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by Charlotte Featherstone

Book Review by Lynne Connolly



Sinful is a curate’s egg – good in parts. Well worth picking up, if it has the elements you’re looking for.

It purports to be set in the Victorian age, and I was put off a bit by the hero describing himself as “Victorian” on the first page, a term that was coined in the late 1870’s, after this book is set, I think. I wasn’t sure and could only date the book by the sole mention of a crinoline, which is solidly 1860’s. In fact, the book is full of anachronisms and Americanisms, from referring to the sexual act as “sex” (my trusty dictionary dates the  first use of “sex” to denote “sexual congress” or “having sex” to 1929 – before that it was only used to denote gender) to “railroad” (it’s “railway” in English), “had a raise” (Americanism), “set your cap” (something women do, not men, and the thought of it applied to the extremely masculine hero made me giggle), a young heroine wearing a dress with a train in the street (not likely), “goddamn” (Americanism), “bloody hell” (a twentieth century phrase), “stomped” (Americanism), the constant use of “pence” for “penny” (a “pence” is a decimal coin, introduced in 1971, not a pre-decimal penny), the use of “less” when it should have been “fewer,” the heroine having scones for breakfast (treated as normal, and not the odd eccentricity the Victorians would have considered it), and so on and so forth.

Little errors like this jerked me out of the story from time to time, but if you’re willing to read a generic book set in the Victorian era, then it won’t bother you. I particularly enjoyed “viscous” for “vicious” and “bullocks” for “bollocks.” If men had bullocks dangling between their legs—well, I’ll let you enjoy the mental picture. The attitudes of some of the characters, particularly the heroine, are too modern and at times, vague, for me to take them seriously, but the heroine was, despite that, well delineated and someone I enjoyed.

Now to the meat of the story, if that reference to beef hasn’t turned your mind. Matthew, Lord Wallingford, heir to an impoverished dukedom, begins the book with a mental tirade about the hypocrisy of the Victorian era while he’s waiting to sell his painting to customers in a brothel. When unveiled, the painting turns out to be what the Victorians called an “Academic” work, and I wasn’t sure why he didn’t show it and sell it via the Royal Academy, where he’d have got a better price for it. He needs the money to buy a gallery in London, presumably to show and sell his work. The painting, a “Dance of the Seven Veils” sounds like one of Ingres’ Odalisque paintings, or one of Lord Leighton’s vaguely classical works, or even something by Alma Tadema, rather than the more progressive, but more overtly moral, Pre-Raphaelite work. Smoothly painted, and accomplished. It suits Wallingford, who is cold and unfeeling after a ton of abuse in his childhood. Now he uses women, buys them for sex and uses them as his abuser used him. This was where I began to lose interest in Matthew, who behaved more like a spoiled child than an adult, and I tend to prefer my heroes as adults. There were plenty of these tormented adults in Victorian society, but I never really saw them as heroes of romances. He stamps his foot and pouts quite a lot. Also, he’s a man-whore. Puts himself about a lot. So why is there no mention of venereal disease? In the Victorian era, the clap was rife, and at the end of the era syphilis killed a number of prominent people (including Winston Churchill’s father).

Wallingford is beaten to a pulp, and ends up in the hospital where the heroine works. This part of the plot reminded me of one of my favorite historical romances, Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From the Storm, but where Kinsale’s research is immaculate and detailed, adding to the reader’s belief in the story, the details of Sinful were frustratingly vague and somewhat generic. A brief mention of soot at the beginning of the book, and some nice touches with descriptions of the plain beds and the grubbiness of the place. Our heroine is Jane, the illegitimate daughter of a cast-off mistress of an aristocrat. She was discovered and brought up by a divorced woman who lives in seclusion. This was where I became interested in the setting, since after 1870, things changed for the better for women, with the Married Women’s Property Act. I don’t think Jane’s guardian could have got a divorce for abuse (even rape within marriage was condoned) but she could have obtained a separation and made a different life for herself, so I went along with that. Jane has red hair and freckles, and she wears glasses, but at first Wallingford can’t see her, as he’s been badly beaten and his eyes are swollen up, with a tear over one lid.

Interesting that they used ether to subdue him. It was a fascinating and important development in medicine and surgery in the second half of the nineteenth century, and I wanted to know more about it. But there weren’t the details that are, for instance, in Jean Fullerton’s No Cure For Love, I never got a concrete feeling of being there, and sharing the experience as I did with Fullerton’s book.

The sex is at the erotic level, with a modern sensibility. Jane’s reluctance seems a bit out of place with her determination to remain independent and to avoid the aristocracy. She guesses that Matthew is a gentleman, if not a toff, right from the start but while she’s nursing him back to health, she lets him up her skirts. But this is an erotic romance, with lavish use of all the graphic words associated with the erotic, and if they didn’t indulge in sex and heavy petting, it wouldn’t be erotic. The sex is hot, and well written.

Jane is the only woman Matthew feels anything for, sees as a person rather than a thing. I think if his callousness hadn’t been described in such detail, I might have warmed to him sooner but, despite his trauma, I didn’t like the way he related everything to himself and treated everyone as if they were corrupt or twisted. The only woman in this book who is fully realized is Jane. The others are either saints or sinners, and the sinners were somewhat two-dimensional in their depiction.

The action moves to the country, but after this stage, any more of the plot might constitute as a spoiler. Their relationship develops, they do it a lot, and the relationship turns into a bit of a “I love you, I hate you” for a while, until it settles down to its happy ending. I did feel that certain elements of the story at this stage were a bit melodramatic, with revelation following revelation, but I did enjoy the twists and turns as they happened. I thought the resolution happened too fast, and Featherstone has to resort to a lot of narrative prose, as a long stretch of time is sketched out rather than experienced, and there was a turn of events in the last part of the book that I found neither welcome or realistic, especially in a romance. The ending reminded me somewhat of Philippa Gregory’s Meridon, but where Meridonended on a believable, if unsatisfactory note, the ending of Sinful didn’t, I’m afraid, work for me.

Be assured, the happy ending (of a sort) is there, but I didn’t find it particularly believable and it put Matthew in a worse light. I decided I really didn’t like him as his dilemma turned into whining and he took a wrong decision that I thought a hero wouldn’t take. But others might like it, as it is unusual to find a romance concluded in this way. I wish I could say more, but those of you who know me, know my pet peeves in historicals and this book hit one of them painfully on the nail. I felt that Matthew didn’t stand up and take it like a man, and didn’t keep his promises, explicit and implicit, but settled for personal satisfaction over the happiness of people around him and the duty Matthew constantly ignored, blaming his lack of concern on other people.

And Jane’s desire for an independent life? Come on, this is a romance from Harlequin. What chance did the poor girl have? Most Harlequin heroines have a profession that goes out of the window when they find Their Man.

Now for the best part. I kept reading because of Charlotte Featherstone’s prose. It is delightful and distinctive. She uses language with a surety that comes from practice and a love of writing. I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of the book. I know she’s written a book in the paranormal genre, and I shall definitely hunt that one down. The sexual heart of the story is also very well done, with the two principals learning each other and their relationship developing in a satisfactory way.

And the cover is gorgeous. The cover for the previous book in the series, Addicted, is also lovely.

Official Harlequin Spice blurb:

“In Victorian England, vice of every kind can be purchased and Matthew, the Earl of Wallingford, makes certain he avails himself of every possible pleasure. Bored and jaded, he is as well known for his coldness as for his licentious affairs with beautiful women. Until one night when he finds himself beaten, eyes bandaged and in the care of a nurse with the voice of an angel -- and a gentle touch that soothes the darkness in him and makes him yearn for more.

And then there is Matthew’s secret. A secret so humiliating and scandalous it could destroy everyone he loves. A sin, he fears, not even the love of a good woman can take away…. ”

Lynne Connolly
May-June 2010

Sinful by Charlotte Featherstone
(Harlequin Spice, May 2010; ISBN-10: 0373605439)
Available at: Amazon | Amazon UK

© 2010 Lynne Connolly. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission.

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