Beguiled is the middle book in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy of novels set in early nineteenth century Edinburgh, and I’ll say right off the bat that this is a series in which the books really do need to be read in order. The romance between the studious advocate, David Lauriston, and the hedonistic Lord Murdo Balfour develops across all three books, plus there is an overarching secondary plotline running through them – so there will be spoilers for book one, Provoked, in this review.
Provoked ended with Murdo and David parting and not really expecting to see each other again. They move in very different circles, and while there’s no question that their brief ‘fling’ had affected them both deeply – in David’s case perhaps more deeply than he was willing to admit – both of them believed that a longer term relationship between them was impossible. In the two years since they last met, David has continued to build his advocacy practice and has gained himself a reputation for diligence and efficacy that means that he is kept busy by a steady stream of work.
David is more confident and more self-assured than he was when we first met him. He hasn’t forgotten Murdo, and realises now that he has learned something from their brief time together, which I suppose can be best expressed as “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone”. Still, he is mostly content, although very concerned over the failing health of his mentor, Mr. Chalmers, whose daughter, Elizabeth, has recently married and moved away. In Provoked, it was clear that both father and daughter had hopes of David, but while he was very fond of Elizabeth and was also struggling to really and thoroughly accept his sexuality, David felt that taking a wife would be hypocritical and wasn’t prepared to do as other men in his situation did (and as Murdo had declared was his intention) and marry a woman while continuing to take male lovers.
Beguiled opens with Edinburgh in uproar preparing for the visit of King George IV to the city. While not a popular monarch (on either side of the border!) the genius of Sir Walter Scott has somehow managed to, at least temporarily, build bridges and heal breaches, meaning that the visit is generally looked upon with enthusiasm. David is instructed to attend the King’s visit to the university and must therefore purchase a set of new clothes for the occasion –and is stunned when he arrives at the tailor’s shop to discover Lord Murdo Balfour attending a fitting also.
Over a drink later on, the men talk and express their regrets over the way things ended between them before, and as they prepare to part for the evening, Murdo makes it clear that he would like to see David again during the month or so that he will be in Edinburgh. David can’t give him an answer – on the one hand, he is as irresistibly drawn to Murdo as he ever was, but on the other, he is reluctant to get involved again knowing that he will eventually have to say goodbye once more.
Because the story is told entirely from David’s PoV, we never get into Murdo’s head, but the author does a terrific job of showing us both what David sees and, more importantly, what he doesn’t see. He sees that Murdo is slightly mellower than the last time they met; that he is less guarded and less prone to cynicism when he is with David than he was before. What David doesn’t see – and what is abundantly clear to the reader – is how deep Murdo’s feelings for David really go. Beneath the layers of aristocratic hauteur beats the heart of a romantic, and one who is more than half-way in love. Murdo notices changes in David, too; he is “more amenable”, Murdo tells him, more open to allowing himself to feel pleasure without guilt, and David can’t argue:
“… I don’t think I’m precisely wrong either. Not any more. Not since… you.”
While Murdo and David continue to spend time together when they can, and become both emotionally and physically closer, David is also troubled by the situation of Elizabeth Chalmers, who is miserable in her marriage to a husband who is physically abusive. Her father (who knows he is dying) has asked David to do whatever he can to look after her, and now that David has seen her with her husband, and seen how all the life and joy has been sucked out of her together with the bruises that are evidence of her husband’s mistreatment of her, David is more concerned than ever.
Ms. Chambers weaves her different plotlines together with great skill and also imbues the stories in this series with a very strong sense of place and time by means of subtle injections of social comment on the inequalities suffered by women and the poor. The political situation in England and Scotland at this time was very volatile; George IV was not popular and two years earlier (as described in Provoked) an uprising by radical, disaffected Scottish weavers had been brutally put down and lead to several executions and transportations. The author also highlights the situation endured by so many women who were, like Elizabeth, the helpless spouse of a controlling, brutal husband; under law, a wife was her husband’s property and nobody had the right to interfere in anything that went on between them.
Beguiled is a strong second instalment in this three-part story, but it does end on a cliffhanger, so you might want to make sure you have time to read the next book, Enlightened, straight afterwards. All three titles have recently been re-published by the author following the demise of the original publisher (Samhain) and are certainly worth snapping up if you like character-driven romances with a strong emphasis on the history as well a sensual and well-developed central relationship.