The Unsuitable Secretary
The Unsuitable Secretary, the fourth book in Maggie Robinson’s Ladies Unlaced series set in Edwardian England is a light-hearted, character-driven romance between two people from disparate backgrounds that is often funny and rather sweet; but which, while enjoyable, is ultimately an insubstantial piece of fluff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s a place for well-written fluff and this is certainly a book that fits that description.
Readers of the previous books will recall that the stories are linked together by the Evensong Agency, a reputable and highly regarded employment bureau which, besides supplying the best quality staff to those that require them, has a nice sideline in discreet investigation and problem solving. This book opens as Sir Thomas Featherstone, man-about-town, ladies’ man and regular subject of the gossip columns, is discussing his requirements in a secretary with the formidable Mrs Evensong. Sir Thomas is widely known among the upper classes and in artistic circles as a philanthropist and passionate patron of the arts, but the breadth and sheer volume of his ideas often outstrips his organisational capabilities. He needs someone to ground him and organise him, and his latest project –the establishment of a small artists’ colony where his protégés can work without having to worry where their next meal is coming from – is very close to his heart. Hence, his need for a secretary, someone to look after the nitty gritty while he gets on with such things as finding premises and selecting inhabitants.
Mrs Evensong has just the person for the job. Miss Harriet Benson is twenty-eight, intelligent, organised and efficient, but Thomas isn’t sure he wants a female secretary. He needs someone to rein him in when necessary and doesn’t think a woman capable of doing that, especially one whom, he learns, has recently been ill and is not able to work more than a few hours per day.
Harriet Benson lives in Shoreditch with her father, a bank clerk, and her two twin half-brothers, who are just fifteen years old. Even though her father knows his small salary isn’t sufficient to support them and pay the boys’ school fees, he is not at all happy about Harriet going out to work and doesn’t scruple to say so whenever he can. But needs must, and even though she is still recovering from a recent appendectomy, finding herself unable to keep from napping during the afternoons, Harriet needs to earn money. She has always been self-conscious of her appearance, being rather tall and built on statuesque lines, but is now even moreso thanks to the ugly scar left by her operation.
But while Harriet sees herself as large, plain and unattractive, Thomas sees a Junoesque goddess, albeit one dressed in a horrible, bad-fitting brown suit and dreadful hat. Being a tall, lanky fellow himself, Thomas has always felt clumsy around petite society beauties, but Miss Benson… well, here’s a woman he wouldn’t need to worry about breaking in bed. He falls immediately into lust with her, and even though he knows her working for him is a terrible idea, he engages her anyway.
That’s basically the set up, but for one important detail. Thomas, at twenty-seven, and despite his rather rakish reputation, is still (technically) a virgin and has reached the stage where it’s too embarrassing to admit or to ask one of his more bohemian lady friends to relieve him of it. Realising that Harriet is attracted to him, he decides that she is the ideal solution to this problem, too. That he wants her very badly is an added bonus, but seeing as she is also (probably) a virgin, she won’t know what she’s doing in bed either, so if she will agree to become his mistress for a while, they can learn what’s what together and enjoy themselves in the process.
Knowing that the difference in their social stations precludes theirs being anything more than a brief relationship, Harriet decides to take Thomas up on his offer. After all, she’s not getting any younger, marriage is highly unlikely and Thomas is kind and obviously likes and desires her, in spite of her own misgivings about her attractiveness. She can’t afford to let herself get too emotionally invested, so she insists that they put a limit on their time together – they’ll be lovers for a week – and after that, all the “finkydiddling” between them will be at an end.
Thomas and Harriet are both well-drawn characters who, it is quickly apparent, complement each other hugely. Harriet provides just the sort of steadying influence Thomas needs, while Thomas shows Harriet the sort of kindness and tenderness she has never known. Ms Robinson does a good job in looking at the difficulties inherent in a relationship between two people from such different social classes, although I can’t deny that I did get a little tired of Harriet’s constantly insisting that she and Thomas can’t be together when he really doesn’t give a fig for his social position.
Thomas is the real star of the book. Handsome, charming, indecently wealthy and quite ridiculously endearing, he is often mistaken for a bit of an air-head with more money than sense, but in reality he has a shrewd eye and an instinct for nosing out artistic talent. Unfortunately, however, his sweetness and consideration for Harriet make it even harder to believe in her reasons for rejecting him, which in turn make the ending seem rushed and too conveniently resolved.
That said, I didn’t dislike The Unsuitable Secretary, which is an enjoyable piece of fluff with plenty of humour and some nicely steamy love scenes. Its being rather insubstantial means it won’t suit everyone, but it’s definitely a book to bear in mind next time you’re looking for an easy, fun read.