Secrets and lies, scandals and spies.
All Lady Catharine, Viscountess Cranbrook, wants is a little excitement. Bored of playing the role of the ton’s favorite slightly scandalous widow, she jumps at the chance to go undercover as a courtesan to help with an espionage mission. After all, beneath her outrageously low bodice beats the heart of a patriot.
Social reformer James Burnham is conducting a study of vice in England’s capital. Driven by his own secrets, he is methodical, intelligent—and wickedly handsome. Catharine is the last sort of woman the upstanding James should want. But want her he does, though she stands for everything he opposes.
When Catharine and James are forced to band together to advance their causes, they’ll be drawn into a web of secrets and lies that endangers their lives—and their hearts.
This third novel in Jenny Holiday’s Regency Reformers series is chronologically the first, as it takes place around a year before the events of the first published book, The Miss Mirren Mission. As in the other books, Ms Holiday has taken a slightly different approach to the Regency Romance and the Historical Spy Novel by interweaving those elements into a story in which one or more of the central characters are dedicated to the cause of social reform.
Here, the hero is a doctor who has decided he’d had enough of ministering to fainting ladies and gouty gentlemen and who is now working with the Society for the Comfort and Elevation of the Poor and the Betterment of Their Children, and the heroine is a woman looking for a way to do some good with her life.
Doctor James Burnham is just twenty-four (which seems young for him to have completed his training, practiced for a while and then worked with the Society for a couple of years) and while he is committed to the cause, he feels a little stifled in his work there because he has ended up being their writer, the person who authors and publishes the Society’s findings, rather than being able to run any experiments or investigations of his own. Deciding that perhaps a current study would benefit from the inclusion of some information and statistics on prostitution, he enters a rather select house of ill repute, and is immediately enthralled by the mysterious, masked Lady V, who, it is rumoured, is actually a Lady of Quality who attends the establishment to alleviate boredom and provide her with a little excitement. Unlike the other courtesans, however, Lady V’s services do not go beyond conversation (and no, that’s not a euphemism!) – and surprisingly, her air of sophistication and mystery mean that she is never without gentlemen wishful of being entertained by her… and of perhaps being the gentleman who will tempt her to break her “conversation only” rule.
Catharine, Viscountess Cranbrook, is a widow who followed the drum with her army officer husband. Her life hasn’t been easy – betrayed by a man she believed loved her, she was disowned and bundled off abroad which is when she met and married the viscount, for whom she felt a strong affection and respect. After his death, she determined to reinvent herself; to shake off the pain of her past and live a life of hedonistic pleasure. In the two years of her widowhood, she has earned herself a rather scandalous reputation, taking a string of lovers – but that lifestyle has begun to pall, and, when offered the chance to take part in an undercover investigation into the activities of possible French sympathisers by the enigmatic Earl of Blackstone, she jumps at the chance – and Lady V is born.
Blackstone arranges for Catharine to join the ranks of the high-class courtesans at Madame Cherie’s, where she spends a couple of evenings a week charming likely suspects and ferreting out information. But when the stunningly handsome James Burnham purchases her company, she is disturbed by the feelings he stirs in her; feelings she has worked hard to distance herself from in her quest to turn off her emotions and just live for pleasure.
The earl is investigating one Herr Beidermeier, who owns a gun manufactory in Birmingham which supplies the British Army. When Catharine discovers that he not only uses children in his factory, but that they are unpaid and badly mistreated, she reports this discovery to James, sure that he will want to help her to do something to stop such exploitation. James starts his own investigation into Biedermeier’s business, pretending that he is conducting a prestigious scientific study which will bring fame to Beidermeier by association, while in London, Blackstone and Catharine continue to seek the evidence that will unmask him as a traitor.
Ms Holliday once again tells an intriguing story which is obviously well researched, although there were a couple of times when the ins-and-outs of gun manufacture got a little too detailed for my taste. James and Catharine are engaging characters, each of them having understandable reasons for acting as they do, and I really felt for Catharine when her the life she thought she’d wanted began to unravel and she was forced to choose between the man she loved and her duty to her country. It’s an interesting role-reversal, because so often in spy-stories, it’s the male character who is put in the position of having to lie to or betray a loved one and make those difficult choices.
On the downside, the pacing in the middle flags a little when James and Catharine are apart and pursuing their separate investigations, seemingly separated for good by Catharine’s reluctance to let James get close to her emotionally. The character of James is somewhat underdeveloped, especially in comparison to Catharine, and his actions towards the end of the book seem rather out of character, even though they are prompted by jealousy. In spite of that, however, the author has created a strong sense of affection and longing between them, and the romance is generally well-developed.
Ultimately, Viscountess of Vice is a solid, enjoyable read, and the author does a good job in depicting the heroine’s struggles with her conscience and in her explorations of the difficulties of her situation. It’s a well-told tale, but I can’t say it was one of those books that held me captivated from start to finish. This leaves me saying that it’s worth reading, especially if you’re looking for something different in a Regency Romance, but that it’s probably not one for the bucket list.