Little Black Dress Books, £6.99, ISBN 978-0-7553-4781-0
Historical Romance, 2011
I am a big fan of Janet Mullany’s previous works, so it is with dismay that I have to report that Mr Bishop and the Actress is not up to the author’s usual standards. It comes this close to being a parody of the author’s far more superior past efforts, as it has the same narrative structure (first person point of view from both the hero and the heroine in the main chapters along with an occasional diary excerpt here and there) but very little of the wholesome goodness found in previous books.
The premise is an interesting one, and indeed, the first few chapters of this book are great. Mr Larry Bishop’s initiation into the service in Lord Shad’s household begins with the young steward finds himself assisting the delivery of Lord Shad’s newest child into this world. Meanwhile, Mrs Sophie Wallace is the infamous mistress, although her latest protector, young Charlie Fordham, is forced to relinquish her by his uncle, who happens to Lord Shad. Mr Bishop is charged to retrieve Charlie, which is how he meets Mrs Wallace for the first time. They part ways, but not before Mr Bishop loses his virginity to the scarlet lady. There is no avoiding each other, however, when, in a quest for respectability, Mrs Wallace gets herself hired by Lord Shad as the companion to the man’s half-sister.
This sounds great, and heaven knows, Ms Mullany doesn’t shy away from writing about unconventional heroines in the past. Mrs Wallace, however, is a familiar heroine – she’s a mistress from all appearances, but she actually thinks and behaves like a conventional heroine who would rather play the martyr than to reach out and seize life by the brass dangling bits. As a result, she could have easily been another dingbat bluestocking, since Mrs Wallace is so determined to be selfless and sweet while not wanting to impose one bit on anybody. She is so giving, with nary a mercenary thought in her head… goodness me, how did this woman survive treading the boards and hustling for protectors all these years?
That aside, a bigger problem looms. After the first few entertaining chapters, the story takes a turn downhill for the worst – it becomes a rather unfunny comedy of errors prolonged by ridiculously silly misunderstanding scenarios and some of the worst efforts at communication I have ever come across. Both Mrs Wallace and Mr Bishop are truly heinous when it comes to saying anything to each other – because they don’t speak! Seriously, these two seem to expect everyone else around them to read their minds, which does not bode well for the longevity of this relationship.
Mr Bishop… oh boy. I’ve lost count of how many secondary characters who call him an idiot in this story, but I agree wholeheartedly with every one of these characters. First, he treats Mrs Wallace as a woman good enough to shag but not good enough to mingle with “good people” like him. Fine, he’s just being a man of his time. But then, once he supposedly has realized the errors of his ways, he proceeds to reel Sophie in, lead her on, reject her for bizarre reasons, and then reel her back in, repeat and rinse. I don’t know what he is doing here, but I do know that he deserves several hard knocks in the head because it’s not like he’d become any dumber than he already is from those knocks.
The characters are conventional people wearing trappings of unorthodoxy, which won’t be so bad if their story isn’t fueled by bewildering misunderstanding, contrived wild leaps of conclusions, and inexplicable games of Mr Bishop playing so hard to get. I can’t help feeling that the author has dropped the ball after the first few chapters of this story – the rest of the story is just plain silliness piled upon more silliness in such a cartoon manner.
The author has written better stories than this, and hopefully, she will write better stories in the future. In the meantime I’d do my best to blot this book out of my memory.