With the assistance of her family, Lady Sophie Dane fled an abusive marriage. Her brother, Julian (the hero of The Ruthless Charmer), arranged a parliamentary divorce. She has spent the last eight years on the continent, traveling as companion to Honorine Fortier, an eccentric, but kind-hearted Frenchwoman. Honorine has decided that she and her small household must relocate to London.
Sophie is panicky. She believes that her personal scandal must forever lead to ostracism from English society. She dare not show her face in public. She is disgraced beyond all redemption. Her family encourages her to reenter the ton at small gatherings, but she knows they’re only being kind and no one will accept her in light of her shame and scandal.
Honorine meets the convalescing Will Hamilton, Lord Hamilton. Although others see a frail, old man, incapacitated by a stroke, Honorine sees a charming, intelligent man with a slight stutter.
Sophie seeks solitude in Regent’s Park. Across the pond, she observes the construction of a house. A man whom she believes to be the construction foreman has attracted her carnal interest. One day he appears at her side of the pond. He, too, has been secretly observing her. He gives his name as Caleb Hamilton. The gossip about him is that he is an imposter; he claims to be the illegitimate son of Will Hamilton and an investor in railroads, those noisy, dirty instruments of transportation that are cutting through estates and cannot possibly last.
It is Honorine’s friendship with Will that leads to Sophie’s meeting Trevor Hamilton and his young son. Trevor was the ton’s single most eligible bachelor when Sophie came out, but he scarcely saw the shy young girl. Now, the widowed heir to the viscountcy sees a very desirable woman. Sophie’s family urges her to encourage Trevor’s suit, but Sophie characteristically believes that he cannot be serious about her in light of her divorce.
Moreover, it is Caleb Sophie wants. Her passions overwhelming her, she decides to take Caleb as her lover, but how can she reconcile her secret love with all the pressures coming to bear on her? Caleb, meanwhile, has his own issues including his relationship with his father and his half-brother to work out.
There’s a lot to like in this Victorian-era romance, but the irritating heroine isn’t among them. She’s practically the living definition of egocentric. She’s been gone from England for eight years, but she positively wallows in the conviction that her old-news scandal is still in the forefront of everyone’s minds. She’s incapable of believing that others might have moved on with their lives, that other scandals might have supplanted hers, that she’s just not that fascinating. Stick a scarlet D on her bodice, and she’d feel validated. It’s been eight years, lady, get over it!
The true heroine of The Secret Lover is Honorine. She has a pivotal but regrettably small role in the story; she deserves more prominence. A woman of unstated years but seemingly at least of middle age, her support and defense of Lord Hamilton make her a far more admirable character than the self-absorbed purported heroine. She has a joie de vivre about her that’s irresistible.
Caleb is a worthy hero. He’s handsome and considerate. With those virtues as well as his concern for his father’s welfare and his sympathy for Sophie’s worries, he’s a paragon among men. In spite of his illegitimate birth, he’s clearly a better choice than Trevor, who eventually reveals himself to be a villain. Trevor’s treachery makes Sophie’s choice between the two brothers too easy.
Julia London is a talented author. Her writing style brings vitality to the story and depth to the character development. She uses small episodes to reveal additional facets of the characters’ personalities. As one example, two years prior to the story’s setting, Sophie’s sleeve happens to brush a man’s sleeve while standing in the butcher shop. Following years of numbness, her sensuality returns in a rush. Since then she’s been aware of men and their appeal and particularly the bulge in their pants. Sophie’s eager willingness to make love with Caleb is therefore quite in character in spite of her obsessive concern with the opinions of society.
Were it not for the irritating Sophie and the overly villainous Trevor, The Secret Lover would be receiving a recommended rating. The delightful Honorine and the charming Caleb can’t save the book by themselves. Nevertheless, readers may want to check out this work by a talented author.