This book was stunning. Courtney Milan’s characterization and gender politics have always been several cuts above much of what is present in the genre, but here she addresses head-on the inequality of opportunity for 19 century women and details the psychological effects of internalizing the message, both overt and more subtle, that you can’t.
Violet Waterfield, the Countess of Cambury, is a brilliant scientist. She’s also a woman. Her gender has done her no favors: her groundbreaking discoveries on reproduction and inheritance of traits are known to the public as the work of Sebastian Malheur, her best friend; futhermore she, now widowed, was stuck for years in a marriage of convenience that made her physically ill and scarred her emotionally. With society and even well-meaning but naive loved ones proselytizing that the value of women comes from being wives and mothers, widowed, childless Violet, whose considerable contributions to society must remain hidden, feels impotent and inadequate. So she turns herself to stone: she doesn’t feel, she doesn’t engage, she hides from everyone except Sebastian.
Sebastian, though, is himself tired of hiding. As much as he stands by Violet’s work, it is controversial and he can only take so much public derision. Compounding the strain on what had been a great friendship and professional relationship is that Sebastian is in love with Violet, has been for some time, and feels like every further second he continues to get credit for her genius is more time that the world is being robbed of appreciating her. While Sebastian knows much of Violet’s reclusiveness is of her own design, he wants everyone to see her as he does.
Violet is, initially, so hard and so cold. It’s hard at first to see her as a romantic heroine, but the more that you understand her the more that you feel for her. Sebastian, for his part, is a lovely character unto himself, but even better in the context of a romance is that he’s perfect for Violet. He knows just what she wants and needs, and he is able to communicate his own desires in a way that doesn’t steamroll her agency or what her comfort level is for their relationship. Their interplay is touching, poignant, intelligent, funny, and cathartic.
I’ve never had this experience reading a romance before, where not only was I completely enraptured in the main romantic plot, but that I was also personally affected by the circumstances and/or the rest of the plot. I am both a PhD student in genetics and an ardent feminist, and the intersection of those topics so near and dear to my heart, both so intelligently discussed, had me head over heels. I am, once again, in slavish admiration of Courtney Milan’s obvious passion for scientific and medical history and how seamlessly she blends her detailed research of those topics into her romances. One of my favorite passages in the book, Sebastian’s seduction of Violet that is comprised of his facetious Latin designations for the different types of rake and why he is a worthy one for her, begins in breathtaking fashion:
“Ah, the rule that says women aren’t allowed to be intelligent.” He brushed a kiss against her forehead. “Burn that one to the ground, Violet, and dance on the ashes. And damn anyone who tells you it’s selfish to do so.”
She couldn’t help herself. She smiled at him. His hands slid down her shoulders, leaving a trail of gooseflesh in their wake.
“Burn it all, sweetheart.”
She was being seduced–thoroughly seduced. His fingers curled around her ribs, bringing her close to him. Her heart pounded; her hands prickled.
“And what do you think?” she whispered.
“I’ll douse the lot in paraffin oil.” His breath was warm against her lips; his hands hot, resting on her hips. “I’d tell you to fetch a match, but you have always had your own spark.”
Count me in, Sebastian.