Six years ago, Elizabeth Harewood and Lord Roland Penhallow were London’s golden couple, young and beautiful and wildly in love. Forced apart by her scheming relatives and his clandestine career, Lilibet and Roland buried their passion beneath years of duty and self-denial, until a chance encounter at a remote Tuscan inn changes everything they ever knew about themselves… and each other.
But Miss Elizabeth Harewood is now the Countess of Somerton, estranged wife of one of England’s most powerful and brutal aristocrats, and she can’t afford the slightest hint of scandal to her name. When Roland turns up mysteriously at the castle where she’s hidden herself away, she struggles to act as a lady should, but temptation is only a single kiss away…
“Divorce: The word was so ugly, so final, so immense with consequences. Who would stand by her against the might of the Earl of Somerton? She’d face ostracism, reduced circumstances, the loss of her son. The sordid details would be dragged through the popular press, ruining her good name, even though the crimes themselves had all been committed by Somerton.”
– A Gentleman Never Tells, page 161
“Ah, but you no longer consider me your husband, do you? You wish to divorce me.” He said the word divorce with a keen sharpness, like the crack of a whip, leaning forward as he did so.
– A Gentleman Never Tells, page 242
The Big D appears rarely in historical romance. For one thing, you could probably count the number of pre-20th century aristocratic divorces in the British Isles on one scandalized hand, and assign half of them (plus a couple of heads) to Henry VIII. For another thing — as I was told far too late in the process of writing A Gentleman Never Tells — romance readers like divorce about as much as they like adultery, which is to say…not much.
So I had a glaring problem when I created the late Victorian romance between dashing Lord Roland Penhallow, the adorable younger brother of the Duke of Wallingford, and Lilibet, the elegant Countess of Somerton. The problem’s name was Lord Somerton, Lilibet’s husband, and he made the Big D (and the Big A, for that matter) essential to the plot.
Not that Lord Somerton wasn’t worth divorcing. Our first image of the man has him ploughing the fertile territory between his tenant’s wife’s legs; he also happens to be vindictive, ruthless, and a terrible father to their six-year-old son, Philip. But spousal adultery alone couldn’t get you a divorce if you were a woman living in 1890 Great Britain: according to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, a wife had to prove not only adultery, but some other additional factor, such as rape, desertion, or cruelty. (A man, of course, only had to prove adultery.)
Of course, the 1857 Act represented a great leap forward for women (and, indeed, men) trapped in abusive or simply miserable marriages, by making it possible to obtain a divorce at all without an Act of Parliament. We can legitimately cry sexism in its unequal treatment of male and female adultery, but Victorians were simply trying to balance several competing interests: a strong sense of the sanctity of the marriage bond, a genuine desire to provide abused spouses with legal relief, and — surprise, surprise — the primacy of property rights. After all, a child born out of wedlock to a married man would be raised outside the family home and not necessarily at his own expense; not so, the dubious offspring of a straying wife.
Still, divorce retained a sordid odor in the rarefied air of London society. Aristocratic marriages weren’t supposed to be happy; you produced the necessary heirs and went merrily (if discreetly) on your way. Divorce set a Very Bad Example to the middle classes, after all, besides setting up a potential backlash that could upset the entire apple cart of convenient spousal “arrangements” among the upper classes. Lilibet Somerton, for all her serene outward conformity to social convention, is committing perhaps the most daring and courageous act a woman of her time could do: saying Enough is Enough. I don’t have to live like this.
I deserve better.
Better is Lord Roland Penhallow, the man Lilibet has loved since she first met him during her London debut seven years ago. If Lord Somerton is a man worth divorcing, Roland is a man worth having an affair with. He’s handsome, charming, sensual, and — unbeknownst to Lilibet — a clandestine agent in the service of Her Majesty’s Government. Moreover, he’s the devoted father figure that young Philip never had. In defense of Lilibet and her son, Roland will go to any length. He will match his wits and his strength against Lord Somerton himself. He’ll do anything.
The one thing he can’t do, however, is sleep with her.
After all, if Lilibet commits adultery, she has no legal complaint against Somerton. Her divorce petition is thrown out, and Somerton holds all the cards: he can keep her trapped in marriage and take her son away. The stakes, as they say, are pretty high. (And so is the sexual tension.)
What do you think? Are divorce and adultery no-go zones for historical romance? Or can a scandalous love triangle expose the fault lines in British society while keeping the pages turning…and scorching hot?
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