I have no recollection of why I picked up this book. I have never heard of this author and don’t remember reading about the book itself. Still, I’m very glad I did for several reasons.
Plot: the plot is pretty generic. Grace’s dad just died. He sucked. To punish her for having Opinions, he effectively cut her out of the will entirely except for a 50,000 pound dowry to be given to her husband, if he is a lord. The family’s sprawling business empire, which was built almost entirely by Grace’s mother, was given to her 4 year old brother. Her brother and the business are now being controlled by a Very Bad Lord (tw: references to sexual violence and some minimal description of it). She needs to access her dowry to fight for custody of her brother in the Court of Chancery. So, she very unsubtly advertises for a lord who is willing to split her dowry in a marriage for convenience. He needs all 50k and figures he can convince her if she hangs out with him for a few weeks that he needs it more. Shenanigans, secrets, and misunderstandings ensue.
What is novel about this novel (ha) isn’t the plot, but how the plot is approached. This novel is by far the most thorough, honest exploration of the endless, arbitrary legal barriers that were placed before British women in the 1800’s. Given how many romance novels are set in this time period and place, I’ve always had to swallow intense discomfort about these so-called happy endings where an independent woman marries her dude and there is no consideration for the huge sacrifice she is making to make that choice. Not here. Here, we get to suffer right along with our heroine as she bashes her head against every legal wall and knows full well the life and death implications of marriage for a woman.
Grace literally has a buddy who is in law school help her draft an agreement to clarify the terms of the marriage such as the split of the money and the fact that it would be a marriage in name only (no sexy times). This is of course entirely unenforceable, since the dowry is the husband’s property, as is the wife and her body and he can do, by law, literally whatever he wants to such property. So basically she’s banking on him being too stupid to realize he can do whatever he wants in spite of the agreement. Fortunately, this is romancelandia and he’s just too honourable to do anything else, but she fully realizes how insanely lucky that is and what a m a s s i v e risk this was.
The other thing the book does exceedingly well is deal with privilege, and otherwise kind, generous people who abuse their privilege without realizing.
Everett is a really good dude. He literally gave away his military commission to make sure a competent person got it rather than the dude who could afford it. He refuses to default on his garbage brother’s debts, even though it’s pretty common for the aristocracy to run up a large bill at a store and then walk away since there are literally no consequences. He throws himself into helping restore the family holdings and help tenants who are suffering from an outbreak of disease killing their cattle even though he totally could just write off the whole thing because there are no consequences to fucking anything ever argh. So all of these responsibilities are obligations he takes on by choice, and in my books that makes you at least a decent person.
He’s also so privileged and so blind to those privileges. He needed a person like Grace to show him that these responsibilities, while heavy, come with an absolutely embarrassing amount of power, like the fact that they’re all optional because of his fancy inbred lineage. She’s there to point out to him when he’s being a privileged dick, and he’s mostly receptive to this, which is another huge check in the good dude column.
That said, accepting privilege and working to redress those imbalances is very hard and often deeply uncomfortable. A big part of why Grace and Everett experience a serious breakdown in the relationship is his refusal to acknowledge the ways in which he is using his privilege to prioritize what he wants over what she wants. The big turning point for him near the end is one of the most concise summaries of privilege I’ve ever seen (no spoilers):
Grace had said privilege was a cloak, but it wasn’t just that. It was access to weapons.
Goddamn right it is. Grace’s literal best option to succeed was to spend tens of thousands of pounds and months or years fighting a hopeless battle in court while Everett’s path to success is unsurprisingly much shorter, much easier, costs nothing, and takes days. Because of an accident of birth.
For me, this unflinching exploration of the imbalance inherent in any relationship between Person and Property is really the only way to make a story like this truly believable. It is also helped along by the fact that Everett and Grace get along nearly right from the start and they are absolutely lovely together. Their chemistry pops off the page, the dialogue is sharp and funny, and the evolution of their relationship is perfectly paced. Neither has to sacrifice who they are to the alter of love, but rather they help one another become the best versions of themselves.
There is one weirdness with Everett’s brother possibly being gay (or bi? And maybe poly?) and this possibly coming to light because his wife finds out and the possible implications for the brother (hanging) and for Grace (connection to immorality effectively disqualifying her from caring for her brother). Frankly, I was a little confused by this story line. Maybe leaving space for a subsequent book? I hope so. Because I have a LOT of questions.
Bottom line: if you’re looking for a bit more realism in your historical romance, this is without question one to get. And even if you don’t. It’s great even in the context of a by the numbers romance. But damnit, you should want more out of your books and this is a perfect example of why. You can have wonderful, optimistic, uplifting stories that don’t whitewash the bits of history we don’t like.