A Man Above Reproach
by Evelyn Pryce
Montlake Romance, October 2013
It’s England, 1832. A new duke named Elias Addison enters a whorehouse known as The Sleeping Dove with his dearest friend, Lord Nicholas Thackeray. The Dove is one that caters to the nobles, who wear masks to cover their faces, but everyone knows who’s who and what’s going on. While Elias doesn’t want to be at The Dove, having been deemed a bore and the “Uncatchable” bachelor because he is no fun, he does notice the piano player. Meet the Bawdy Bluestocking (BB for short), the lady meant to add lively atmosphere to a place where women sell their bodies because they have no other options. BB’s body isn’t for sale–just her conversation. Elias can’t help but notice that BB’s skills are refined…are that of someone with classical training who has played for a long time. The mystery is too much, and he pays to talk to the woman.
The Bawdy Bluestocking is careful to hide her name. By night she plays piano in a whorehouse, but by day she runs a bookstore she owns, a business left to her by her father. Part of the secret of BB is that she takes in the prostitutes who have no where to go at night, who would otherwise sleep at The Dove, because they are the most at risk for being sold to nobles and are never seen again. The only reason Elias learns of BB’s name is by stopping in the bookstore with his mother and realizing he recognizes the shop owner. He is sold a random book he grabs (he is so terribly flustered!) and is told the owner is also the author–Josephine Grant. The book is called On Society’s Ills and The Real Price of Prostitution, apropos for her experience and contextualizing the nobles who frequent The Dove.
BB–or Josephine–has a secret about her family that she fears will humiliate and ruin the duke, should society ever learn of it, if they become involved. However, with money and a title on his side, the duke forces himself into her life, completely upsetting her bookstore business, her efforts to save girls from being sold as sex slaves, and keeping her identity to herself. Selfish doesn’t begin to cover it. Elias is often described as lounging in doorways with his legs crossed, or smirking. When we are reading from Josephine’s point of view, he really is the entitled nobleman we’ve all heard of: he doesn’t take “no” for an answer, which has undertones of rape.
The sections from Elias’s point of view depict Josephine as calculating and shrewish. She’s willing to have sex with him to make him go away so she can resume her life, though from her point of view she’s a dignified woman who won’t “go there” for impure reasons. Neither character makes the other seem like a good person through their eyes.
Evelyn Pryce made a number of great choices in her novel. I appreciated that Elias was drawn to Josephine because she didn’t fit in her setting. His curiosity, and not her breasts or lips or whatever other body part, was the reason for his attraction. This choice made me take the story more seriously because it wasn’t all sex and six-pack abs and bodice-ripping.
Commentary on social gaps and sex work were also welcome in a romance novel. It wasn’t a tittering book the whole way though, making both readers and characters think about the very real implications of prostitution during a time when a woman was no one without a man. Elias sits in The Dove, thinking about how to speak to Josephine, when a prostitute sits on his lap. He thinks about the book Josephine wrote and what it means:
Elise shifted under [the prostitute] with discomfort. She was indeed pretty, but every word our of her mouth made him think of On Society’s Ills and The Real Price of Prostitution. Josephine had written with startling lucidity on the ways that women fooled themselves when they were forced to sell their bodies to men and their limited income alternatives. The calculated breath on his ear, the way this woman’s leg wrapped around the chair, even the smell of her hair…it no longer seemed to be the simple charm of a lady. It was calculated for survival.”
In the novel, it is made clear that male nobles are forced into marriages of convenience with women who don’t want to get married either, so the men “keep” mistresses they find in brothels, maintaining second homes and catering to the woman’s every desire — until the nobleman gets bored with his prostitute and leaves her. I appreciated that Pryce added social concern in her novel to create a second layer to the story.
The conversations between Elias and Josephine included a steady stream of banter that made me like both characters, even when they were unlikable in each other’s eyes. The discussions kept at a healthy pace and made the book a bit of a page turner. Pryce also has great moments of conversation between Josephine and a young woman who works at The Dove and Josephine’s bookstore. The women are both serious when needed and playful and honest with one another when the time is appropriate. If you ever get tired of the proper (a modern reader may call them boring or pretentious) characters written during the Victorian era, this updated novel would suit you fine! Readers may have the criticism of the novel not being completely true to the time period, but I overlooked any issues I suspected because I have studied Victorian literature, but am not an expert.
The male characters could be downright hilarious when put together. When Elias, his cousin Sebastian, and Nicholas head to the The Dove to do some business, Pryce uses her characters to essentially wink at the reader–to let us know that she knows that this is a romance novel set in the 1830s and that we want someone, some damsel in distress, to be rescued. Here is the exchange upon heading to the bordello:
“We are just walking in?” Sebastian asked, peeking around the back of the building. “Why not something more heroic, like going through the courtyard to employ the element of surprise?”
“It is a place of business, Sebastian. We are walking in.”
“It does not seem dashing or dangerous, Elias, you must admit.”
“I know they love me here,” Nicholas shrugged. “I have spent a fortune on drinks and on Sally until she left. Furthermore, I am not [Elias]. I am not the troublemaker.”
“You took away one of [the madam’s] girls,” Elias reminded him. He opened the front door and began making their way to the back. “I think it would be best if we went in as if we were still patrons, mingle until we can secure a conversation with [the madam].
“And what if she will not talk to use? You did knock her lackey unconscious.”
“She will talk.”
“I still think it would be more dramatic to climb the courtyard fence.”
“Shut up, Sebastian.”
The lively conversations like these made me smile and see that Pryce knows her genre and knows her readers. These bits of metafiction appear elsewhere, too, like when Elias’s sister knows a romantic moment is coming and she is asked to leave the room. She responds, “But this is the good part.” The sister knows a love story and how one is shaped. When Elias’s friends chide him for being so foolish, they also suggest (*wink wink*) that they are in a novel. Elias says to Nicholas, “It is all very epical. I am sure you are pleased to no end that I have to deal with a situation that I would not believe if it was written in a ridiculous novel.” Any faults with plot readers may find should go away when they learn that Pryce also knows the premise of the story is stretching it, but this is all good fun. This is fiction, she is telling you, even if it is silly.
I want to thank Evelyn Pryce for sending me a reviewer’s copy of her book in exchange for an honest review.
I like stories where the reader knows who the protagonists are, but doesn’t have to like them. It means the characters can assume just a bit more depth. Even better in the rigid social structure of Victorian England where social protocol made lots of people polite to each other even if they didn’t necessarily like each other.
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Was the social protocol that horrible thing where people make backward horrible remarks that sound like compliments? Like, when someone says, “I love how you’re so brave; you’ll wear just any old thing!”
Interesting date for what sounds like a Regency novel (however ironic) but actually well into the industrial era of steam and trains.
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I’ve read criticisms of this book for not following history correctly, especially social behaviors, but there was something just smarmy enough about it to make me laugh. I don’t read much in the romance genre, so if an author is going to get me to like the book, it has to have something extra. Thanks for reading!
Like you, I don’t read a lot of romance, but this sounds like a really fun read! I laughed out loud when I read the conversation you quoted between the men. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a contemporary Victorian romance, but I’ve read a few Gothics (Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and John Harwood’s The Ghost Writer, The Seance and The Asylum), they’re not quite so overtly tongue-in-cheek, but the authors have a lot of fun playing with tropes of the genre and using the reader’s familiarity with the genre to their advantage.
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And there certainly a number of tropes in romance and Gothic stories! You can do a whole class on Gothic tropes and finding them in old and contemporary literature!
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Yes! I wish my university had had a dedicated Gothic topic when I went through. John Harwood used to teach at Flinders (my uni.), but sadly before my time.
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[…] exchange for an honest review. Be sure to check out my review of Pryce’s 2013 romance novel, A Man Above Reproach, a romance set in a brothel during Victorian […]