The Awakening of Miss Henley
Julia Justiss delivers again with The Awakening of Miss Henley, the first book in her Cinderella Spinsters series. While at school, Emma Henley and her two friends make a pact to eschew the marriage mart and establish a home together as single women performing important charitable and political works. Of course, their families are unaware of these plans, but after four seasons, Emma makes a deal with her mother – she will endure one more season, and if she is still unwed at the end, she will be allowed to set up her own household with the funds provided by an aunt.
Emma is thrilled with this bargain. She is no diamond of the first water, able to attract and keep suitors, and her parents’ marriage has been filled with indiscretions. She refuses to “succumb to the traditional fate of a plain wife, contenting herself with home and children and looking the other way while her husband pursued prettier women”. Instead Emma imagines a life filled with satisfying work and the companionship of good friends. Lately she’s been enjoying a friendship with the dashing Lord Theo Collington.
Theo is the younger son of a marquess, urged by his father into the manly pursuits of clubs, drink, and women – pastimes at which he has been spectacularly successful. But lately Theo finds that he is not sure it is a role he wants to play his entire life. The only person who seems to see him as something more than a charming rake is Miss Emma Henley.
What a singular female she was, he thought, captured anew by the force of the intense hazel-eyed gaze she’d fixed on him. She was the only woman of his acquaintance who, rather than angling her face to give him a flirtatious look or a seductive batting of her eyes, looked straight at him, her fierce, no-nonsense gaze devoid of flattery.
Emma and Theo find themselves drawn to each other at various social events, both aware of the ridiculousness of the ton. An intellectual romance develops, both intrigued by the thoughts and actions of the other. Theo finds himself strangely attracted to Emma but as she is an innocent, he decides to be content with “indulging in intellectual intercourse. A delight in which Miss Henley was as skilled as his former lover was in dalliance.”
Emma is attracted to the beautiful Lord Theo but knows she is more suited to the life of a spinster. Theo is well out of her league, but she wonders if – since she plans to remain unmarried anyway – if could she tempt Theo to an affair so she can experience the joys of passion.
What follows is a delightful budding romance between two people convinced that marriage is not for them. Emma knows her value, at least as an intellectual, but believes herself unsuitable for marriage because of this intellectual tendency and her unwillingness to share a husband with a mistress. Theo believes he can never be faithful to one woman and states as much to Emma:
I’ve never managed to remain interested in one woman for very long. If I were forced to marry, my wife would have to be a society lady who understands the game.
Theo is easy to fall for in spite of this comment because it soon becomes obvious that he has sold himself way short. Emma sees this – she challenges him and teases him until he starts to believe maybe he can be more than what his father envisioned, and it fascinates him that Emma can somehow see the true him under the demeanor he has perfected. Theo also sees the woman under Emma’s protective shell – sees how society wounds “plain” women at every turn. He looks at Emma through a different lens and sees the beauty of her.
The Awakening of Miss Henley is a very satisfying read. There is no villain or unnecessary drama, just the awakening of two people who thought they had their lives planned out. Somehow along the way, a sexual tension develops between Emma and Theo and the outcome is delightful. My only quip was a little frustration with Emma near the end, but not enough to derail the book.
The Awakening of Miss Henley is a lovely start to the Cinderella Spinster series and I look forward to reading the rest of the books!