner of the finest collection of Old Masters in England to donate some of his paintings to the project.
Adler is also hoping to attract an aristocratic husband for his granddaughter, and has added three of those paintings to her dowry in order to sweeten the pot. When one of Dulcie’s set suggests that Benedict Pennington is courting Polly Adler in order to obtain the paintings and that Dulcie should woo the lady in order to obtain them for himself, Dulcie shrugs off the idea. But then, an old school-mate insinuates that Dulcie’s reluctance is because of some long-held infatuation for Benedict, and then wagers five hundred pounds that those feelings will stop him from cutting the latter out with Miss Adler, and Dulcie realises he’s trapped; his reputation for taking on pretty much any wager, no matter how outrageous, means turning down this one will make him a laughing stock and will seem to confirm he has some sort of tendre for Pennington. He accepts the wager (not intending to win it), and proceeds to exercise his charm upon Miss Adler, much to the delight of her grandfather, and not at all to Benedict’s who, while not actually interested in the lady himself, does not wish her to be hurt.
If Benedict is not pleased at the sudden and frequent intrusions into his orbit of the beautiful, golden-haired, silver-tongued viscount, he is even less so when he is inveigled into painting his portrait. He has never forgiven Dulcie for what he still views as his rejection years earlier, but infuriatingly, Benedict’s artistic muse – which seems to have deserted him of late – is fired up at the prospect of painting Dulcie’s likeness, and the time the two spend together in private gives them the chance to clear up some of the misunderstandings that lay between them.
The two men find common ground in their love of art and their genuine commitment to persuading the artistic establishment to become more progressive, even though in other ways they’re like chalk and cheese. Dulcie is flamboyant and outgoing; he’s almost always one step ahead of everyone else in the room, but hides his fierce intelligence behind a mask of ennui and sarcasm, where Benedict is quiet, intense and open about his beliefs and desires. He finds it difficult to reconcile the superficial individual Dulcie has become with the kind, funny young man who’d taken a homesick boy under his wing at school, although he soon comes to realise that the Dulcie he’d known is still there, but is buried beneath the persona of biting wit and self-absorption he now presents to the world – and he longs to crack that veneer and reach the man inside.
But Dulcie learned the hard way that constructing a thick outer shell was the best way to protect himself from hurt and disapproval. Following a youthful indiscretion which ended in blackmail, he now wants nothing to do with the deeper emotions and has walled himself off, preferring to keep his affections and his heart firmly locked away and only to engage in casual liaisons that last for a few weeks at most. Both men are comfortable with their sexuality (although of course, well aware of the inherent dangers should their preferences become known) and Benedict is very clear as to his desires when it comes to his sexual partners. He wants mutual affection and respect, and to be with someone who will be open with him about his emotions and needs – and that’s something Dulcie isn’t prepared to offer. Not any more.
Dulcie’s complicated relationship with his father, his good-natured scheming on behalf of his friends, and the detail about the nineteenth century art world all coalesce to create a rich and fascinating background to the love story, although I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps there was just a bit too much going on at times and that the romance was in danger of being somewhat overwhelmed. I didn’t mind too much – I’m particularly interested in the art of the period – and the romance is very well done; the author really shows the depth of emotion that exists between the protagonists through moments of affinity and tenderness, such as the one in which Dulcie takes Benedict to an evening at an artist’s society simply because he knows how much he will enjoy and appreciate it.
A Sinner Without a Saint is a richly layered, sophisticated and satisfying read and is a novel I’d definitely recommend to lovers of historical romance who are looking for something a little different to the usual round of balls, musicales and soirées.