Desert Isle Keeper
The Suffragette Scandal
If Courtney Milan’s last book – The Countess Conspiracy – was a love letter to the forgotten women of science, those women who were ridiculed and derided because they dared to encroach upon the male preserve of scientific investigation and discovery, then The Suffragette Scandal is by way of being her panegyric to those women who were ridiculed – and far worse – for their advocacy of the cause of women’s rights.
It’s an extraordinary story, and after I had, with a feeling of immense satisfaction, finished it, my next thought was – “How the hell am I going to do justice to it in a review?!”
The answer to that, of course, is that I can’t. All I can do is encourage you to read it, too, because I can’t imagine that anyone picking it up could fail to be drawn in by the story, which is, as one would expect from Ms Milan, splendidly written, full of warmth and humour, possessed of a wonderful grasp of the social issues of the time, and boasts two complex and very well-rounded central characters.
Each book in her Brothers Sinister series has managed to combine a well-developed love story with some serious social commentary, the latter presented in such a way as to never feel preachy or overly didactic. Her heroines have all been extraordinary women, from Serena, the violated governess who refuses to be invisible, or Violet, the brilliant scientist whose history of repeated tragedy causes her to collapse in upon herself to the point she can’t see herself any more; to Free, passionate activist and campaigner for womens’ rights, who continually places herself in danger because while the world is a terrible place – she refuses to be cowed and is determined to make it better.
Each of these incredible women has met her match in a man who is much more than her perfect mate. Hugo, Robert, Oliver, Sebastian – and now Edward – are all men who do so much more than understand and support their women. They love them for who they are – difficult, challenging women though they may be – and wouldn’t have them any other way. Each of the men is a bit of subversive in his own right – as with Robert, the duke who wants to improve the conditions of the working man, and Sebastian, the joker in the pack who started down his particular path in order to help the woman he adored and along the way, found his true calling and his sense of self-worth along with it.
Edward Clark isn’t a hero. Or, thinks he isn’t. He’s a liar, a forger and a blackmailer, admitting to each of these things quite openly when he first confronts Frederica Marshall with an offer of assistance. Someone in a position of power is out to close down her radical newspaper, The Women’s Free Press, but more than that, is determined to exact a more hurtful and personal revenge against her. For his own reasons, Edward wants to thwart that plan, and has devised the perfect way to do it.
Given all the things Edward tells Free, she is suspicious of his motivations for wanting to help her, but reasoning that the enemy of her enemy is…if not precisely her friend, then at least someone she is willing to listen to, she hears him out. Her enemy is going to have one of her writers arrested for theft on a trumped-up charge and then use that to discredit her. Free goes along with Edward’s scheme to prevent this, and very cleverly pulls the metaphorical rug from under his feet when the job is done. Edward can’t believe she has outwitted him, but rather than going into a male fit of the sulks, he takes it on the chin and admires her for it.
But he is still keeping his motives hidden. He doesn’t tell her that the reporter is a dear friend of his, or that the person seeking to ruin her is actually his younger brother James Delacey, the would-be-Viscount Claridge.
For Edward is the rightful holder of that particular title, but, having been missing for almost seven years is about to be declared legally dead. He doesn’t want the title or all its trappings anyway and is quite content for Edward Delacey to remain dead so his brother can inherit.
We met Frederica Marshall a few times in the previous books; she’s the daughter of Serena and Hugo from The Governess Affair and is Oliver’s (The Heiress Effect) youngest sister. A precocious child, a supremely confident teenager and now a fiercely intelligent and dedicated woman, she has thrown herself into her cause with little regard for her own personal safety, as did so many of those women who sacrificed much to gain little. And that’s another amazing thing about this book – its pragmatism. Free knows she isn’t going to turn the tide of male opinion by publishing her newspaper, or putting on demonstrations. She is under no illusions that change will come overnight – all she can do is chip away, brick by brick at those bastions of male superiority and authority and make enough inroads for those that follow to keep chipping away until the foundations are undermined enough for the walls to crumble. There’s a wonderful moment, where Edward, out of weariness and frustration, points out that she might as well try to drain the Thames using a thimble.
”You see a river rushing by without end. You see a sad collection of women with thimbles, all dripping out an inconsequential amount… But we’re not trying to empty the Thames… Look at what we’re doing with the water we remove. It doesn’t go to waste. We’re using it to water our gardens, sprout by sprout. We’re growing bluebells and clovers where once there was a desert. All you see is the river, but I care about the roses.”
Free is an idealist, but she’s a realist, too. And that makes her one of the most exceptional heroines I’ve ever come across.
There’s no glib “yay – it’s all going to be plain sailing from now on!” ending, or assurance that things will turn out well. I was left with the impression that here are two people who have enough determination and love for each other to make things work, but that it won’t be easy. And I think that’s been the case for all the couples in this series.
If I have one criticism about the book, it’s that it uses the “I’m a bad man and aren’t good enough for you” trope to put roadblocks in the way of the HEA, but it’s a very, very minor niggle. I was so tied in knots for Edward and the things he had suffered and had to work through as a result, that I honestly didn’t care about that. The relationship between the couple is beautiful, both complex and breathtakingly simple at the same time. He makes things complicated; he doesn’t want to fall in love but he can’t help it; he doesn’t want to hurt Free, but knows it’s unavoidable once she discovers the truth about his identity. But for Free, the hurtful thing isn’t that he lied to her, it’s that he doesn’t trust her to forgive him, or believe they can work things out together. He is floored by her reaction, which finally sets him on the road to the realisation that he person he has been lying to more than anyone, the person he really needs to trust is himself.
I say this every time I write a review of a Courtney Milan book, but it’s the truth. I am in awe of her ability to craft a sensual and tender love story while she is also telling me about social injustice, and in this case, the horrors and indignities suffered by so many women, or about the threats and abuse heaped upon the heads of those women who dared to speak out about them.
Courtney Milan’s really is a unique voice in the field of historical romance, a genre which has suffered its fair share of criticism for poor writing and a dearth of good ideas. But with her around, I can, at least, paraphrase Mark Twain and say that “reports of its (HR’s) death are an exaggeration,” because this entire series really does represent the pinnacle of what can be achieved in the genre, and has set the bar incredibly high for everyone else.
This is the final full-length novel in the Brothers Sinister series (there is a “coda” novella to follow in August) and I’ve enjoyed every single one of them immensely.