I know the Courtney Milan fans out there love this particular book (shoutout to Malin and Narfna) in the Brothers Sinister series and having now read it, I get it. It really is a fantastic novel with characters that I love and an historical set up that resonates still today. The Countess Conspiracy deals with matters of work/family, what “women’s work” is, and that feeling when you are both too much for people and still not enough no matter what you do. The main characters Violet (Countess of Cambury) and Sebastian Malheur (my favorite of the Brothers Sinister) are both very intelligent individuals whose intelligence is not recognized by others. They have been friends since childhood but Sebastian, the known rake, is making it clear that he loves Violet even though she is convinced that she is both unlovable and not in love with her best friend and confidante.
Violet is a widow and a brilliant scientist specializing in botany and genetics. She must hide her research because women are not supposed to be academics, and they absolutely shouldn’t be doing work related to sexual reproduction. When she submits her papers to scientific journals they reject them without a glance. In order to get her ideas out there she uses her best friend Sebastian. He has always seen Violet’s excellence and suggested that if a man’s name were on the research, people would take notice. Thus began the secret partnership wherein Violet did the research and wrote the papers, but Sebastian did the public performances and got the credit. Sebastian wants to help Violet but he hates that she does not get the recognition she deserves. Moreover, his lectures (which Violet prepares him for) become flashpoints for hostility from folks who are offended by his “perverse” sexual ideas. As the novel opens, Sebastian has had enough; he is tired of living this lie and getting recognition for work that he didn’t do. He also begins to make it clear to Violet that he wants more than friendship with her. Violet for her part is very skittish when it comes to love and relationships. That part of her story is quite sad but also very well told. I don’t want to give away the whole plot but her marriage was troubling and her lack of children makes her seem less than a woman/wife in some people’s eyes. Violet suffers from a debilitating lack of self worth and even though she on some level realizes that she also loves Sebastian and that she can trust him, the journey from knowing that on a rational level to really feeling/believing it, is at the heart of Violet’s story.
Sebastian, meanwhile, has his own personal journey to make. His reputation has always been that of the rake, the funny friend, the person who seems to be liked by everyone except those who think his lectures are perverse. Sebastian’s response to the haters is to be totally snarky, and he seems to enjoy baiting folks, until he doesn’t. The lie of what he and Violet are doing is eating away at him. He knows he is not brilliant like Violet, but he cannot see that he actually is a formidable intellect with much to offer on his own. Sebastian is also trying to prove to his seriously ill older brother Benedict that he Sebastian is a responsible serious man who could take care of his nephew if Benedict dies. Benedict is perpetually annoyed by Sebastian and is very critical of everything Sebastian does. No matter how hard he tries to prove his worth to Benedict, Sebastian cannot win. Still he doesn’t give up loving his brother and trying to show that he is an honorable, hardworking and responsible person but he cannot help but feel diminished due to his brother’s attitude.
There’s a lot to love in this Brothers Sinister installment. First, there’s the historical back drop to this story, with its focus on scientific discoveries of the 1860s, women’s unrecognized work in the sciences throughout history, and how the traditional role for women — to marry and have children — can be stifling, unfulfilling and even dangerous. In her afterward, Milan provides very interesting information about women in science and how they still struggle for recognition even today. Then there are the main characters, Sebastian and Violet. I think many women can identify with Violet’s feeling of not being enough; she loves her work and is confident of her research but her previous marriage and lack of children make her feel worthless; she is sure everyone loathes her based on that “failure” and that if they knew about her scandalous research it would be even worse. Sebastian is an empath; he likes to make people happy and he is sensitive to the moods of others, especially Violet. When he understands more about her marriage, he is even more careful to give her space and always reassure her that he loves her no matter what. Sebastian has very enlightened ideas about sex and adult relationships, and I like that these two adult characters can have honest conversations about what they want. Violet slowly begins to understand that having “wants” does not make her selfish. Her family dynamic with her mother and sister was another highlight of the novel for me —a lot of interesting and unexpected developments there. I kind of wish Milan would give Violet’s mother a story!
So this book might also be my favorite in the series. I loved Violet’s journey to finding happiness personally and professionally. I loved seeing Sebastian realize that he is smart and is capable of doing meaningful work of his own. I loved how these stories were resolved in the end.