Desert Isle Keeper
The Worst Woman in London
I am thrilled to see Julia Bennet again publishing historical romance. Her first two novels, The Madness of Miss Gray and The Ruin of Evangeline Jones, are four star reads for me and, were I awarding points for simply being more interesting than the vast majority of historical romances I’ve read in the past five years, I’d rate them even higher. Her latest, The Worst Woman in London, is a refreshing, generous tale that tells two love stories as it explores the abhorrent impact on women of divorce law in the Victorian age.
James Standish first meets Francesca Heller when she is nineteen and he is twenty-six. She is the intended of his best friend, Edward Thorne. James realizes, within minutes, the Thorne marriage is doomed.
Miss Heller simply wasn’t the right girl for Thorne. James knew by the way she hid her laughter, by her sadness when Thorne patronized her, and by a dozen other insignificant details. If the ceremony went ahead in three days, it might prove the worst mistake of her life.
If it were any other man, the two might marry, realize their mistake, and make the best of things, but Thorne was a romantic and he’d rhapsodized at length on Miss Heller’s delicacy, her girlish ignorance, and sweet compliance. When he realized she wasn’t the girl of his dreams, his spirits wouldn’t just plummet, but crash. When people tumbled from their pedestals, as they generally did sooner or later, Thorne didn’t hesitate to cut them out of his life. Even his own father.
The girl didn’t understand, not consciously, and Thorne hadn’t a clue.
Perhaps James ought to say something.
James says nothing and Francesca and Edward marry within weeks. The union is, as James foresaw, a disaster.
Our story then moves forward ten years, the Thornes have lived apart for the past eight–Edward with his mistresses in London, Francesca in the country. Francesca, much to the horror of society and Edward, is insisting on divorce. She wishes to be truly free of Edward and is unwilling to continue on as they have. Pursuing this end means she’s lost her standing in society–even the uncle and aunt who raised her won’t speak to her–as well as almost all of her money.
Edward finds her behavior inconceivable. He tries to change her mind–
“You didn’t used to mind doing what’s expected.” Edward’s voice, quiet with reproach, brought her back to the here and now. The words hung in the air and quashed any triumph she might feel at resisting his tactics. “Are their expectations really so onerous? You don’t want to live with me. We’ll live apart then. They can tolerate that. Surely you can content yourself for your family’s sake. A divorce gains you nothing and causes them, causes all of us, a great deal of unpleasantness.”
–and when that doesn’t work, enlists James to make Fran an offer.
“To be precise, I’m willing to offer five thousand pounds per annum to be paid in quarterly installments. She’ll be able to maintain her own establishment, if that’s what she wishes, and in grand style. She ought to be happy. Any sane woman would be.”
James grudgingly agrees to visit Fran and convey his friend’s proposal which he, James, thinks is astonishingly generous. James is a man well aware of the value of money. He was raised by his acerbic aunt Miriam whose heir he is. He’s never worked a day in his life–men of his class just didn’t–and though he doesn’t love answering to his aunt, he knows better than to threaten his own financial security. But when he goes to Bloomsbury to see her, Fran has no interest in Edward’s offer. Nothing is worth more to her than her freedom.
James didn’t believe in freedom. She might as well say she wanted a genie to appear and grant her three wishes or the ability to spin straw into gold. It wouldn’t sound more improbable to his ears. Everyone, even the privileged elite, had a role to play and a script to follow.
He leaves her house unsettled. Their conversation makes him feel somehow less for caring about having nice things, for wanting to be a part of high society. James finds himself, over the next days, thinking more than he’d like about Francesca. She’s certainly a lot more interesting to him than beautiful, eighteen-year-old Sylvia Randle, the woman Miriam has decided he should consider. The next time James sees Fran, at the opera where Edward is flaunting his diamond bedecked paramour, James asks Fran to come riding with him the next day. That date leads to another which leads to a kiss and suddenly, for the first time in his life, James is in love with the worst woman (for him) in London.
Though this is a short book–it comes in at under 300 pages–The Worst Woman in London feels expansive. Ms. Bennet has clearly researched the laws of the time. Women and men were treated very differently in matters of divorce, much to the detriment of the former. Fran meets regularly with her solicitor and those conversations are fascinating. James muses–and we are privy to his thoughts–a great deal about work, money, and the roles men are assigned in his aristocratic world. This is a book whose intellect is obvious and enjoyable–my favorite kind!
It is, however, first and foremost a romance novel and, as noted earlier, contains not one but two sets of lovers. The primary romance between James and Fran is sexy and believable. I liked them–they are admirable, honorable, and ethical leads. James becomes a better man because of his love for Fran and Fran gets the kindness, passion, and love Edward denied her. But–and this is a bit of a problem–they weren’t as compelling to me as the other lovers: Edward and Sylvia.
Edward is a thorough bounder–and, in historical romance, I have a weakness for such men. Sylvia is reckless, resentful, and believably immature. Each takes one look at the other and thinks, I want THAT. Their courtship–it barely qualifies for the term–is heedless and hot and quite likely to end in ruin. Neither she nor Edward care–and I loved them for it. I’d have happily read as much about them as I did about James and Fran–to be honest, I’d have been happier to have read more about them than James and Fran. I suspect the reason I can’t is that Ms. Bennet knows that today’s modern reader is likely to have a hissy fit if a genuine cad, even a somewhat redeemable cad, is the hero. To me, romance is the less for it but that’s just me.
The Worst Woman in London gets a DIK from me. It’s romantic, feminist, and shimmers with intelligence. Let’s hope Ms. Bennet keeps writing–we need more historical romance just like this!
Impenitent social media enthusiast. Relational trend spotter. Enjoys both carpe diem and the fish of the day.
|Review Date:||February 3, 2023|
|Book Type:||European Historical Romance | Historical Romance|
|Review Tags:||divorce | Victorian|
Just finished it and Dabney’s review is spot on. Thoroughly enjoyed it, wonder if the author will ever tell the rest of Sylvia’s story – even in short story or novella form because it might be fascinating to learn more about a female artist in this place and time – and I’ll be checking out the rest of Bennet’s backlist as she’s a new to me author. This story is about adults who have adult conversations, and we’re privy to almost all of them. The story is told mostly from James’ and Fran’s points of view, but we get a few glimpses inside Edward and Sylvia’s heads as well. I even liked the relationship that develops between Fran and Mrs. Kirkpatrick, Edward’s mistress. Why couldn’t two women, both deliberately bullied in a public setting through no fault of their own, find common ground? Realistic? Maybe not, but it is a romance and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I just picked this up based on Dabney’s review and was shocked to find it for $1.99 at Amazon . . . how can you go wrong at that price?
I had fun with this one, too.
I only read the beginning because I don’t like to know too much before reading a book. I will come back to your review after I have read it.
Like you, I thoroughly enjoyed her previous books and was so happy when I saw on Instagram that she had a new book coming out!
I will be picking this up today and hopefully getting a chance to read it this weekend!
I’m intrigued and am checking this one out!