In this romance set in the early 19th century, a young woman finds herself pursued by an uncouth and relentless duke who’ll stop at nothing to possess her.
Once her grandfather dies, Phyllida Satterthwaite is left alone in the world as well as virtually penniless—both of her parents died shortly after she was born. She’s taken into the care of her uncle, Edgar Townsend, who lets her modest estate in the country and brings her to London to pair her with a husband. Unfortunately, the duke of Moreland takes an avid interest in her, a man so notorious for his maniacal pursuit of objects of beauty he’s nicknamed “the Collector.” Phyllida, now his quarry, becomes known as the “Work of Art.” The duke is an unreservedly unsavory human being—he beats dogs and is suspected of murdering his wife. Phyllida refuses his hand in marriage, but the duke makes it clear he never asked for it in the first place. Edgar likewise views their union as a financial transaction, one for which the duke paid handsomely. She turns to a friendly acquaintance, Capt. Arthur Heywood, for help and he chivalrously offers to wed her, a “marriage in name only” that rescues her from the duke’s salacious attention. But the duke is not so easily defeated, and the new couple are threatened by the prospect of his “swift and brutal retaliation.” The duke remains a hyperbolically unsubtle caricature in an otherwise intelligently nuanced novel by Matthews (A Modest Independence, 2019). The author seamlessly combines a suspenseful tale and a soaring romance, the plot by turns sweetly moving and dramatically stirring. The relationship between Phyllida and Arthur is especially well crafted—what was initially a partnership borne out of practicality and mutual respect slowly shows promise of blossoming into something more transcendent. Occasionally, Matthews can be a bit heavy-handed with her narrative commentary; for example, she feels the need, after repeatedly making the point that the duke sees Phyllida as a trophy rather than a person, to tell readers that she really isn’t: “But she was no painting. She was a human being.” Nevertheless, the story as a whole is filled with tenderness and intrigue, and is sure to delight lovers of the genre.
A thoughtfully executed tale that perceptively dramatizes the tension between the demands of love and commerce.