A Man Above Reproach by Evelyn Price (audiobook) – narrated by James Clamp

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In 1830s London, scandalized whispers surround the pub known as The Sleeping Dove. A hidden bordello, the rumors say, catering to straying nobles eager to shed the trappings of their stations. Josephine Grant knows the rumors are true–she plays piano at the Dove, known only as “The Bawdy Bluestocking” to the pub’s faithful. Tales swirl as to her real origin: some patrons claim that she was an orphan prodigy, others go so far as to name her concubine to the King.

The society ladies call the reluctant Duke of Lennox “The Uncatchable,” not that he cares for them or their nicknames. Elias Addison’s estate was thrust upon him when his father died and it has been little else but a burden. He spends his days mired in responsibilities and his nights pursued at endless balls by fortune-hunting debutantes. He is morose, serious, and tense. When a friend brings him to the Sleeping Dove in an attempt to lighten his mood, the consequences of those good intentions are far greater. When the Duke of Lennox finds himself at the Bawdy Bluestocking’s piano, they begin to play a dangerous melody. Though Elias cannot resist courting Josie, she has a past to protect, a shaky future, and no time for frivolous nobility with soft hands. When the Duke uncovers the truth, will he wish he had never begun the tune?

Rating: C for content and C- for narration

I have very mixed feelings about this audiobook. I admit that I found the first hour or so to be rather hard going, but knowing I would be writing a review, I persevered which, had I been listening simply for my own enjoyment, I may not have done. In a way, I’m glad I did stick with it, because the story does have things to recommend it, but in retrospect, there were too many problems with both the story and the narration for me to be able to say that I wholly enjoyed the experience.

The storyline seemed promising. The rather tightly-wound Elias Addison, Duke of Lennox, is persuaded to take a night off from all the problems he has inherited along with his father’s title and estates, by paying a visit to The Sleeping Dove, a brothel which is somewhat out of the common way, catering as it does to titled young men who are eager to escape the trappings of their station.

Elias is known as “The Uncatchable” throughout fashionable society. Despite the best efforts of the matchmaking mamas and the constant eyelash-batting of the debutantes, he remains aloof and unattached, and seems quite happy to remain so. He has too many other pressing concerns to give much thought to matrimony, or to any forms of diversion. His father left many debts – most of them incurred in keeping his mistresses in trinkets and jewels – and he has a younger sister to bring out. He has become, quite simply, the epitome of the old adage. All work and no play has made Elias a very dull boy indeed.

Reluctantly, Elias allows his friend, Lord Nicholas Thackeray, to drag him to the Dove one evening. He’s immediately drawn to the young woman playing the piano. Known as the “Bawdy Bluestocking” or “BB”, she is not a prostitute, even though she charges Elias for the pleasure of her company and conversation.

We learn later that her name is Josephine Grant, that she owns a small book shop in Cheapside called The Paper Garden and that, in addition, she is the author of a feminist tome entitled On Society’s Ills and the Real Price of Prostitution. She is also instrumental in thwarting the plans of a group of men that indulges in what we would today call sex-trafficking, by helping the girls at the Dove to make new lives before they can be sold off to the highest bidder.

Elias is smitten by this prickly and secretive young woman who, despite her humble surroundings, has clearly been brought up a lady, and returns repeatedly to the Dove. Josie is determined to keep her distance and does her best to discourage his attentions. He’s a Duke with an impeccable reputation and she’s a woman living on the edge of scandal – and not just because she plays the piano in a brothel.

But Elias is perceptive as well as persistent, and almost immediately works out that Miss Grant is not at all what she seems. As the story unfolds, a battle of wills develops between them as Elias tries to uncover her secrets while Josie is equally as determined to hang on to them.

Evelyn Price has tried to do something a little different in A Man Above Reproach with the incorporation of a sub-plot featuring Josie writing and publishing a feminist manifesto. A discussion, written by a woman, of the evils of society as related to men and their sexual appetites in the 1830s would certainly have caused a furore, and the fact that Elias is so supportive of her writing and her views speaks very much in his favour.

The characterisation of both principals was fairly strong, even if, at times, neither of them was particularly likeable. Elias frequently comes across as high-handed and Josie is often downright unpleasant to him. However, both begin to lose those rough edges once they begin to fall for each other. I particularly enjoyed listening to Elias unbending to reveal a dry sense of humour and a sexy flirtatiousness beneath his starchy exterior.

There is plenty of humour and some excellent dialogue between the protagonists. Once Josie and Elias have accepted that the attraction they feel for each other is not going to go away, they start to trust each other more, and Josie finds herself opening up to him a little.

On the negative side, I found the first part of the book to be a bit rushed and, towards the end, an unnecessary conflict was used to prolong the story in an utterly artificial way that made me roll my eyes and want to fast-forward to the epilogue.

There were also several things throughout which took me completely out of the story, such as the point at which the very haughty and correct dowager Duchess of Lennox (Elias’ mother) is chivvying her son along because she wants him to accompany her on a shopping trip to Cheapside. To buy flowers. I can’t see the high-status ladies of the ton shopping in the City and certainly not going to buy their own flowers from the market. And another – the idea that Josie could possibly mistake Elias’ mother for his wife, which was implausible at best – it felt very contrived.

I think it’s fair to say that even though I have several reservations, I did enjoy the story overall, especially in the second third or so of the book. As an audiobook, however, it’s more problematic.

I haven’t listened to James Clamp before, and quite honestly, am not sure if I will do so again. He has a pleasant voice, his enunciation is generally clear and precise, and I thought some of his characterisations worked very well. But there were too many times when I found myself gritting my teeth in an attempt to ignore some very annoying vocal ticks. Those parts of the book that contained more dialogue than narration were easier to listen to, as Mr. Clamp then seemed to lose or bury some of those vocal mannerisms that I disliked when he was simply reading the story.

He speaks quite quickly and tends towards a rather repetitive style of delivery in that he often employs the same (or similar) vocal inflections in almost every phrase. He also has a strange tendency to split sentences. Even though there is obviously a comma. Rather than a full stop written in the text. There were also several mispronunciations of words which feature quite heavily in historical romances set in this era, such as “phaeton”, which he pronounced “phyton” and “modiste<” which he pronounced “MOWdist”. Anyone who listens to European Historicals on a regular basis will probably wince, as I did.

In addition, I didn’t find Mr. Clamp’s characterisations of the hero or heroine particularly convincing. I liked the slightly higher pitch and softened tone he employed for Josie, but am not sure why, when it’s stated more than once that she grew up in Staffordshire, he chose to give her a Scottish accent. It’s true that the story has her spending over three years with her mother in Scotland, but she didn’t go there until she was seventeen, which makes the acquiring of a regional accent by a process of absorption rather unlikely. While the accent used was less than convincing to my ear, it was at least fairly consistent.

As for Elias, there were times I thought he sounded too nasal and whiny, and that Mr. Clamp had taken his cut-glass aristocratic accent so far over the top that it strayed into parody. But at other times (especially in the later part of the book), his portrayal was more successful and in some of the more romantic scenes, I thought it worked very well.

The narrator’s interpretations of the secondary characters were often more appropriate and distinct than those of the hero and heroine. The chirpy, cockney accent he used for Josephine’s friend, Sally, worked very well, as did the gruffer, darker, and more dangerous sounding version belonging to the bouncer, Mr. Digby.

I’ve tried to be fair with my grades, because I didn’t want it to sound as though the entire audiobook was a disaster when it wasn’t. But there really are too many problems with both the story and the performance which make it impossible for me to give A Man Above Reproach a recommendation.

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