The Lie and the Lady
I’m going to start this review by saying that while I enjoyed The Lie and the Lady, I can understand that certain aspects of it might not appeal to everybody. The heroine is, at first glance, a coldly calculating fortune hunter out to catch herself a rich husband, and she and the hero don’t interact very much at all for the first part of the book – so if you’re someone who likes the first kiss to happen in chapter three with the first bedroom scene not far behind, you may be disappointed.
But this is a story that needs time to develop because there is a lot more going on than at first meets the eye, and I very much appreciated that the protagonists are flawed, complex individuals whose actions and intentions are not perfect. The book is the sequel to last year’s The Game and the Governess wherein two young men – Ned, the Earl of Ashby and his secretary, John Turner – switched places for a fortnight while attending a summer house-party, in order to fulfil the terms of a wager which saw Ned playing the part of the secretary and humble miller’s son, and Turner acting as the earl. During that fortnight, “Turner” fell in love with the governess, and “Ashby” fell for Leticia, Countess Churzy, an attractive widow.
Even though John and Leticia’s relationship developed mostly ‘off-screen’ in the previous book, it was made clear that while the countess was certainly attracted to Turner, she also had an eye to securing her future. At the end of The Game and the Governess the wager was revealed and Letty, although by now in love with John, ran off, leaving him devastated.
Some months later, Leticia is in Paris and has accepted a proposal of marriage from Sir Bartholemew (Barty) Babcock, a kindly older gentleman who wants only to protect and look after her. Following the deception practiced by Turner and Ashby, she found it impossible to hold her head up in society and has fled from town to town across England, able to settle for only a week or two before the gossip caught up with her. She sold practically everything of value she owned in order to finance a trip to Paris, as much in the hopes of meeting a suitable husband as to escape the scandal.
The daughter of a middle-class family, Leticia entered good society when her sister made a brilliant match. Her elevation brought her to the notice of the handsome, charming Count Churzy, who, she later discovered, married her in order to conceal his true sexual preferences. Left with very little at his death, Leticia has since determined to seek comfort and security, and believed she had found it with the “earl”. But with those hopes dashed, she has to find another way to eat and keep a roof over her head, and accepts Sir Barty, determined to be a good wife to him and a good mother to his young daughter, Margaret.
Arrived back in England, Leticia is in for a number of surprises, not least of which is that Margaret is not the little girl she had imagined, but a young woman of nineteen who has been left to her own devices for most of her life and who is not well disposed towards the prospect of a new stepmother. But even worse, when Margaret shows signs of being in love, Leticia discovers that the object of her affection is the owner of the recently refurbished local mill and former business associate of her father’s – Mr John Turner.
Needless to say both she and John are horrified to find themselves in the same small town and are immediately suspicious of each other’s motives. On the one hand, Leticia’s presence would seem to offer John a chance to rekindle their romance, something he wants very much indeed; but on the other, she could pose a threat to his livelihood, given that Sir Barty’s estate is the region’s largest producer of grain and John needs to secure his business for the mill. And Leticia fears that one wrong word from John will ruin her plans and her life – again.
I said at the beginning of this review that perhaps certain aspects of it wouldn’t work for everyone, one of which is the fact that the romance is a very slow-starter. In fact, there is little interaction between John and Leticia for the first section of the book, given that they have few opportunities to meet or speak privately. But this is quite realistic; for them to have been able to spend time alone together would have aroused suspicion and would not have been at all the done thing. But the slow start also allows the author time to develop the secondary characters – Margaret is not the curl-tossing, stepmother-hating teenager she could have been in the hands of a lesser author, and Sir Barty is fleshed out into more than an old lecher wanting a pretty young wife. Leticia comes across as unsympathetic to start with, given her focus on ensuring her own comfort and security – but through her, Ms Noble makes a very valid observation. After all, what other course of action would have been open to her, an impoverished lady with very few resources or options? What were well-bred women brought up to do other than get married and have children? She’s doing the only thing she knows how to do – and to be fair to her, intends do the best she can for her future husband and family as recompense for his marrying her in the first place. We may find her to be mercenary, but her behaviour makes sense in context of the time frame and her situation.
John Turner doesn’t immediately show to advantage, either, but he possesses a number of redeeming features which meant I was able to forgive him for his lack of apology or grovelling. For one thing, he sees Leticia for who she is and ‘gets’ her in a way nobody else does or ever did. And for another, he’s remarkably clear sighted about who and what HE is, a middle-class businessman who knows what he wants and where he belongs, and is determined to be the best at what he does.
Ms Noble captures both the generosity and the pettiness of small-town life very well and I particularly enjoyed the part of the story which sees Leticia winning over the ladies of the town and then bringing them all on a tour of Turner’s mill. The secondary characters – Sir Barty, Margaret, John’s endearing but somewhat meddlesome mother and his friend Dr Rhys Gray – are all very well drawn and fleshed out, and I ended up liking them just as much as the central couple. And I did like John and Leticia, regardless of their imperfections. They’re clearly shown to have an affinity so strong that they’re perfect for each other, irrespective of their shaky start.
The Lie and the Lady is one of those books that pays dividends if you enjoy stories that take their time to unfold and which, in doing so, reveal a depth and richness that isn’t commonly found in the genre. I enjoyed it very much and am looking forward to whatever Ms Noble comes up with next.