Lady Windermere’s Lover
I knew in advance that the plotline of this book revolved around that least favourite of romance tropes – the Big Misunderstanding. But I also knew that it contained some of my favourite plot devices: A marriage made in less than auspicious circumstances, a hero who is in desperate need of a wake-up call, and a second chance for the hero and heroine to make something of their situation, so I decided to accept the Big Mis and see how things turned out.
Damian, Viscount Kendal, is celebrating his twenty-first birthday with his closest friends in the manner of young men – by getting plastered and wagering the family silver. The whoring would probably have come later were it not for the fact that the birthday boy, much the worse for drink, wagers Beaulieu, the estate he has just inherited from his late and beloved mother, and, after losing it, passes out and has to be carried home.
Seven years later, Damian – now the Earl of Windermere – is on the verge of being able to re-purchase Beaulieu. His plans are thwarted at the last minute when the property is sold to a wealthy merchant who will only return it when Damian marries his rather gauche daughter, Cynthia. Furious and full of resentment, Damian agrees to the proposition; the marriage is hastily performed and consummated, and two weeks later, he leaves England on a diplomatic mission to Persia.
During his absence, Cynthia – whose brief experience of being married was not at all a happy one – has taken to heart his comments about her needing to learn to be the wife of a diplomat. She has taken great trouble to improve her French (the language of diplomacy back then), her deportment, and her appearance and makes such a successful transformation that, on his return to England a year later, her husband fails to recognise her!
So far, so good. But then the Big Misunderstanding raises its ugly head. Damian arrives in London expecting Cynthia to be safely ensconced at Beaulieu, and is therefore surprised to find his London house inhabited. He is even more surprised to espy his wife in the arms of another man, who can be no other than his neighbour and former great friend, Julian Fortescue, now the Duke of Densford. Damian immediately jumps to the conclusion that Cynthia is having an affair with him.
The close friendship between Damian and Densford was more or less obliterated on the night the former lost Beaulieu, but now Damian must try to repair the rift between them in order to carry out the mission with which he has been charged by his superiors at the Foreign Office. Densford is an art dealer, and is believed to have acquired an important collection in France after the Revolution. Damian’s boss wants him to get confirmation that Densford has the collectionand negotiate its acquisition by the British government.
Damian is furious at his wife’s betrayal with a man he now regards as his enemy, but keeps that under wraps, admitting to himself that his behaviour towards her had been inconsiderate and that he needs to make amends in some way. He is, however, determined to put a stop to the affair and to make sure that Cynthia is so in thrall to his amazing skills in the shagging department that she will never want anyone else ever again.
The fact that Damian realises how selfishly he has behaved towards Cynthia is a point in his favour, and I enjoyed the way the author has him begin to woo her by making overtures of friendship rather than embarking upon a seduction. The fact that he doesn’t want to have sex with her until he’s sure she isn’t pregnant by someone else is perhaps less laudable, but it does seem perfectly in character for a man of that time and of Damian’s ilk.
Fortunately, Ms Neville doesn’t allow the Mis to go unchallenged for too long, even though Damian’s reaction leaves much to be desired. But eventually, the ice between the couple begins to thaw, even though Densford’s continued attentions to Cynthia keep Damian’s suspicions alive.
There’s an interesting subplot concerning the conditions and treatment of the women working in the silk factories in the East End of London. Cynthia discovers that a number of young women employed at her uncle’s factory have been raped by his factory manager. When confronted, neither the manager or her uncle give a damn about the issue, so she determines to do what she can to help, and sets up a home where the victims of these assaults and their children can live safely. There is also mention of the Spitalfields Acts, which were designed to regulate the pay of the silk workers and some indication of the political manoeuverings surrounding them which added some informative historical colour.
In spite of my dislike of the set-up, I did enjoy the book and read it in more or less one sitting. The leads have chemistry and I enjoyed the friendship that develops between them. But the romance feels under-developed and we are asked to believe that Damian goes from angry and resentful bridegroom to a man panting after his wife after little more than one glimpse of her and simply because she’s dressing better and has a nicer hairstyle. His behaviour towards Cynthia is inconsistent and his stubborn belief in her infidelity manifests itself in immature fits of the sulks during which he treats her poorly. In fact, there were times I was rooting more for Densford as he seemed to genuinely care for Cynthia, and certainly was able to see her true worth long before her husband did.
The ending is on the silly side and is actually superfluous to requirements, as it serves principally to set up the next book which will be Densford’s story.
If you’ve been following this series, then I think you’ll enjoy this latest addition provided you can accept the premise and the fact that the hero is an arsehole at times. I admit that I didn’t care much for book one (The Importance of Being Wicked), but Lady Windermere’s Lover has restored my faith somewhat, so I will likely be reading the final book in Ms Neville’s Wild Quartet when it appears.