The Discerning Gentleman's Guide
In Her Enemy at the Altar, Virginia Heath impressed me with her ability to craft an enjoyable story, create complex, likeable characters and to deliver a romance that is sensual and emotionally nuanced. In her latest book, The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide, she displays those talents once again while also putting a slightly different spin on the stuffy-aristocrat-unravelled-by-unconventional-heroine trope. It’s this aspect of the story that marks it out as something a bit different; the heroine with reformist tendencies who shows the hero the error of his snobbish ways is an often used plotline, but the heroine’s experiences in this story add a touch of authenticity to her words, and serves to make her dedication to the various causes she espouses all the more believable and understandable.
Although she is the daughter of a viscount, Amelia Mansfield heartily dislikes any and all aristocrats – with good reason, as the reader will come to know. Given that dislike, it’s somewhat ironic that she lives among them because of her position as companion to Lady Worsted, whose nephew, the Duke of Aveley is one of England’s most highly respected politicians. He is also, much to Amelia’s disapproval, the author of The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide to Selecting the Perfect Bride, which offers such pearls of wisdom as:
Marry a woman who thinks before she speaks. It will save you a great deal of time not having to correct her.
A wife’s first duty is to obey her husband. Therefore, it is the husband’s first duty to enlighten her as to what he wants her to do.
– to gentlemen wishing to marry.
Amelia fully expects to find the duke to be dull, pompous and overbearing, so the fact that she finds herself strongly attracted to him is both unwelcome and annoying. But on the few occasions she converses with him, she gradually discovers him to be charming, and, most surprisingly, quite shy, leading her to suspect that beneath the detached and unemotional face he presents to the world is a sensitive, passionate man who holds back his emotions because he believes they weaken him.
Bennett Montague, sixteenth Duke of Aveley has spent practically his entire adult life following in the footsteps of his father, an austere, extremely correct and upstanding man who took his duty as a member of the government very seriously and who worked tirelessly in service of his country. Aged just thirty, Bennett is highly respected in parliamentary circles for his dedication, his ambition and his fine mind, and is widely tipped as a future Prime Minister. He is also, as he comes to realise, lonely, even when he is surrounded by people. Practically everyone he meets wants something from him, whether it is the latest batch of debutantes hoping to snare themselves a ducal husband, or the various gentlemen and members of the house who hope to sway him to their causes; and the feeling that he would quite like to be appreciated for himself and not what he can do for others has crept up upon him so slowly that he hasn’t really noticed it.
And he probably wouldn’t have acknowledged that desire or his loneliness had it not been for the presence in his home of his aunt’s outspoken companion. Amelia’s ability to speak passionately on political issues and her insistence on challenging him at every opportunity are not things Bennett has previously encountered in a lady, but the passion and conviction with which she speaks and her willingness to go toe-to-toe with him are mentally stimulating while her loveliness stimulates his interest in other ways.
Although nobly born Amelia has, through no fault of her own, fallen on hard times and suffered almost the worst life has to offer. Her father married her mother – an American heiress – for her money, and when she failed to produce the required heir after twelve years of marriage, he cast her and Amelia off and managed to have the marriage annulled. I admit here that I have no idea as to how feasible this would have been, but given the near impossibility of divorce at this period I imagine it would have been just as difficult. Unlike a divorce, however, the effect on Amelia was completely different, as an annulment means that the marriage never happened and thus branded her as illegitimate. She and her mother suffered terrible hardship, having to take lodgings in the poorest areas of town in order to eke out what money they had, and when her mother became ill and it was no longer possible for Amelia to work, their only option was the workhouse. After her mother’s death, Amelia managed to find employment and claw her way up and out of the gutter through dint of her own hard work and gumption. It’s this aspect of her background which makes this novel stand out; there are plenty of historical romances that tell of well-born young ladies having to become governesses or companions, but I don’t think there are so many where such a heroine finds herself forced to choose between a workhouse or starving on the streets.
Naturally, Bennett tries hard to adhere to his original plan of selecting himself the perfect bride, but very soon finds it impossible to ignore the fact that the only woman he can envisage spending his life with is Amelia. Yet he has spent so long determined to follow his father’s plan for him that it’s difficult for him to face up to the fact that he needs to live his own life and not someone else’s. Amelia, too, struggles to break through the conditioning of her past, but ultimately learns to see beyond the title to the man behind it. The romance between the couple develops at a sensible pace as they both have to adjust their preconceptions before their unlikely friendship gradually moves to become something more. The sexual tension between them simmers along nicely, and while the ending is perhaps a little bit too good to be true, it’s nonetheless a perfectly plausible and uplifting one for this thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable romance. The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide gets a big thumbs-up – and Virginia Heath has earned herself a place on my auto-buy list.