Courtney Milan, $12.99, ISBN 978-1937248314
Historical Romance, 2014
Suffragette heroines tend to be very tricky creatures to manage. If I were a gambling person and I bet on the outcome of including these heroines in romance novels, I’d probably say that they are bad bets. The problem here is this: many times, the suffragette and the formulaic elements of the romance novel – that most authors follow even if they insist that they don’t – don’t go together well. Put in an alpha hero that does all the heavy work, and the heroine looks… well, like a typical romance heroine as a result. Having the suffragette marry and then put her husband and her kids over the cause – the “I now write angry letters and donate money from the sidelines to my old friends” kind of epilogue comes to mind – well, that makes the heroine seem like a flake. The best kind of ending could be the heroine living in sin – happily, without remorse – with the beau, smoking cigars and writing controversial memoirs, but these endings don’t fit the typical kind of happy ending of a romance novel.
And then there are readers like me, those truly awful and demanding wretches that, upon coming across a heroine that is supposed to be that kind of woman that they should adore, immediately take out the magnifying glass and start nitpicking the heroine’s behavior to death. Oh, she sniffles into her handkerchief for a minute – what a weak fake who thinks she’s a suffragette, let’s pulverize her! Or set unreasonably high standards for her – can’t accept any help from a man, does everything on her own, and better than any mortal woman because she is Suffragette Sable, savior of womankind.
Courtney Milan’s The Suffragette Scandal manages to skirt around most of these usual problems. It’s been about ten years since we saw Frederica “Free” Marshall, if you have read The Countess Conspiracy, and she’s now the owner, manager, and chief editor of her own newspaper, Women’s Free Press. However, she is not aware that a nobleman, whom she had rejected when he offered to make her his mistress a while back, is planning to take her down by targeting her newspaper. Running a newspaper like hers is bound to make her many enemies already, so she’s not sure where to start looking when other newspapers start carrying articles in a way that make it seem like her newspaper is plagiarizing those newspapers.
Fortunately, Edward Clark knows who the villain is. It’s his brother. Edward was Edward “Ned” Delacey back in those days when he was the heir to Viscount Claridge. However, there was some family drama that caused him to be stranded in enemy territory and his brother engineered events to minimize his chances of getting out alive.
Edward does think of payback, but he never makes a move until he learns that James, his brother, is targeting his close friend Patrick’s younger brother, a writer for Free’s newspaper, as part of an effort to ruin Free. That is when he begins making false reconciliation overtures to his brother James to discover the man’s plan. He brings what he knows to Free, proposing that she lets him become her muscle and spy. After all, he is an expert forger and over the years, he has done… things… that made him very good at all that spying on and beating the crap out of people stuff.
Do you remember the time you blackmailed me?
Yes, dear. You blackmailed me right back. It was the sweetest thing. I knew then that we were meant for each other.
Edward is such the sweetest thing. I mean, he can beat the crap out of people and he also knows how to intimidate and sabotage like the best of them, but when it comes to the heroine, he’s a completely different kind of creature. He’d beat the crap out of people for her. For her, he’d break the rules. And every time she upstages him or throws him off his feet, he would have proudly worn the T-shirt “That’s my girl!” if there was such a thing back in those days.
As for Free, she is of course smart and spirited. You don’t get to wear her shoes and keep marching on her path if you don’t have a spine made of titanium and a skin that is pretty much bulletproof, after all. Ms Milan does a great job here in showing me that Free and Edward are partners rather than he becoming her knight in shining armor – he does the things that she can’t do due to her lack of access to upper levels of society or her being out of her depths when it comes to dealing with such intrigue. Free is clearly the type of person who deals better with problems that she can see and charge right at. Edward’s the one who’s better in playing dirty, so he helps her navigate through his brother’s plot. Throughout all this, Free has a few tricks up her own sleeves – she’s not a passive beneficiary of Edward’s talents and knowledge.
The romance has some scenes that make my heart skip a beat, or maybe two, mostly because of just how crazy Edward is over Free. He doesn’t fight his feelings for her at all. He just leaps off the cliff, so to speak, and while he is only starting to understand Free’s beliefs and commitment to the cause, he clearly respects her and wants her to keep doing what she does. Oh, and he really likes it when Free outsmarts him or someone else. These two are well-matched as a pair.
There are many obvious references to the effects of the feminist movement in the centuries since Free’s time, as a way for the author to make some observations about the successes and failings of the movement. While I appreciate this approach, I feel that it’s tad heavy-handed. The author generally does a good job in weaving elements of social awareness and affirmative action in her story in a smooth manner, and this is one of the few instances where she slips up and practically bangs the gavel on her soapbox.
Oh, and there is a secondary romance here between two women. While I do appreciate the sentiment behind this one, it’s a formulaic story line that has been done many times before in same-sex romances. You show, the shy and uncertain person who loves a gorgeous person, but is certain that that person doesn’t swing that way, until that person makes a move and announces that yes, she swings that way and, not only that, she’s crazy about this shy person all along. This is easily the most stereotypical aspect of the story (or maybe the second most one, if you count Free as a feminist who also happens to do things like a man – it’d be nice to have a suffragette heroine who is also lady-like, if only because there are so few of such heroines), and it stands out as the rest of the story is generally not your every day romance kind of thing.
The Suffragette Scandal is, at the end of the day, a fun and emotional read with some scenes that make me sigh inside. It does a good job in balancing soapbox elements and story telling, and I’m vastly entertained.