Jane Austen meets Bleak House in an engaging historical novel about the demands of marriage in late 18th-century England.
The first installment in a proposed trilogy, the book centers on Mary Cole, a Gloucester butcher’s daughter whose chief virtue is an unalterable sense of goodness, a quality hard to maintain as the youngest sister of two unapologetic harlots. Barely 16 years old, Mary catches the eye of notorious lothario Frederick Augustus, the 5th Earl of Berkeley, who has always sworn to avoid the prison of marriage. Frederick senses that a beautiful saint like Mary can save him from his immoral ways and stops at nothing to seduce her. When she refuses his advances, he manipulates her family’s dire economic state and tricks her into unwedded communion. Despite Mary’s true love for James Perry, an aspiring young lawyer with only the purest of intentions, she gives up her happiness to save her family. Answering demands that they marry, Frederick sets up a fraudulent marriage contract, one that he convinces Mary can never be revealed because of her low social status and the indecent reputation of her sisters. During the next 15 years, she bears a half-dozen children and potential heirs but finds that claiming a birthright for her seemingly illegitimate sons will become the fight of her life. Through the narrative thread concerning Frederick’s aversion to marriage, Cole explores the marital adventures of Frederick’s close friend the Prince of Wales, whose desire for the twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert runs afoul of the Royal Marriages Act of 1772–it prohibits the prince from marrying without the consent of his father King George III, who disapproves of the widow’s Catholic faith. The novel moves along like a runaway carriage and features many delectable trappings–chance encounters at the opera, duplicitous servants, church officials taken to drink and hidden agendas–found in the very best Victorian novels.
An entertaining treat with enough history to satisfy serious-minded readers.