The Golden Season
Lady Lydia Eastlake is 1816’s fashion icon, earning that title through her extravagant sense of style, flair, witticism and her unending pot of money. Orphaned in her teens by the death of parents from whom she learnt to be stylish, witty and extravagant, Lydia spent some long, boring years tucked away in the Sussex countryside far from any adoring public. When her guardian dies and she is moved to London to stay with her Duchess godmother, Lydia happily finds herself once more as she shines brightest when at the center of attention.
The Golden Season opens at a bank office where a senior partner at the Royal Bank of London tells Lydia that her unending pot of money has ended. The entire country is in an economic recession, so Lydia’s stocks have bottomed out and her shipping empire has just lost a fleet to pirates. Her liberal donations as artistic benefactress to general society have dug the hole just that little bit deeper and now her circumstances have changed. She’s poor.
Poverty is incomprehensible to Lydia as is the dependence that comes along with it. For too long she has had total access to her fortune, with no guardian, trustee or husband to put a restraining hand. With all the money gone, she will soon no longer be able to move about society’s pinnacle; she will no longer be “somebody.” Weighing up the pros and cons, Lydia decides to relinquish some of her independence to a wealthy husband so that she can retain her reputation. She has to move quickly in this endeavor however, before the news of her reduced circumstances is made public. Lydia and her three friends (the Duchess, Sarah, and Emily) agree that her search for a husband needs to be quick but thorough. She needs to make the prospective Mr Lydia fall in love with her and then inform him, just as he is hooked, of her new found poverty. Then, anticipating feelings already deeply engaged, she’ll reel him in.
Lydia chooses Captain Ned Lockton as her fish. He is new to London society, having just fought for King and country against Napoleon. He’s also handsome, self-assured, and (hurrah!) rich. Even better, as their acquaintance deepens, Lydia finds herself falling in love with Ned as a human being and not just a bank account. This is a good thing because there is no bank account to love. Ned as well is broke. The family investments have suffered, their farming is not as profitable as it once was, and his two young nephews are profligate spenders. His brother, sister and sister-in-law, mature to him only in age, charge him with securing a wealthy heiress and restoring them to an accustomed life. Ned chooses Lady Lydia Eastlake as his fish.
And so, what may be Lydia’s last “Golden Season” unfolds, and I enjoyed it as much as she did. I don’t normally feel sympathy for the eventual misfortunes of stars who go about being beautiful all day and hog the limelight all night (and make no mistake, Lydia is painted here as a huge star), but Brockway effectively divorces Lydia’s public persona from her personal one and shows why Lydia craves that spotlight so much. In addition, she is warmhearted and giving despite her fame. Perhaps for some readers she will be too warmhearted, too giving, too beautiful and thus, too perfect.
The first half of the book flew by quickly with scene after scene of the developing romance between Lydia and Ned – who each begin to fall in love with the other. Ned is one of those heroes chock full of a sense of responsibility to an irresponsible family, deeply imbued with honor and respect towards his intended bride, beyond the fripperies of society (and thus above it), and in short, a man among boys. Perhaps for some readers he too will be too perfect but I was very okay with this as I like my romance heroes full-grown.
Apart from their romance – which featured several scenes to make my contented sighs ruffle the pages – The Golden Season drew me in with the lives of its secondary characters. Lydia’s three female friends are not usual romance fare. All three have had poor experiences at marriage and where Brockway errs on the side of perfection with her leading lady, she allows the sidekicks to portray serious faults, chief among them the married friend Sarah whose exploits among society, though always occurring off-page, become increasingly risqué and end in her running off with another married secondary character. And I sense that these two – or at least one of them – are to have their own story.
This book was heading for straight A territory for me until I turned the corner into the last quarter of the book and found myself in the middle of a duel and then a blackmail. Prior to this stage, the book was a character romance where little else happened aside from Lydia and Ned learning to love each other and Lydia in particular learning about herself. Then all of a sudden, Ned’s life is on the line (but not) and Lydia is haring off to save a friend from a blackmailer without sharing the details with Ned. I repeat: without sharing the details with Ned. And what she chooses to do will change both of their lives forever. It was ridiculous to me that she opted for the worst case scenario when a talk with the love of her life might have solved matters – or even if not, given him a heads-up to the bad news to come.
I’m probably being cryptic as I don’t want to give anything away but suffice to say, the ending nearly spoiled it all. All the romantic scenes at the pawn shop, at Gunther’s, in the maze – all of it nearly washed away by a TSTL moment. Fortunately, despite the slip in common sense, I can only accuse Lydia of having a “too stupid to live” moment but she is never a “too stupid to live” heroine.
I recommend The Golden Season for its grown-up secondary characters, its very sweet romance and its “still waters run deep” hero, Ned.