When he learns that he could be the heir to an unexpected fortune, Harry Vane rejects his past as a Radical fighting for government reform and sets about wooing his lovely cousin. But his heart is captured instead by the most beautiful, chic man he’s ever met: the dandy tasked with instructing him in the manners and style of the ton. Harry’s new station demands conformity—and yet the one thing he desires is a taste of the wrong pair of lips.
After witnessing firsthand the horrors of Waterloo, Julius Norreys sought refuge behind the luxurious facade of the upper crust. Now he concerns himself exclusively with the cut of his coat and the quality of his boots. And yet his protégé is so unblemished by cynicism that he inspires the first flare of genuine desire Julius has felt in years. He cannot protect Harry from the worst excesses of society. But together they can withstand the high price of passion.
First off, I have to admit this is the first book I have read by this author, but on the strength of it, I’m going to seek out her entire backlist, because A Fashionable Indulgence is an utterly fantastic read and I was really impressed. It hooked me in from the first page and kept me that way until the very end; the story is well-developed with plenty of historical detail, all the characters are very strongly drawn, and the two protagonists are captivating and intriguing. In short, I couldn’t put the book down.
The story begins in 1808, when twelve-year-old Harry Gordon and his parents – who are died-in-the-wool radicals – have to flee across the English Channel to avoid arrest for sedition and inciting a riot. Even though Harry’s father is the cousin of a Marquess, he and his wife have, for a number of years, been responsible for writing and printing pamphlets and books on the subject of the abuse of privilege and the plight of the lower classes and have become notorious for their willingness to speak out in the cause of radical reform. But with the effects of the revolution in France still at the forefront of people’s minds, such outspokenness is reviled and anyone espousing radical ideals is a target for the authorities.
Over a decade later, after his parents have both died in a Cholera outbreak, Harry Vane – Gordon was his mother’s maiden name – returns to London penniless and with nowhere to go other than to Silas Mason, a former associate of his parents’ who continues to write and print radical pamphlets in the cellar of his City bookshop. The thing is that Harry doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder or jumping out of his skin every time there is a knock on the door. He loved his parents, but can’t help feeling somewhat resentful of the constant danger to which they exposed him as a child.
It seems, however, that Harry is going to get his wish to live a more comfortable life away from the fear of discovery when a well-dressed, authoritative gentleman arrives at the shop and introduces himself as his father’s cousin, Lord Richard Vane. Richard tells Harry that their grandfather, Lord Gideon has been looking for him and that he, Richard, is to take Harry home.
One of the things their grandfather has charged Richard with is turning Harry into a gentleman. He may be of noble birth, but Harry has not been brought up as a gentleman and his manners, his dress and his knowledge of how to behave in society are all sorely lacking. Richard enlists the help of one of his closest friends, Mr Julius Norreys, known throughout society as an “exquisite” for his excellent taste and flamboyant clothes, and asks him to turn Harry into a gentleman so that he can be introduced into society and then do as his grandfather wants and find a suitable wife.
Julius isn’t keen on the idea at first, but Harry’s charm and natural joie de vivre begin to win him over and Julius soon finds he enjoys the time he spends in Harry’s company. He is also feeling the first stirrings of attraction that he has felt for anyone in a long time – ever since Waterloo, in fact – but the danger inherent in making an ill-advised advance holds him back; and in any case, once Harry is launched into society and starts his bride hunt, they will be nothing more than distant acquaintances.
But Harry is just as attracted to his mentor, the most elegant, beautiful man he has ever seen, and when the opportunity presents itself, he is not shy about making that interest known. Knowing of Gideon Vane’s insistence that Harry marry his cousin in order to continue to receive his financial support and, eventually, become his heir, Julius insists that their relationship must end once Harry’s betrothal is official –and Harry reluctantly agrees.
As well as the slowly-developing relationship between the two protagonists, the story includes a lot of fascinating detail about the political situation of the time; the Peterloo Massacre takes place (off screen) during the timespan of the book, and Harry finds it increasingly difficult to stop himself expressing his disgust over the murder and injury of so many innocents. His friends, while not disagreeing with him, are well aware that, given his parentage, if he does not curb his instincts, Harry could find himself in very deep trouble with the authorities – not to mention with his domineering grandfather, who despises such radical ideas.
One of the things I enjoyed so much about this story is the fact that although the author has set it in the Regency period, she has brought a strong political element to it, which is something that is rarely done in historical romance. She sets up the story incredibly well, right from the first page, and later, Harry’s struggle to work out exactly who he is, who he wants to be and what is his place in the world is so superbly realised that it is easy for the reader to relate to and sympathise with him, even when he is acting selfishly or naively. He is torn between wanting a comfortable life and his ideals; he can’t but abhor injustice of the privations endured by so many, but he has endured much himself and it’s easy to understand his inner conflict.
I adored the character of Julius, a man famed as much for his sharp wit and sang-froid as for his dress-sense. A tragic loss has caused him to retreat behind a shell of cold unapproachability, his concern with the superficialities of life his way of coping with that pain he continues to endure. Harry’s open-heartedness, his zest for life and the warmth and depth of his affection start to gradually thaw Julius’ icy reserve, and that was incredibly touching to read. The romance between them is really well-written and imbued with a great deal of warmth and tenderness. It’s not all plain sailing naturally, and not just because discovery could lead to the gallows; they have problems and disagreements to work through which serve to make their relationship realistic and believable.
If I have a complaint – and it’s a very small one –it’s that the ending is perhaps a little too pat, but honestly, I wanted Harry and Julius to have their HEA so much that it really didn’t matter – and in any case, it’s no more implausible than the endings in so many of the other books I’ve read!
I’m giving A Fashionable Indulgence a wholehearted recommendation. Ms Charles has created a cast of memorable characters in her club of “Ricardians”, all of whom are three dimensional ; the writing is superb with a strong feel for time and place, and all the relationships –the friendships as well as the romantic ones – are very strongly written. I will definitely be reading the other books in this series as soon as I can get my hands on them.