His Reluctant Mistress
I chose His Reluctant Mistress by Joanna Maitland for reviewing because of its setting. Vienna is an entirely magical place at all times, but I imagine the splendor and grandiosity and all-around political intrigues during the Congress in 1814 must have rendered it even more glamorous. I collect novels set at this period, and I was delighted to discover that Joanna Maitland had added to their list.
Lord Leo Aikenhead, together with his older brother the Duke of Calder, his younger brother Lord Jack, and their friend Ben Dexter, form the Aikenhead Honors, a spying ring employed by the British government for special missions. While this plot device is not exactly new, at least this group actually roams the continent to do their spying. Because Calder is in Russia, it falls to Leo and other two to travel to Vienna to support Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh by providing him with information about the doings of the different factions at the Congress.
Among the other visitors to Vienna are Sophie Pietre, a singer known as the Venetian Nightingale, and her highly disagreeable impressario Verdicchio. Although Sophie is of aristocratic background, Verdicchio somehow keeps her in thrall. He would like to market not only her voice but her body, but so far Sophie has held out against this. Still she is used to being regarded little better than a prostitute, so she is most agreeably surprised when she is defended by a personable gentleman at an inn as if she were a lady.
Leo is enchanted by the beautiful Italian; as soon as he discovers her profession, however, he proposes to make her his mistress, only to be rebuffed. When Sophie is noticed by that notorious womanizer, Tsar Alexander of Russia, Jack and Ben come up with the idea of using her as a double agent. Simultaneously, Sophie is looking for a way out of Verdicchio’s power, and exploiting her position as the Tsars’s chère amie might just be the escape route she needs.
The characters in this novel are at cross-purposes again and again, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I grew to like Sophie, though it wasn’t always easy. She is a very powerless pawn indeed, but in spite of her circumstances, she makes plans and takes action if it seems warranted, even if some of her plans misfire or have to be abandoned.
Leo, on the other hand…I understand he’s supposed to be yummy, but for me he didn’t work. Sophie is attracted to him because he is gentlemanly, but then he behaves most nastily towards her, only to apologize when next they meet. Don’t get me wrong, a hero who is so overwhelmed by his emotions that he behaves like a fool can be very moving – see Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester. But here, I never got that Leo is sophisticated and clever otherwise. He vacillates endlessly whether to approach Sophie about becoming a double agent. He agonizes about her being a whore, or being Alexander’s lover. He leaves all the daily work of spying (which remains shadowy in the extreme anyway) to his confederates. He is in his thirties and sexually experienced, and yet takes Sophie’s moaning when they kiss for a sign of disgust. All in all he came across as weak and inconsistent.
The images Joanna Maitland presents of Vienna are charming, but they don’t really capture the atmosphere of the place; instead they are often kitschy and depend on stereotypes (the Christmas tree! “Stille Nacht,” by the way, was first performed four years after Sophie is supposed to sing it here.) The villains are of the moustache-twirling kind, and although the novel’s style was pleasant enough, it did not manage to salvage things for me.
I may well read another book by Joanna Maitland in the future, but I don’t feel like picking up the other Aikenhead books. I appreciate His Reluctant Mistress’s unusual setting and the way the heroine was depicted, but that cannot detract from the novel’s weaknesses, so I can’t really recommend it.