Penniless spinster, Matilda Chapple, lives at isolated Creed Hall, dependent on the austere charity of unloving relatives and under pressure to marry a man twice her age. In an attempt to earn enough money to escape this miserable existence, she writes a series of titillating ‘confessions’. Her secret is safe — until battle-scarred Waterloo veteran, Edward Kane, reluctantly accepts the commission to uncover the anonymous author’s identity.
While staying at bleak Creed Hall, Edward finds himself unaccountably drawn to his host’s lonely niece. Can Matilda conceal the secret of her scandalous writings, or will Edward discover that the spinster and the risqué authoress are one and the same person? And when Matilda feels the need to experience sex as her fictional courtesan does–will she lose her heart to Edward, along with her virginity?
I confess that I enjoyed this novel much more than I thought I would, given that I’m not a big fan of this sort of premise – one that a quick read of the synopsis seems to suggest is merely an excuse to string together a series of sex scenes.
But as soon as I began to read The Spinster’s Secret I realised that this is one of those occasions where it really isn’t possible to judge a book by its synopsis.
Matilda Chapple (Mattie) is grateful to her miserly uncle for giving her a home when she was orphaned, but Mr Strickland is a man who could rival Ebeneezer Scrooge when it comes to parsimony and she longs to escape her dour existence at Creed Hall where life is repetitive, dull and dutiful; rooms are constantly cold because Strickland stints on coal, meals are unappetizing because he won’t countenance a sauce or have food cooked any way other than boiled and the only books allowed are religious tomes or classics.
But Mattie is determined not to spend her entire life in shabby grey dresses or in a dry, colourless existence. Her ambition is to be able to save enough money to enable her to purchase and run a small boarding house at the seaside so that she will be able to live independently. But she has no money of her own and thus hits upon the idea of secretly writing an erotic novel in order to earn the money she needs.
And yes, I rolled my eyes at the idea. But I imagine it is entirely plausible that such material would have been written by women as well as men, even in the nineteenth century – and so I decided that perhaps the premise wasn’t so ridiculous after all.
The story is straightforward and well told. Although set in the Regency period (shortly after Waterloo), the setting is different from many of the other historical romances set in the same period. This one is set away from London and the protagonists are not titled, rich or good-looking. The atmosphere at Creed Hall is oppressive and grim and there are no glittering balls or parties or rides in the park.
There are, of course, many novels in which one of the protagonists – usually the heroine – is initially seen by the hero (and society) as being plain or awkward, but along the way some sort of transformation takes place. Here, however, that is not the case. Mattie is almost six-feet tall with a Junoesque figure; and while certainly not ugly, is not immediately prepossessing. Edward Kane is a giant of a man – six-feet-six – is missing half an ear, a couple of fingers and sports some dreadful scarring gained at Waterloo. He is also burdened with a large dose of survivor’s guilt and continues to suffer flashbacks and nightmares as the result of his experiences.
Despite their outward appearances, both Edward and Mattie are very attractive, likeable characters. They are able to laugh together and share an interest in literature –even though that is something Mattie does not have many chances to exercise, given her uncle’s injunction on novel reading. Mattie is not one to rail against her fate or rebel against her uncle’s strictures –she knows how much she owes him and in fact feels guilty about the fact that she is deceiving him by writing her stories. It is only when he tries to marry her off to one of his acquaintances that she rebels by refusing to do so that Strickland becomes really unpleasant toward her, continually berating her for her lack of beauty and obedience.
Ever more determined to gain her independence, Mattie continues to write her salacious stories, the ‘confessions’ of Chérie a fictitious courtesan (much of which is cribbed from either Fanny Hill or from the diary of a former countess that Mattie discovered, hidden in a secret cupboard). Having no sexual experience herself, she relies heavily on her sources and they have so far provided enough inspiration. However, in order for the publication of the ‘confessions’ as a book, Mattie’s publisher needs one more thing. An account of the young Chérie’s wedding night and the “plucking of her virgin flower”.
Mattie is at a loss. Neither the novel nor the diary give her much of an idea as to what it is like to lose one’s virginity, and carefully asking her widowed friend (companion to Mattie’s aunt) does not yield much information either.
So she does the one thing she can think of and asks Edward to take her to bed. He is stunned by her request, but not at all unwilling and – unable to talk himself out of it – agrees.
To be fair to Mattie, she is not just asking for the sake of her writing; she likes Edward very much – in fact, she is probably half-way in love with him – and finds him physically attractive. But she feels guilty at the fact that she is using him in order to gain the experience she needs in order to finish her book.
This was another of the parts of the story that I thought I would find it hard to accept, but strangely enough, by the time it happened (about three-quarters of the way through), Ms Larkin had done such a good job of making me care about what happened to Mattie and Edward that I was rooting for them to get together. I did think that perhaps Edward overcame his scruples about bedding a well brought-up virgin rather quickly, but the author had developed the relationship between them so well that it wasn’t a major problem.
For me, that’s a really important point. There were some elements to this story that might have made me wince had the writing been poor, or if I hadn’t felt such a strong emotional connection between the characters. To my mind, a really good writer is one whose work I can enjoy even though I am aware of inconsistencies or improbabilities in their stories. And in spite of the weaknesses I have highlighted, I did enjoy this book and would certainly recommend it to anyone who is looking to read a slightly unusual regency-era love story.
This title was provided by the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review.