Scandalously Yours is the first in a trilogy of books about the three Sloane Sisters – Olivia, Anna and Caro – who are, the blurb tells us, proper young ladies with small dowries, who are encouraged to do little other than pursue eligible bachelors. Of course, our heroines accept no such thing, and each of them secretly indulges in their passion for – respectively – politics, novel-writing, and poetry, while putting up with their mother’s insistence that they flutter their eyelashes and simper at available young men.
The eldest sister, Olivia, will have nothing to do with the simpering, however. She is adventurous and determinedly outspoken with a gift for political rhetoric. Having acted as her late father’s secretary on an expedition to Greece, she is a rather more well-informed than many other young ladies her age, and yearns to do something with her life rather than just look decorative and pour tea. Olivia has decided that marrying well – or at all – is not for her as she no wish to find herself subject to a husband’s authority, so, much to her mother’s despair, she refuses to hide her “oddness”.
She is also, secretly, “The Beacon”, the anonymous author of newspaper editorials which highlight the plight of the less well off in society, and who is an advocate of reform.
In fact, it seems that all three girls are unconventional and free-thinking, although the other two hide it and Olivia doesn’t. Their father was a noted and well-travelled expert on primitive cultures and rituals; an unconventional man who did not believe that his daughters should be brought up in ignorance of everything but hat-trimming and needlepoint. He talked openly to the girls about his work and the artifacts and diagrams he had collected (many of them containing sexual images and references) and thus, all three are more clued up about men and sex than most young women of the times. Their conversation about pizzles (!) early on in the book was hilarious, although even given their broader education, they still seemed a little too comfortable discussing such things.
Our hero is John, Earl of Wrexham, a widower and former military officer with a ten-year-old son. Having returned from the war in order to take his seat in the Lords, he is also looking about him for a suitable wife and step-mother. He is referred to in society as “The Perfect Hero” – courageous, honest, honourable and well-mannered, he is a paragon of virtue. Unfortunately, all that honesty and virtue also serves to make him seem as though he has a stick up his arse much of the time, as he can seem too proper and unyielding.
John is not looking to marry for love and has determined to seek a wife who is well-born, well-behaved and conventional. He decides that Lady Serena Wells is the perfect choice – but the problem is that his son, Prescott (Scottie) doesn’t like her, nicknaming her “the Steel Corset” because of her stern and very proper manner.
In a scene which reminded me of the Banks children writing a letter advertising for a new nanny, Scottie puts together a list of his requirements for a wife for his father and a mother for himself and sends it to the Mayfair Gazette. Naturally, it becomes London’s latest on-dit and the paper is inundated with replies. But the ladies who respond are not what Scottie is looking for – apart from one “Lady Loose-Screw” who sounds like the perfect candidate, so he arranges to meet her.
Being only ten years old presents rather a problem, however, as his attempt to run off to London alone is foiled when his father catches up with him on the road. Fortunately, however, Wrexham needs to go to London anyway, so they journey there together.
In London, John meets Olivia and is surprised to discover that her political views run along very similar lines to his. He also discovers her secret identity as The Beacon and asks her to help him to refine and polish his speech, which she agrees to do, and soon they have developed a strong friendship.
As a former soldier, John is very concerned about the conditions being faced by soldiers returning from war. Work is hard to find, especially for those who have been injured serving their country, and he plans to use his maiden speech to highlight these issues and make a strong case for offering these men financial support by way of some sort of pension. Although he is an earl, he is not inured to a life of privilege and unlike some, is not primarily concerned with preserving his own level of comfort. This brings him into conflict with others of his station who are most definitely not like-minded and it is not long before the threats which have been made against him to try to bring him to heel are carried out and his son is kidnapped.
John and Olivia, with the help of the rakish Lord Davenport (who is clearly being set up as the hero of the next book) then undertake a madcap – and uncomfortable – dash across England in order to effect the boy’s rescue while trying (not always successfully) to keep their hands off each other.
I liked Olivia’s boldness and honesty, even though I felt it was sometimes just a tad too extreme for the time at which the novel is set. But I didn’t like the number of times I was reminded that her flouting of convention and outspokenness was why she had been nicknamed the “Hellion of High Street” by the tabbies of the ton. I got it the first time, thanks. While I like reading about heroines with minds of their own, to have one who, at this period in history, delights in going out of her way to be different was too difficult to swallow, especially as she had no money to speak of. Women had very few options back then – it was get married or nothing; and for the woman with little money, being unmarried often led to a very difficult existence à la Emma’s Miss Bates.
Wrexham was rather endearing, despite his stuffiness, and his desire to do the right thing for his son was a very attractive quality. It was also nice to read about a widower who had actually loved his wife, rather than one whose marriage had been little more than cordial and who had never been in love before. He was supportive of Olivia, never dismissive of her views and suggestions, and revealed himself to have a dry sense of humour – but I confess he did come across as a little on the bland side.
I enjoyed the way the relationship developed between the two, with them finding common interests and striking up (an admittedly charged) friendship before they became lovers, a friendship they managed to maintain even after Olivia had somewhat cavalierly brushed aside Wrexham’s proposal following an afternoon’s passionate interlude. (I normally roll my eyes at that point in a novel – when the hero proposes to the heroine after they’ve hit the sack and she turns him down; but here, I felt Olivia’s character had been so well set up that the rejection made sense given all she had previously said about not wanting to be subject to a man’s authority.) However, their working partnership, both before and after they did the horizontal mambo was well written and was one of the highlights of the book.
Scandalously Yours is a promising start to a new series. It’s an easy, undemanding read, the characters are likeabIe and the writing is intelligent and often humorous. The secondary characters – Anna, Caro, Davenport and Scottie – are all well drawn and engaging, and the author’s incorporation of elements of the political situation at the time provides an interesting backdrop to the romance, and is also key to a number of the plot developments. Overall, however, I couldn’t quite ignore the issues I had with the characterization of the two principals. That said, I’d certainly recommend the book to those who like their romance laced with a dose of history, and I may pick up the next book in the series as I have the feeling that Davenport has the makings of a rather delicious hero.