Portrait of a Scotsman
Evie Dunmore’s series about a group of young women activists in late Victorian Britain continues with Hattie’s story, Portrait of a Scotsman. Like the previous two novels in the set, this one is extremely well written and strongly characterised; the lack of agency of well-bred young ladies of the period is again critically examined, and the very genuine struggles they face in trying to reconcile rigidly traditional upbringings with their own emerging sense of self and a desire for something more are articulated with a great deal of insight. If you enjoyed the author’s previous work, chances are you’ll enjoy this, too; all the things you’ll have come to expect of her books – strong heroines and heroes who actively support them and understand their worth, themes of female empowerment and sexy, well-written romances are to be found here. BUT. In spite of all that, I have mixed feelings about this novel as a whole – mostly because I wasn’t wild about the heroine and I really disliked the ending.
Hattie Greenfield is studying art at Oxford University, but is frustrated at not being taken seriously – even by her professors, who are condescending to all the female students. She longs to create more meaningful work and paint more challenging subjects – and hopes to gain some inspiration from the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. To this end, she arranges to join a tour to view John Everett Millais’ famous painting of Ophelia, which is currently in the collection belonging to one Mr. Blackstone – a man with a reputation so black society has dubbed him “Beelzebub”, and who happens to be one of her father’s business rivals – but when she arrives at the gallery at the appointed time, she’s concerned to discover that either she’s late for the tour, or that nobody else has arrived. While she’s waiting to view the painting, a man enters the room – a darkly attractive man with hard grey eyes and unruly black hair – who offers to give her the whole tour… and promptly kisses her instead.
Lucian Blackstone (whom we met briefly in A Rogue of One’s Own) is a self-made man with a reputation for cold-blooded ruthlessness in his business dealings. Born into a Scottish mining community, he’s survived real hardship and suffering, but has pulled himself up from nothing to become a captain of industry and amass a fortune along the way. He never forgets where he came from though, and is determined to do whatever he can to improve the lots of the people who work for him. But while he’s very wealthy, he has little real power or influence, and he needs both if he’s going to be able to bring about the changes he wants to effect; so in order to make himself more… acceptable to society, he has begun the attempt to rehabilitate his fearsome reputation. Unfortunately, he hasn’t met with much success so far, but his brief meeting with Greenfield’s daughter has given him the germ of an idea as to what his next move should be. And while there are a number of well-bred young ladies in society who would suit his purpose, he’s rather surprised to find there’s really only one of them he wants.
It’s not a spoiler – it’s in the blurb – to say that it’s not long before Hattie and Blackstone are married, and even though Hattie is wildly attracted to her new husband, it’s far from the sort of marriage she had envisioned for herself. She’d wanted to find a true life-partner, someone who would share his time – and himself – with her, someone she deeply loved and who would love her the same way, and I liked that about her, that she wants love and affection and family and doesn’t see that desire as somehow ‘lesser’ – while at the same time being determined to attain her independence and be herself.
Up until this point, I was enjoying the story a lot; it’s perhaps a little slow to start, but that meant there was plenty of time for the author to establish the personalities and motivations of her characters and to round them out so they came to life on the page. But then, Hattie discovers something unpalatable and starts behaving like an immature brat rather than trying to address it, and I lost sympathy with her.
Fortunately however, the author managed to regain some of that in the second half of the book, in which the newly-weds make their way to Scotland so that Blackstone can take care of various business concerns there. Maybe it’s not the most romantic honeymoon, but the time they spend together here slowly brings them to a closer understanding of one another, and the slow-burning attraction that’s been there since their first meeting and first kiss builds into an intense desire. Running alongside the romance is a fascinating storyline about Blackstone’s desire to improve the working conditions for the people working in his mine (which also goes some way towards explaining the unpalatable thing I mentioned earlier) and to invest in new infrastructure and technologies to increase profits rather than just working the miners to death. As Hattie learns more about her husband’s past and gets to know the real man behind the reputation, she finds much to admire and a worldview similar to her own in many ways. She finds herself abandoning the resentment she’d determined to harbour against him, while Blackstone is coming to realise that the woman he’s married is far more than the nervous chatterbox he’d first thought her, and that he enjoys talking and debating with her as much as he enjoys thinking about how to get her into bed. This section is easily the best part of the book; the relationship development, as they take the time to learn about each other’s aspirations and ambitions, to learn why they are the people they are now, is extremely well done.
But then judgmental Hattie returns and jumps to a conclusion about something that may or may not be true – she has no way of knowing – and the author undid all the good work she’d done in getting me to like Hattie again. And then… the ending. Okay, so first of all, let me assure you that this book DOES have an HEA, so no worries on that score. And actually, what happens makes sense in terms of the way Hattie is characterised as someone who wants to make her own choices in life and, just as importantly, wants to be chosen. But even though I understood that, and could see the sense in it – I still thoroughly disliked it.
Hattie and Blackstone have good chemistry and they work well as a couple, but while he’s a terrific hero – a bit dangerous and somewhat morally ambiguous, but with a heart very much in the right place and a strong desire to enact change for the better – Hattie is inconsistent. I liked a lot about her and felt a lot of sympathy for her to begin with; she’s talented and smart and determined to succeed on her own terms, but unfortunately, nobody in her family sees her or appreciates her for who she truly is, and her frustration at always being the odd one out comes across really strongly. But when she became judgmental and jumped to unwarranted conclusions – I liked her a lot less.
Portrait of a Scotsman is undoubtedly entertaining and well-written, although if you’re expecting another story about women fighting for universal suffrage, you may be disappointed as this one is more about Hattie’s personal struggle to find herself and live life on her own terms. The author’s research is impeccable as always, her social commentary is insightful and razor sharp, and the central romance is a passionate and sexy slow-burn, but overall, it lacks some of the charm of the previous instalments, and my disappointment with the ending meant I came away from the book on a downer. It turned out to be one of those books I could appreciate but didn’t really feel – although I’m sure there will be many readers who disagree with me!