September 2007, European Historical Romance (1820s England)
Harl Historicals #864, $5.99, 304 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373294646 Part of a series
When I picked A Compromised Lady by Elizabeth Rolls to review, I was attracted by the title. I tend to like books about heroines other than virgins with unblemished reputations. In that respect, this book did not disappoint me. The story takes a heroine with a difficult past, with nothing glossed over, and gives her a new chance for happiness with a delicious hero. All the same, there are some flaws in the heroine which spoiled my enjoyment to a certain extent.
Following the death of her fiancé, Dorothea (Thea) Winslow has spent the last eight years in virtual seclusion with an aunt in Yorkshire. She is more than surprised when her brother visits, bringing their father's orders that she return to London, take part in the Season, and marry. Thea wants neither a Season nor a husband, but her father holds the purse strings, and so she acquiesces to his demands. Thea's only relief comes from the fact that she won’t have to stay at his house, but at her godmother’s, the widowed Lady Arnsworth’s. It is quickly apparent that Thea has suffered deeply in the past, and very slowly we get to understand what happened the spring when she was sixteen. The novel’s title actually serves as a bit of a spoiler here, but don't think that you will have figured it out by page 20: There are a number of layers of Thea’s secret, and I liked the way they are revealed step by painful step while Thea emerges from her post-traumatic state and faces her past.
Another guest at Lady Arnsworth’s house is her favorite nephew, Mr. Richard Blakehurst (younger brother to Lord Blakehurst, hero of His Lady Mistress). Ever since a riding accident in his childhood, Richard has been lame. He is a scholar and a farmer, and from observing his brother’s domestic bliss, thinks he would like to get married. Lady Arnsworth couldn’t agree more, and as Thea recently inherited a fortune from her uncle, she is the ideal candidate. Richard’s pride balks at the idea of wooing a heiress for her money, but he liked Thea a lot when they were children, and when they meet again, he quickly decides she would be the perfect wife. Here is a scenario I love, that of the hero falling in love but insisting that he wants to marry for purely rational reasons only. Richard is delightful all over. He is very protective, often stubborn and impatient, but he gives Thea the space she needs. I really enjoyed reading about him.
Thea is far more difficult to like. At the beginning she is very downtrodden. Once she arrives in London, she manages to find her feet rather quickly – she gets herself some nice clothes and when her father and the elderly suitor he favors importune her, she gives them beautiful set-downs. Soon fairly horrific events take place (which I do not want to divulge here), and she acts with great courage, strength of purpose and remarkable competence. But she never finds any pride in her own achievements. In the one scene she borders on doing so, she immediately ascribes it to Richard’s influence on her. In some way this is understandable. For years she has been told that she is the lowest of the low. Still, I found this very depressing, and would have wished for Thea to become more self-confident on her own account.
In addition, and this weighed even heavier on me, she takes it upon herself to make Richard’s decisions for him in the name of “honor”. Now that is something I despise in romance heroes, and seeing it from a heroine didn’t make it any better. In my eyes, the lack of respect shown by refusing the other the opportunity to make his or her own decision is a sure killer of romance. In one memorable scene, Richard asks her for some time to think extremely serious matters over, and she walks away, thinking, “She would not see him again and force him to say the words.” That was the one moment the novel came close to wallbanger territory.
I found this a great shame, because there is much to like here. The plot is unusual and Elizabeth Rolls takes into account how people in that period - with its morals and customs - might have reacted. The physical side of Thea and Richard’s relationship develops in a plausible and heart-warming manner. I also liked the family dynamics. In both families the relationships are sometimes difficult even where they are cordial, and in each there are some thoroughly disagreeable people. Add to this the fact that Elizabeth Rolls manages to create understanding for the viewpoint for several of the less likable characters, and you have a novel that deals more in shades of gray than many others in this genre.
All in all A Compromised Lady gets only a qualified recommendation from me, and had I liked the heroine more, the novel would have earned an even higher grade. I will definitely pick up the next book by Elizabeth Rolls with anticipation, as I am sure I will thoroughly enjoy her writing when it’s about different characters.
-- Rike Horstmann
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