First of a trilogy about virtue compromised and beauty commodified, set in late-18th-century England.
As a child, Henrietta is brought into the London home of Lord and Lady Stavourley, to be raised along with their two sons and daughter, Catherine. Early on, Henrietta resigns herself to her position in the household—that of a poor cousin, who if she is lucky, will be Catherine’s companion after she is married. After Catherine’s coming-out, it is to lovely Henrietta that handsome Lord Allenham directs his attention. However, since Henrietta is penniless, and Lord Allenham’s cash-strapped family estate needs shoring up, he courts Catherine. Catherine's engagement is announced, but all along Allenham has been secretly corresponding with Henrietta, professing his love. When a scheming housemaid turns the letters over to Catherine, she scratches Henrietta’s face and vows revenge. However, days before the wedding, Catherine dies of a fever. As the Stavourley household mourns, Lord Stavourley reveals the truth: Henrietta is no cousin, but his illegitimate daughter. Since Henrietta is dowryless (a spiteful Lady Stavourley controls the purse strings), her only option is marriage to a clergyman of her father’s choosing. Desperate, Henrietta flees to Allenham’s country estate, where the two consummate their forbidden love. He sets her up in a comfortable cottage, but then, unknown circumstances (which may pertain to his political ambitions) compel him to leave. Fruitlessly searching for Allenham in London, Henrietta learns that her mother was Mrs. Kennedy, a famous courtesan who retired to live with a rich lover, St John. Arriving at St John’s residence, she finds she is too late—Mrs. Kennedy died years before. At first St John seems avuncular, but his lustful intentions are soon apparent. Henrietta succumbs since she can’t face making her living on the streets, particularly since she is newly pregnant with Allenham’s child. Historian Rubenhold has fashioned a page turner rife with choice tidbits about London’s demimonde, however readers, kept on tenterhooks by ever more precarious cliffhangers, may feel cheated by the ending.
A tantalizing introduction.