CBR15passport – a book you own
I am making my way through the Brothers Sinister series and I have really enjoyed them all so far but this one might end up being my favorite because of its heroine. Jane Fairfield is a boss. She is life goals. The theme running throughout this novel is outsiders and how they function within power structures. The historical setting for this novel (1867) revolves around the mid-19th century franchise movement in England, that is, the efforts to expand voting rights to working men as well as the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement. The Heiress Effect features people who never quite fit in and who make other people (especially the men who hold power) uncomfortable: the working class, minorities, the disabled, and women, especially women who speak up and defy social norms.
Jane Fairfield sticks out like a sore thumb and she knows it; she assiduously cultivates the image of a loud, boorish, uncultured young woman who has a knack for saying and wearing the wrong thing. Jane has a curvy body that defies her corset and fashion. She wears the brightest colors, the busiest patterns and as much lace as she can. Jane is tacky, and while she actually does like the colors and patterns she chooses, she intentionally goes overboard in dressing. She says exactly what she thinks without any kind of internal filters stopping her, offending her “betters” without seeming to understand that that is what she is doing. But Jane does understand what she is doing. Jane Fairfield is filthy rich, of legal age, and without parents. Her uncle, who detests her, has said that she can only remain under his roof with her beloved younger sister Emily if she goes out into society and makes herself available for marriage. Once married, Uncle Titus can be rid of Jane. Jane actually can’t stand Uncle Titus and could leave any time, but Emily, her half-sister, won’t be of age for another year and a half, and given Emily’s medical condition (epilepsy, aka “fits”) and Uncle Titus’ fondness for quacks with dangerous, untested interventions, Jane will do anything she can to stay near her sister and keep her safe from Uncle Titus until she is legally of age. Jane’s enormous financial resources would make her a catch for a good number of society men despite her dubious family background (Jane’s biological father, the source of her wealth, never married her mother), but Jane’s goal is to not marry and so she uses her weapons to alienate potential suitors. And she is quite effective. Due to her friendship with the Johnson sisters, Jane gets invited to society events in Cambridge, where she lives, but she is roundly mocked at every event, with most of the men and women not even bothering to hide their derision or cutting remarks from her. Jane seems oblivious to their cruelty, but it is all an act and she feels like she is winning. Then the unexpected happens.
Oliver Marshall is an ambitious man who has some distinct advantages and one glaring disadvantage. He is well educated and well connected, devoting his energies to getting a reform bill passed in Parliament that would expand voting rights to working class men like his adoptive father. The story of Oliver’s parentage is the subject of The Governess Affair; the elder Duke of Clermont had raped Oliver’s mother, making Oliver the half-brother of the current Duke of Clermont (Robert, from The Duchess War). Robert has publicly recognized Oliver as his brother and shared the family wealth with him. They are the best of friends as well as brothers, and this of course opens doors to Oliver that would otherwise have been shut. Nonetheless, his “bastard” status and humble roots put him at a disadvantage when he lobbies the members of the House of Lords who remember him as the lower class outsider from their school days at Eton and Cambridge. Oliver has come to Cambridge to speak with a powerful lord who attended school with him. Bradenton has great influence with a block of lords and his support for Oliver’s bill would mean its passage, but Bradenton has a price. He will support the bill (with some modifications, because he doesn’t really believe workers deserve voting rights) and get other lords to do the same if Oliver “takes care of” Jane. She has offended him too many times and her cutting (and true) remarks about Bradenton have gone too far. Bradenton wants her humiliated in public, he wants her broken, he wants her to shut up.
When Oliver meets Jane, he is revolted by her garish outfit but must admit she is physically just the type of woman he likes — soft and curvy with a lovely face. Jane makes sure to commit every faux pas possible and make as many rude remarks as she can, but Oliver never joins in with the others in laughing at her or making cutting remarks. He thinks it’s wrong to treat her this way, but later, when Bradenton offers his deal, Oliver has to admit that he is seriously considering doing the awful thing at Bradenton has requested. He hasn’t said no but he doesn’t want to say yes. Is the passage of the reform bill reason enough to go against his personal values? Moreover, as he meets Jane more often at social events, he begins to see that there is much more to her than meets the eye. Jane for her part can’t help but feel a little thrill when she sees the very handsome Oliver but she knows that she has to be very careful if she wants to keep her sister safe.
The development of this relationship between Jane and Oliver is so much fun to read. I love Jane because she knows who she is and is not ashamed. She honestly doesn’t give a damn what society thinks of her, which is liberating. Also she is quite honest with Oliver about her feelings for him and what she wants. She understands that he is an ambitious man who, when he marries, will need a wife who serves as a quiet asset to him, something she could never be. She won’t play any more roles once she and Emily are free and safe. Oliver finds himself falling hard for Jane and struggling with his love for her and his desire to become a powerful and successful politician. The issue of trying to change the people you love, or expecting them to change to suit you, is part of this love story and I love the way Courtney Milan handles it.
Alongside the Jane/Oliver story are several interesting side stories featuring folks on the outside of the power structure. Emily meets an Indian student studying law, which leads to some interesting plot developments. Oliver’s younger sister Free joins the suffragettes at a rally for voting reform in London, and we learn that his aunt Frederica is an agoraphobe who has been feuding with Free for years. Free is angry that her aunt doesn’t force herself to leave home while Frederica worries about the dangers that Free subjects herself to. And in Cambridge, we encounter the third “Brother Sinister” Sebastian Malheur, friend and cousin to Robert and Oliver. Sebastian’s scientific work on genetics has brought him both acclaim and scandal; many people find his conclusions and manner of expressing himself to be offensive and perverse. The threats and harassment are taking a toll on Sebastian, and I believe the next novel in the series will deal with him. The issue of “being safe” versus “taking risks” is part of these side stories as well as Jane and Oliver’s story. It’s all very well done and I can’t wait to read more!