Lady Windermere’s Lover
By Miranda Neville
Release Date: June 24, 2014
Drunk on an excess of spirits, emotional and alcoholic, Damian, Viscount Kendal, lost Beaulieu, a property left to him by his mother on the same day he inherited it, his 21st birthday. Dismayed when he finds out that Robert Townsend, the friend to whom he lost Beaulieu, has already lost it himself, Damian has little choice but to confess his rash behavior and its consequences to his father. During the session with his father, Damian pledges to distance himself from his wild friends and to seriously apply himself to a career in diplomatic service.
Six years later, Damian, now Earl of Windermere, finally regains Beaulieu, but its owner, a wealthy Birmingham merchant, sets an exorbitant price on the property: marriage to his niece, Cynthia Chorley. Damian, seething with anger and resentment, agrees to pay the price. His feelings intensify when he finds himself with a provincial wife who possesses none of the poise and presence required of the wife of an ambitious man in Foreign Service.
Cynthia is ignorant of her uncle’s machinations. Aware only that she has escaped marriage to a bestial man in her uncle’s employ and is instead marrying a handsome aristocrat with a devastating smile, she dreams of happiness with him. She is soon disillusioned. Damian treats her with a total lack of consideration in bed and out, and two weeks after their wedding, he leaves for a diplomatic mission to Persia.
Cynthia is devastated when she suffers a miscarriage, her pain increased by Damian’s indifference. When she is at her lowest point, she is befriended by Caro Townsend and becomes part of Caro’s artistic set whose unconventional behavior and disregard for proper appearances scandalizes London society. Cynthia acquires a wardrobe that enhances her beauty, takes French lessons, polishes her social skills, and generally tries to become the kind of woman Damian wants as his wife. She also acquires a close friend in the person of Julian Fortescue, recently and unexpectedly Duke of Denford. Cynthia enjoys Denford’s company, but she is confused by the mix of “attraction and repulsion, fear and longing” that he stirs in her. She is also convinced that he is a better man than he believes himself to be.
Damian returns to London after a year in Persia, summoned home by the foreign office. He is dimly aware that he has treated Cynthia badly but still hopeful of salvaging a reasonably amicable relationship with his wife. Believing his wife at Beaulieu, he is surprised to learn she is in residence in the Windermere London residence. Later when, during a theater visit with his mentor’s wife (a former lover of Damian’s), he sees a blonde beauty in the company of the current Duke of Denford , Damian’s former best friend and the man he holds responsible for the event that changed his life, he fails to recognize the beauty is the Countess of Windermere.
Cynthia does recognize Damian. In fact, she returned to London because she had received news of his return to England. Convinced that his theater companion is his mistress, she determines to show him how little she cares. Damian, after observing a late night embrace between Cynthia and Denford, is equally convinced that his wife and his enemy are lovers. Even though Damian and Cynthia have both reached erroneous conclusions and even though they both long for a real marriage, their suspicions and their lack of knowledge about each other makes building a life together seem impossible. And at every turn Denford is there further complicating their lives.
No summary does justice to a Miranda Neville novel. Much of the joy of reading this author’s books rests on the intricacy of her character building, the intelligence of her writing, and her subtle flashes of humor. She has shown in other novels that she has the skill to take an unsympathetic character and reveal the motivations and vulnerabilities behind behavior the reader wants to condemn in such a way that the reader ends up sympathetically engaged with the character. She does exactly this with Damian. He really does treat Cynthia abominably, and his behavior initially seems inexcusable. It’s hard to forget thoughts like this one: “Some might call the new Countess of Windermere an English rose. More like a wild flower, in his opinion. Or a weed.” But as the losses he suffered are revealed and as the reader recognizes that his own shame and the influence of his father and his mentor have transformed an ardent, artistic boy into a man who has buried his emotions and his ideals, the reader longs to see that which has been buried resurrected and Damian reborn as his mother’s son. It also helps that Damian acknowledges and regrets his treatment of Cynthia early on, and that his regrets deepen as his love for Cynthia grows.
Cynthia is appealing from the beginning. She is a woman of intelligence, integrity, and the kind of courage and optimism it takes to get up and keep going when life delivers a knockout punch. She is also genuinely kind, a quality often underrated in fiction as in life. I really liked that the charity work with which she becomes involved is not just general benevolence but something in which Cynthia has a personal stake, and I thought her means of financing the charity showed her spirit and her sense of humor.
I have found the art connection that runs through this series interesting. Neville does not settle for mere allusions to art. She makes it a real and meaningful part of the lives of her characters. Some of my favorite scenes in this novel were those where Cynthia and Damian drew one another and shared their drawings. It was an original and appropriate way to reveal their growing intimacy. Art was the initial connection between Damian and Denford as well, and it plays a role in their tense resumption of social exchanges.
The black-clad, Heyer-inspired Denford comes close to stealing the book at times, and I’m certain mine is not the only heart he stole. His story, The Duke of Dark Desires, a December 31 release, will complete the Wild Quartet. It’s on my most eagerly anticipated list.
For me, the abandoned bride who transforms herself and amazes her neglectful groom with her newly revealed grace and beauty can be a riveting story or a hackneyed hash. Obviously, I found Lady Windermere’s Lover in the riveting category. Other favorite treatments of this trope include Mary Balogh’s The First Snowdrop (1986) and Eloisa James’s Duchess in Love (2002), which tweaks the trope. Do you like the transformed bride trope? What are your favorite novels that make use of it?