Secret Lessons with the Rake
One of the things I have particularly enjoyed about the books in the Hadley’s Hellions series is the way the author has woven some of the political issues of the day throughout the principal love stories in each of the books. The four Hellions are gentlemen who met at Oxford and have continued their friendship beyond and into Parliament, where they are all vigorous proponents of social reform. In Secret Lessons with the Rake, they are celebrating a victory that will bring the country one step nearer to the social justice they so strongly believe in; but in this book, author Julia Justiss makes some very astute observations regarding the sort of equality the men are fighting for and a society in which a woman can be ostracised for the slightest infraction by the ruling (and unelected!) group of matrons of the ton.
Christopher Lattimar is widely known to be a man with an eye for the ladies and, until recently, was often to be found enjoying the pleasures of wine, women and song (well, not so much the song) in the company of his friend, Ben Tawny (hero of the previous book, Convenient Proposal to the Lady). With all his friends now settled and obviously deeply devoted to their wives, Christopher can’t help feeling just a little bit left out, but also admits to himself that he would like to find the sort of companionship his friends have found, with a woman who “delighted one, body, mind and soul – a lady he could trust to be his companion and helpmate for life. ” It shouldn’t be that difficult, he thinks, to find a respectable young woman of good birth to fulfil that role, although his mother, whose views on marriage are cynical owing to her own loveless union, is – unusually for an historical romance, where mothers are generally nagging their sons to find brides! – very much against the idea. But Christopher’s mind is made up. He’s going to look about him for a wife among the ladies of the ton, although he’s the first to admit that, given all his dealings with the fairer sex have been with experienced women, he is at a complete loss as to how to go about courting a ‘Virtuous Virgin’. Added to that, his reputation is of the sort that guarantees he will be looked upon with suspicion by the society matrons carefully shepherding their innocent lambs through the marriage mart. Fortunately for Christopher, help is at hand in the form of Ellie Parmenter, a young friend of his mother who was – until recently – the mistress of a much older man. Ellie and Christopher have always got along well, and, most importantly of all to Ellie, he has always treated her with the courtesy due to a lady, and not, as so many other men have done, as fair game.
The death of her protector has left Ellie able to pursue her own course, and she has set up a school for young girls whose lack of skills and/or basic education mean they would likely end up having to support themselves by working on their backs. Her worthy aim of giving these girls a chance of a better life – and choices she was denied – has already attracted several influential sponsors, such as Maggie, Viscountess Lydlington and Faith, the former Duchess of Ashedon who is now happily married to Christopher’s friend, David Tanner Smith (Stolen Encounters with the Duchess). Her association with these ladies and her friendship with Christopher’s mother means she has seen quite a lot Christopher over the years, and Ellie is well aware that she is deeply infatuated with him. But she knows it must end – and when he marries, she knows their friendship must end, too, for she will never be accepted into the sort of respectable circles he seems to aspire to.
Christopher has long admired Ellie’s intelligence and poise, and can’t deny that he’s been attracted to her for a long time. Had she not already been ‘in keeping’, he would probably have made a play for her himself, but he recognises now that such a relationship is not possible. Not only is he determined on a respectable match, Ellie has made it clear that she has no intention of seeking another protector. But the attraction between the pair is intense, and Ms. Justiss does a splendid job of developing the romantic chemistry between them as Ellie, who was born to a station far higher than the one she now occupies, offers Christopher advice as to the do’s and don’ts of courting a respectable young lady. The longing the pair feel for each other is palpable as they recognise that spending time together is both torture and delight; neither wants their association to end but realise it must if Christopher is to attain his goal and marry a woman who will help to further his political career.
As I said at the beginning, Julia Justiss has some very pertinent points to make about the position of women in society at the time the book is set (1830s) and she illustrates them very skilfully. Ellie’s backstory, for example, is truly heartrending and the fact that she will never be able to return to her family or her proper station in life because of something that was not her fault is completely unjust but, sadly, accurate. She has real strength of character, especially when she is prepared to remain distant from her family in order to protect her younger sister’s future. Then there’s the issue of Christopher’s mother, a woman whose husband didn’t give a damn about her to the extent that she sought solace elsewhere and now has a somewhat tarnished reputation; and the look at the possible fates of girls such as those who end up attending Ellie’s school. It’s all very subtly integrated into the story as a whole and adds genuine depth and richness to it. But in the midst of all this, I couldn’t quite ignore the fact that the only reason that Christopher and Ellie can’t be together is due to one thing; his belief that he needs to marry a Virtuous Virgin (a term he coins early on in the book) instead of the woman he loves and who is so obviously everything he wants in a wife. It’s not until the last couple of chapters that Christopher finally realises that Ellie is welcomed and accepted by everyone that matters to him; his friends, their wives and others in their political circle, and that society at large can go hang. While the romantic tension between the two is thick enough to cut with a knife and their relationship is beautifully developed, I’m afraid Christopher’s wilful blindness has knocked my final grade down a bit.
Ultimately, however, Secret Lessons with the Rake is a deeply romantic and satisfying end to these tales of Hadley’s Hellions and it’s a book I’m happy to recommend, even with that one proviso. All the books can be read as standalones – and this is no exception – but it’s an excellent series, and if you’ve not picked up a book by Julia Justiss before, this – or any one of the four books in the set – would be a great starting point.
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|Review Date:||September 2, 2017|
|Book Type:||Historical Romance|
|Review Tags:||Hadley's Hellions series | Harlequin Historical|