Claiming Mister Kemp (Baleful Godmother #4) by Emily Larkin


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lucas Kemp’s twin sister died last year. He’s put aside his mourning clothes, but not his heartache. If Lucas ever needed a friend, it’s now—and who should walk in his door but Lieutenant Thomas Matlock…

Lucas and Tom are more than just best friends; they’ve been in love with each other for years. In love with each other—and pretending not to know it.

But this time, Tom’s not going to ignore the attraction between them. This time, he’s going to push the issue.

He’s going to teach Lucas how to laugh again—and he’s going to take Lucas as his lover…

Rating: B

Claiming Mister Kemp is a long-ish novella that is the fourth story in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series.  While characters from the previous books make brief appearances, it’s perfectly possible to enjoy this as a standalone – although the other three books are excellent and well worth reading.

Lucas Kemp and Thomas Matlock have been friends ever since their first term at Eton, even though their backgrounds couldn’t be more different.  Lucas comes from a wealthy background and a warm, loving family, whereas Tom, the youngest son of an earl, was born to parents who really couldn’t be all that bothered about him, and his fondest childhood memories are of the holidays he spent at Whiteoaks, where he and Lucas made a foursome with Lucas’ cousin, Letty Trentham (Trusting Miss Trentham) and his twin sister, Julia.  The four children were close, although as twins, Lucas and Julia shared a unique bond.  They remained close as they grew into adulthood, but eventually their lives took them in different directions, with Tom going into the army, Letty and Julia entering society and Lucas inheriting an estate of his own.  But some sixteen months before this book opens, tragedy struck, and Julia was killed when she fell from her horse.  Everyone was devastated at her death, but for Lucas, it’s even worse than that.  He feels as though he has lost something of himself, and although his mourning period has ended, he continues to miss his sister intensely.  He puts on a good show for those around him, fooling those who don’t know him well, or don’t care to look beyond the surface, but inside, he’s a mess, having resorted for a time to taking too much laudanum to try to dull the pain and when that avenue was denied him (his valet found his stash and threw it away) took to drinking too much and too often.

Tom, now a member of General Wellesley’s staff, has returned to London with the general in order to speak at a military enquiry into Wellesley’s actions after the battle of Vimeiro.  A recent brush with death has given him a new appreciation for living and made him determined not to waste another minute of his life in denial of the feelings he has always held for his best friend.

It’s Lucas’ birthday, and Tom knows it will be a difficult day for him, seeing as it should have been Julia’s birthday, too.  He goes to Lucas’ lodgings intent on offering comfort and support, only to find his friend drunk and alone in the dark.  His heart breaking for Lucas all over again, Tom decides to seize the chance to show Lucas that he is not alone, and that his – Tom’s – feelings for him go beyond friendship. When Lucas, his inhibitions and defences lowered, doesn’t refuse Tom’s advances, they share a brief moment of sexual intimacy.

Afterwards, Lucas is utterly horrified and disgusted at what happened, and tries – unsuccessfully – to avoid Tom the next day.  But Tom won’t allow him to ignore what happened between them, and pushes Lucas to acknowledge the truth of his own feelings as well as the strength of the attraction between them.  As his anger with Tom lessens, Lucas finds it harder and harder to resist the pull of that attraction and allows his long suppressed feelings for his friend to come to the fore – although once their moment of shared passion is over, he is once again overwhelmed by his thoughts and his fear of discovery and being labelled a sodomite.

Given that homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment (or even death) at this time, Lucas’ fears are well-grounded.  But this is much more than a story about a man’s reluctance to explore his sexuality; it’s also about a terribly lonely man who is so mired in grief and loss that he is in danger of losing himself, too.  Lucas has known for a long time that he’s not attracted to women and refused to admit the possibility that he was attracted to men; and the moment at which Tom realises that while he’s been away in the army, surrounded by people, having sexual relationships (with both sexes), Lucas quite literally had no-one is like a punch to the gut.

While I sometimes felt that Tom was perhaps a little too pushy, he’s redeemed by the fact that he is so patient with Lucas, allowing him to dictate the pace of their sexual relationship and to do as much or as little as he wants.  He’s funny and warm and charming, and there’s absolutely no doubt as to the fact that he loves Lucas dearly and would do anything for him.  But things come to a head when Lucas’ fears overcome him once more and he pushes Tom away for what could be the last time.

The events in this story run concurrently with those of Trusting Miss Trentham and one of the things I really liked was that we get to see the other side of some of the conversations both Tom and Lucas had with Letty Trentham in that book.  But if you haven’t read it, don’t worry – as I said at the outset, this stands on its own.

Claiming Mister Kemp is a heartfelt, compelling love story featuring two well-developed and likeable central characters. The sex scenes are sensual and well-written, conveying a real sense of the depth of the love and affection between the two men, and the emotional connection between the pair is palpable.  At somewhere around 170 pages, it’s a quick and satisfying read and one I’m recommending without hesitation.

Trusting Miss Trentham (Baleful Godmother #3) by Emily Larkin


This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s more than just an heiress…

Letitia Trentham is noteworthy for three reasons. One, she’s extremely wealthy. Two, she can distinguish truth from lies. Three, she’s refused every man who’s ever proposed to her.

Until Letty receives a proposal she can’t turn down.

Icarus Reid barely survived the Battle of Vimeiro. He lives for one thing—to find the man who betrayed him to the French. He doesn’t want to marry Miss Trentham; he wants to use her talent for uncovering lies.

Suddenly, Letty finds herself breaking the rules, pretending to be someone she’s not, and doing things a lady would never do. But her hunt for the truth may uncover more than one secret—including the secret that haunts Icarus day and night. The secret he intends to take to his grave…

Rating: B+

Trusting Miss Trentham is the third book in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series of historical romances with a paranormal twist.  Owing to the good deed done by one of their ancestresses, each of the heroines is entitled to receive a gift from their Faerie Godmother – whom they call Baletongue – on their twenty-first or twenty-fifth birthday (depending on their line of descent).  These stories are primarily romances, however, so if you’re looking for a high-concept paranormal, you won’t find it here.  The love stories are at the centre of these books, and Ms. Larkin writes those with a great deal of insight and assurance, imbuing her tales with a strong sense of period and peopling them with interesting and engaging characters who behave and think in a manner that is appropriate for the time.

Miss Letitia Trentham is one of the wealthiest women in England and has, by the age of twenty-seven, turned down around two-hundred proposals of marriage.  Having chosen the gift of being able to detect lies, she has rebuffed just about every fortune hunter in the country  – who are the only men to have offered for her. She knows she is not pretty or possessed of the other sorts of qualities likely to attract men; she doesn’t simper or defer, plus she’s intelligent and not afraid to show it, which isn’t a much admired quality on the marriage mart.  She has just turned down yet another hopeful when she is approached by a tall, gaunt man with a military bearing and an undeniable air of exhaustion who has heard of her uncanny ability to be able to tell truth from lies – and who asks for her help.

Icarus Reid, formerly a major in His Majesty’s army, resigned his commission after the battle of Vimeiro and, although not completely recovered from a serious illness, has travelled back to England.  He explains to Letty that he is searching for a traitor; he, a Portuguese officer and three scouts were betrayed before the battle and captured, and Reid is the only one of them who survived.  He desperately wants to discover the identity of that traitor and then take steps to have him brought to justice, and he asks Letty if she will accompany him to meet with his two main suspects and use her talent for detecting lies to help him uncover the truth.

Letty senses that Reid is a potentially dangerous man and is naturally wary; but after hearing his story and extracting a promise that he will not kill whichever of the men turns out to have been responsible, she agrees to accompany him to meet with the suspects, even though one of them is a prisoner in the Marshalsea. Information gleaned gives Reid three more names to investigate, but none of those men are in London.  Exhilarated at the newfound feeling of freedom she has experienced as a result of the subterfuges needed to ensure she was able to meet Reid in secret, Letty offers to accompany him to Basingstoke to find the first of the men on the list.  Reid is reluctant to accept  because of the damage that could be done to her reputation; his behaviour in insisting she enter a prison and spend time in the company of unsavoury men was less than honourable and he is not feeling particularly proud of himself as a result.  But Letty has a plan – and even though he knows he should not allow her to become any more involved, Reid’s desire to root out the traitor is stronger than his gentlemanly instincts.

The tone of Trusting Miss Trentham is rather more sombre than the previous two books, but that is quite fitting considering that the hero is an extremely troubled man who continues to be plagued by nightmares and memories of the terrible things he endured during his military service.  As Letty and Reid travel to Basingstoke and then further, she begins to have suspicions as to what is distressing him so deeply, but Reid steadfastly refuses to tell the truth about what happened to him at Vimeiro or to let her get close to him.  Yet her quiet, steadfast care of him every night when he wakes, sick and disorientated from his tortured dreams starts to break down his resistance and he slowly begins to reassess her, to value her intelligence, her kindness and her determination and discovers – against his better judgement – that he can’t bear the idea of being without her.

Ms. Larkin does a fantastic job in conveying the depth of Reid’s anger and despair, and the way in which Letty’s calming presence in his life and their growing intimacy gradually start to remind him of what it’s like to be alive.  I can’t remember the last time I read – or if I ever have read – a hero of a romance novel quite like him; so worn out and tormented by memories – and I should say here that Ms. Larkin makes no bones about what happened to him in Portugal.  Her descriptions are not graphic but they are disturbing nonetheless.

Letty is a wonderful character and again, is quite unlike many other historical romance heroines I’ve read.  She’s incredibly wealthy and, she thinks, rather plain, and has given up on the idea of finding a man who wants her for herself and not her money and decided to dedicate her life and considerable fortune to charitable works.  I liked her persistence, her kindness and her practical nature; and her concern for propriety rings very true for a woman of her time.  But she hasn’t realised quite how hemmed in she has been by it until she resorts to deception in order to meet Reid to go to the Marshalsea.  For the sake of respectability, she and Reid travel as man and wife, and Letty discovers a real sense of freedom at not being surrounded by servants or people toadying to her, so much so, that the thought of returning to her former life is somewhat depressing.

The relationship that develops between the couple progresses slowly and is quietly understated, which is feels exactly right given the tenor of the story.  Letty’s initial infatuation develops into something far deeper as she begins to see past the man burdened by misdirected guilt and self-hatred to the man Reid could and should be, the good-natured, easy-going and confident man with whom she is falling more in love every day.

Reid berates himself for not treating Letty more kindly, but he is driven by his purpose to the exclusion of pretty much all else, and he certainly doesn’t want to fall in love.  Letty’s care of him is extremely touching, clearly showing the truth of her feelings for him; she wants him to be well and happy, and unfortunately, in her pursuit of his happiness makes a major error one night which threatens to shatter what is already a fragile relationship.

Fortunately however, both Reid and Letty are mature enough to be able to talk it through and to move on in a positive way. In fact, apart from Reid’s refusal to talk about Vimeiro, all their conversations are characterised by honesty and good sense, clearly showing their mutual respect, and liking, even when they are both annoyed with one another. I also liked the way that Ms. Larkin effects Reid’s recovery; there’s no overnight cure, or, as Letty admits to herself, any guarantee that he will ever be completely healed, but there is the real sense that he has achieved closure and is ready to move on with his life. And if Letty’s love and unconditional support give Reid something worth living for, in return, he provides her with the love and happiness she’d never thought to have.

Trusting Miss Trentham goes to some dark places, but is no less enjoyable for that.  It doesn’t have quite the same sparkle as the first book – Unmasking Miss Appleby – but it’s certainly well-written, the characterisation of the two principals is excellent and the story is compelling.  There is a strongly written set of secondary characters as well, two of whom – Letty’s cousin, Lucas Kemp, and Lieutenant Tom Matlock, who served with Reid – are going to get their own story in the next book, Claiming Mister Kemp. Until then, however, Trusting Miss Trentham is another very strong entry in this entertaining and unusual series, and while it can be read as a standalone, I’d recommend starting at the beginning – simply because the earlier books are too good to miss.

Resisting Miss Merryweather (Baleful Godmother #2) by Emily Larkin


This title may be purchased from Amazon.

She sees things no one else does…

Sir Barnaby Ware made a mistake two and a half years ago. A massive mistake. The sort of mistake that can never be atoned for.

He knows himself to be irredeemable, but the captivating and unconventional Miss Merryweather is determined to prove him wrong…

The daughter of a dancing master and a noblewoman, Miss Merryweather had an unusual upbringing. She sees things no one else sees—and she says things no one else says.

Sir Barnaby knows he’s the villain in this piece, but Miss Merryweather thinks he’s the hero—and she is damnably hard to resist…

Rating: B

I thoroughly enjoyed Unmasking Miss Appleby, the first book in Emily Larkin’s new Baleful Godmother series, and was curious about the secondary character of Sir Barnaby Ware, whom we learned had previously been the best friend of that book’s hero, Marcus, the Earl of Cosgrove. A couple of years earlier, Barnaby betrayed his friend in the worst way possible, by committing adultery with Marcus’ beautiful but manipulative wife. The two men had previously been like brothers, and it seemed that their friendship was irrevocably broken.

More than a year has passed since the events of the last book, and Barnaby is on his way to Marcus’ Devonshire estate, having accepted an invitation from his former friend and his new wife, who have recently become parents for the first time. Barnaby is understandably anxious; the last time he and Marcus met, things between them were barely civil, and he keeps telling himself this visit is not a good idea and that he should turn back. He is about to do that when he sees a young woman walking ahead of him; and when he stops to talk to her, discovers she is a friend of Marcus’ wife, also staying at Woodhuish Abbey. She asks Barnaby to escort her back there, and, as a gentleman, he can’t refuse, so now there is no question of retreat.

Anne Merryweather is Charlotte’s – now the Countess of Cosgrove – cousin, and like Charlotte, will be gifted with the magical ability of her choice upon her twenty-fifth birthday, which is only a few days away. But even without that, she has an uncanny facility for reading people and seeing beyond what someone says to the truth that lies behind their words. She knows what happened between Marcus and Barnaby, and knows that Barnaby is still eaten up with guilt and believes he doesn’t deserve forgiveness. But the lovely, open-hearted Miss Merryweather – Merry to her friends – is determined to prove him wrong.

While the romance develops over just a few days, the author creates a genuinely strong connection between Barnaby and Merry, who is able to see past his guilt and self-loathing to the kind, compassionate man that he truly is. He has been resisting his attraction to her because of his belief that he’s not worthy of her, but when they are both trapped underground following a trip to explore some local caves, Barnaby steps up to the plate to become the man that Merry needs him to be.

Resisting Miss Merryweather is a lovely story of forgiveness and redemption, showing that’s it’s just as important to be able to forgive oneself as it is to obtain the forgiveness of others. While this is a novella, it doesn’t lack depth; the shame and despair Barnaby feels over his past actions is palpable, and the growing attraction between him and Merry is nicely done. The relationship between Barnaby and Marcus is very-well written, too – their interactions are infused with warmth despite the issues lying between them, and I liked the emphasis placed on going forward rather than looking back, the idea of Barnaby becoming an even better friend in the days to come.

The book can be read as a standalone, but works best as a companion piece to Unmasking Miss Appleby.

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance


Over the past week or so All About Romance has been publishing the team’s lists of their Top Ten books read in 2016. The vast majority of these are books published in 2016, although a few are books published previously that have been read this year.

All my choices are 2016 titles, and as usual, it was a tough list to compile. I’ve had a good reading year (I’ll be taking a look at my stats at some point and posting about those) and at AAR, have awarded a good number of B Grades and up, indicating that I read many more books I enjoyed than books I didn’t, which I count a definite plus.

Pinning it down to ten books was TOUGH, as was picking an outright “book of the year”, because this year (unlike last), that moniker could have been applied to practically every book on my list. But being I’m a bit of an angst-bunny, I went for the book that ripped out my heart and stomped on it a few times, AND which I’d been most eagerly anticipating.  Click on the link and all will be revealed!

My Best of 2016

Unmasking Miss Appleby (Baleful Godmother #1) by Emily Larkin


This title may be purchased from Amazon

She’s not who she seems…

On her 25th birthday, Charlotte Appleby receives a most unusual gift from the Faerie godmother she never knew she had: the ability to change shape.

Penniless and orphaned, she sets off for London to make her fortune as a man. But a position as secretary to Lord Cosgrove proves unexpectedly challenging. Someone is trying to destroy Cosgrove and his life is increasingly in jeopardy.

As Charlotte plunges into London’s backstreets and brothels at Cosgrove’s side, hunting his persecutor, she finds herself fighting for her life—and falling in love…

Rating: A-

It’s no secret that my least favourite trope is the one in which the heroine passes herself off as a man. I find it too difficult to believe that nobody would notice she wasn’t one, even within the idealised setting of a romantic novel. That’s not to say that some authors haven’t managed to pull it off with a reasonable degree of success; most recently, Eva Leigh made a good job of it in Forever Your Earl, by having the heroine be as aware as the reader of the difficulty of a woman pretending to be a man and making others believe it and went on to use the premise to make some insightful social comment.

In Unmasking Miss Appleby, Emily Larkin goes one step further than disguising her heroine by the use of theatrical costume and make-up; she has her heroine able to actually transform herself into a man by virtue of a magical power bestowed upon her.

Okay, okay – I completely recognise the incongruity of saying I find it hard to believe in a woman simply dressing as a man, but I’ll go along with a woman who can turn into one. But it’s a very clever idea, because once that fantastical premise is accepted, Ms. Larkin is able to create the sort of easy friendship between her protagonists that would not have been at all possible between a man and a woman, and can allow her heroine to see and hear things and to go to places a female of the time would never have been allowed to see, hear or visit. Even with that said, though, had the story not been well-thought out and well-written I would probably not have been able to accept the magical element so readily, but as it stands, the plot is well-developed, the romance is delicious, and it all adds up to a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable read.

Charlotte Appleby was orphaned at twelve and taken in by relatives who proceeded to use her as an unpaid tutor and governess for their children and then as a general dogsbody. She is resigned to a future of drudgery because there is no other course open to her; the prospect of working as a governess or companion does not appeal, and the jobs which do, and which will provide a good income are those open only to men. She has no money and nowhere else to go, and at her age and with no dowry, marriage is extremely unlikely. But on the day of her twenty-fifth birthday all that changes when she returns to her room to discover a strange woman sitting there. The woman explains that she’s a Faerie and that, owing to a good deed performed by one of Charlotte’s ancestors for one of the Fey (as detailed in The Fey Quartet of prequel novellas), Charlotte is offered the choice of a number of different, fantastical gifts. She could have the ability to fly, to foretell the future or read minds, for instance – but after thinking it through quickly she opts for the ability to transform her appearance at will, assured that such metamorphosis applies only to her exterior and that she will remain herself inside.

Charlotte proceeds to turn herself into Mr. Christopher Albin and secures employment with Marcus Langford, the Earl of Cosgrove, whose secretary was badly injured when they were set upon in the street just days earlier. Cosgrove is a widower whose beautiful wife is known to have cuckolded him, and who continues to be the subject of gossip by those who suspect him of having mistreated her, and perhaps even of murdering her.  In the months since her death, he has been the subject of an anonymous hate campaign; the windows of his London home are repeatedly smashed, piles of excrement are deposited on his doorstep, and now it seems as though someone is out to do him bodily harm, as the attack on him and his secretary was not simply the work of opportunist footpads.

Cosgrove is also an active member of parliament who takes his responsibilities very seriously and who is an avid and vocal supporter of the abolitionist movement.  Thus, the field of suspects as to who could be behind the attacks upon him is fairly large – is it political opponents or his late wife’s brother, who has never scrupled to make clear his intense dislike?  Or could it be his dissolute cousin and heir, a young man who lives well beyond his means and expects Marcus to fund his gambling, drinking and whoring habits?

The relationship that develops between the earl and his young secretary is rather delightful.  Marcus takes Albin under his wing in an older brother-ish kind of way, and their burgeoning friendship allows Charlotte an insight into the male mind in a way she could never have gained as a woman.   Marcus talks to Albin frankly about sex, takes him to a brothel (not as a patron, I hasten to add!), says what he thinks, swears and generally behaves as he would with any male acquaintance, which is all very liberating for Charlotte.  And she gets to see how the other half lives, to experience the freedom and confidence afforded simply by virtue of possessing a penis.

The problem, of course, is that that particular appendage starts to sit up and take notice whenever her handsome employer is around, and Charlotte is terrified that he’ll notice and throw her out on her ear.  She’s never before experienced feelings of arousal or desire and isn’t sure what to do – all she knows is that she has to find a way to conquer them. Remembering an offhand remark Cosgrove made about a man’s need to sometimes scratch an itch, she embarks upon a bold course of action in an attempt to get him out of her system so that she can continue to work alongside him.   I don’t want to give too much away, but the romance works beautifully, and Ms. Larkin does a terrific job of showing (not just telling) Marcus gradually falling for Charlotte (in her true form) through a series of meetings that begin as one thing and end as another.  Marcus is a gorgeous, sexy hero who positively shines throughout the story as a man of action, intelligence and principle, and Charlotte plays her dual role admirably; an excellent foil, friend and sounding board as Albin, and the woman with whom Marcus seeks comfort, tenderness and pleasure as herself.

The two main plotlines – the romance and the search for who is seeking to destroy Marcus – are very well integrated, with no sudden shifts in tone or strained contrivances.  And while the fantasy element to the story is fairly low key, the author doesn’t just forget it once she’s embedded Charlotte as Albin; the ability to transform her appearance plays an important part in the search for Cosgrove’s enemies.  The one thing I’d take issue with is how easily Cosgrove accepts Albin’s ability to turn into various animals, but given everything that’s happened up to that point and how much stress he’s under, I guess he can be allowed a metaphorical shrug and to accept the help that his secretary’s strange gift allows.

Emily Larkin (who has also written as Emily May and Emily Gee) writes with a great deal of elegance and perception, and has crafted an unusual and charming story to kick off her new Baleful Godmother series.  If you’re looking for a high-concept fantasy romance, then pass on by, because this isn’t it.  But if you’re after an emotionally satisfying, quirky and sensual romance, then I’d say this is definitely worth your time.  I’m certainly going to be looking out for the next book in the series, and Unmasking Miss Appleby is now securely tucked onto my keeper shelf.

The Countess’ Groom by Emily Larkin

count groom

Rose, the Countess Malmstoke, is trapped in a marriage from hell. Escape seems impossible—until her horse groom Will Fenmore offers to help her find a way out.

Will has loved Rose since she was brought to Creed Hall as a new bride, but their relationship has only ever been that of mistress and servant. Born worlds apart, Will knows he could never be her husband, but maybe he can be her salvation.

As they plan her escape to the American colonies, Rose learns to trust Will with her life and her heart, but trusting him with her body is another matter. Can she conquer her fear of the marriage bed? Is the future she dreams of—being Will’s wife—possible?

>Rating: B

The Countess’ Groom is a companion novella to Ms Larkin’s novel, The Spinster’s Secret, which I reviewed here and awarded 4 stars.

The basic premise of the novel is that the heroine, Matilda Chapple is living miserably at her cousin’s colourless and dour residence, Creed Hall, and longs to escape. She has no money of her own, and in order to earn some, is writing erotic stories for publication. Being a respectable virgin, she of course, has no real idea about what happens between a man and a woman in bed, so is drawing her inspiration from a contraband copy of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and the diary of a former inhabitant of Creed, Rose, the fifth Countess of Malmstoke. The unhappy countess committed suicide, but not before she had written of her love for a young servant on the estate in a diary which Mattie discovers hidden in a concealed panel in her bedchamber.

The Countess’ Groom is the story of the romance between the countess and her groom, Will Fenmore. Married to a much older man, Rose Quayle lives in fear of the earl who shows her no consideration in bed and beats her regularly. When her husband travels to the West Indies for a period of several months, Rose can heave a sigh of relief to be free of his unwanted attentions and blows, but she is still little more than a prisoner at the hall.

Her daily rides are the only freedom she is allowed, and gradually, she begins to open up to her groom, and they become friends. Will and the other servants are well aware that their mistress is not treated well, but are helpless to do anything to help her – until one day, when Rose, in a fit of despair, contemplates drowning herself in the lake. Realising the extent of her misery, Will proposes that Rose leaves her husband and they hatch a plan.

The events in the novella take place over around six months, although the reader is only privy to the meetings between Rose and Will and one or two scenes which feature a minor character. Once Will and Rose have decided on their plan of escape, it leaves time for Ms Larkin to develop the relationship between them, which consists mostly of Rose overcoming her fear of being touched and of the sexual act. The writing is very good and the love scenes are tender and romantic, even though the limited word-count means that things feel somewhat rushed.

The Countess’ Groom is a quick and enjoyable read, which is well-paced and in which the characterisation is more than decent. I don’t think one needs to have read The Spinster’s Secret in order to enjoy this, but I would definitely hope that anyone picking up this novella will want to read the novel, which is engaging, entertaining and well-worth a few hours of anyone’s time.

The Spinster’s Secret by Emily Larkin

spinster secret

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?

Rating: B

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.