A Useful Affair
I often wonder if authors find it hard to come up with new and interesting variations on common themes. After all, how many dukes and lords can find everlasting romantic happiness with beautiful ladies before we run out? With that in mind, Stella Cameron’s latest, A Useful Affair, looked rather interesting. It is purportedly about the Marquis of Granville’s pursuit of vengeance against a vulgar member of the nouveau riche, Bernard Leggit. Granville decides to seduce Leggit’s young trophy wife and make the creepy Leggit the laughingstock of the ton.
However, what is contained in these pages (almost 400 to be exact) spoiled my nice thrill of anticipation. As I began to read, I found convoluted plots within plots that detracted from the main duo, a weak and sniveling hero, and an overdone villain who had “turkey” written all over him. Not to mention the contrived emotional conflict that keeps the hero and heroine apart until the very end. But I digress.
The story opens with Lord Granville, or just plain John Elliot as he’s known, traveling by the unusual means of hearse, hiding out with his recently orphaned niece Chloe in the secret panel of a coffin that the smugglers who have rescued him use to transport their illicit booty. Chloe’s parents were just shot in front of her on board a ship from France, at the orders of the shipping company’s nefarious owner, Bernard Leggit, who fears they may have spotted the illegal activities which made him as rich as Croesus.
Granville decides (and here’s where the plot began, already, to sag), that the only way to achieve vengeance upon Leggit is to have his way with the man’s wife, the inconceivably lovely Hattie, and make this public knowledge. He is aware that Leggit’s wife is nothing but a mere stooge for Leggit’s public ambition and a sop for his ego. What he doesn’t know is that Leggit is unable to maintain a state of…how shall I say this delicately…erotic ardor necessary to do more than fondle his young wife, and browbeat her for her obvious failings.
Hattie, for her part, is not the mercenary Mata Hari polite society believes her to be. Leggit forced his intentions on this humble baker’s daughter, entranced by her great beauty (she has the appeal of three supermodels and a princess all rolled in to one, it seems). In fact, he blackmailed her into marriage by having her indebted parents threatened with debtor’s prison, and then began Hattie’s induction into ladyship. Hattie does her best to save every penny she receives but can’t think of a permanent solution to her problem. For his part, Leggit is inexplicably and confusingly portrayed as desirous of his wife’s love, yet so perverted and kinky that her innocence leaves him utterly unmoved and prone to rages and to hurting her in sly ways. The whole household seems terrified of him. When Leggit tells Hattie she must entrance the Marquis of Granville so that Leggit might get an upwardly mobile leg in the door of the aristocracy at her expense, she is simultaneously bewildered by the art of flirting which seems to have passed her by, and thoroughly disgusted at her husband’s blackmailing commands. She decides to pretend to engage in a discreet affair with the Marquis, and then threaten to make this affair public unless Leggit frees her from their marriage.
In this, Granville and Hattie seem bound for a course of collision. However, though they soon make their ulterior motives plain to each other, they are kept apart by Hattie’s fear of sex, and her belief that it would be adultery to consummate the relationship. Meanwhile, Granville falls in love with the beguiling enchantress and vows to have his vengeance in another way. Other subplots appear in the form of little Chloe, who refuses to speak and behaves like a robot in response to her maritime trauma, and Prunella and Enid, Granville’s mischievous old aunts who drag Hattie into their dramas and get her into constant trouble. Meanwhile, Leggit is getting more and more lecherous, holding sordid orgies in his underground Roman baths, and scheming to bend his browbeaten wife to his will. He devises a sordid scheme to get her with child and prove to his detractors that he is still potent.
The reason that such an interesting-sounding storyline flops – and flop it does – are the numerous and unnecessary subplots that got in the way of the main vengeance theme, as well as keeping focus off the romantic aspect. Granville’s weakness for Hattie seems to make him lose the plot completely; though he is given more and more evidence of Leggit’s evilness, he seems completely unable to take decisive action. Hamlet himself would have been proud of such prolonged procrastination, except that Granville is such a weenie. Even at the end, he doesn’t really get any actual justice. Also, I felt that it would have been nice if Granville’s history as a spy for the British Government had actually been used instead of just mentioned and then forgotten. Finally, we never meet Hattie’s parents and their situation remains unresolved, detracting from the credibility of Hattie’s motivation.
The most aggravating subplot was that of Granville’s old aunts who send Hattie on secret missions to make them money. I felt that there was no reason for this subplot, it didn’t really tie in to the main story and seemed to stand on its own while all the time the clock ticked and still Hattie and Granville were apart, and Leggit remained evil and at large. Added to Cameron’s baffling way with dialogue (she should have issued a separate dictionary for the aunts’ conversations alone) and the meandering nature of the carelessly written ending, and it really detracted from what should have been an exciting and original novel.
My advice? If you really love Regency-set historicals and don’t want to see them clumsily handled, leave this one alone.