A challenge to authors of historical romance is to create heroines who possess the qualities and characteristics admired by contemporary readers, but who are still at least somewhat true to the times in which they supposedly live. Andrea Pickens has solved this dilemma with her heroine, Augusta Hadley. She must disguise her interest in politics and reform and her activities as a polemicist behind the nom de plume, the “Firebrand.” Nobody would suspect that these erudite and powerful attacks on child labor abuses can possibly be a female.
Certainly, the Earl of Sheffield has no such suspicions when he begins a correspondence with the “Firebrand.” Sheffield is a fashion leader, a man of the ton. But as he enters his thirties, he finds this role increasingly unsatisfying. He had once had ideas of using his position to better effect. The “Firebrand’s” tracts reanimate his previous ambitions. Thus begins a correspondence that leads to a friendship.
Augusta likewise has no idea that “Tinder” is that renowned whip and Corinthian, Sheffield. The two have bumped into each other - literally - at ton functions. The result is a ruined waistcoat for the earl and embarrassment for Augusta. Their exchange is heated, to say the least. Augusta has no time for men in general or handsome dilettantes in particular. Sheffield finds the tart-tongued, unfashionably dressed wallflower an equally unlikely flirt. But they keep bumping into each other - literally.
In addition to her writing, Augusta is involved in trying to discover who is responsible for the disappearance of a number of poor children in her neighborhood. She recruits “Tinder” to help her, which leads to another encounter between the two, in the study of one of the suspects one dark night. The two reluctantly join forces to try to unmask the
villain of the piece.
Augusta is an unconventional young woman whose appearance has never fit the ton’s idea of feminine beauty. She doesn’t appreciate her own attractiveness. Sheffield becomes increasingly aware that behind her dowdy facade there is a lovely woman. But he can’t understand his own response to this unusual female.
A Lady of Letters is a cleverly plotted story. Knowing that the hero and heroine have this anonymous relationship while they are squabbling their way to attraction provides additional charm to the tale. Augusta’s daring approaches foolishness, but doesn’t quite go over the line. Well, it sort of does, but since she does the rescuing rather than vice versa, it seems OK. The earl is a fine hero, a man who
is reevaluating his life and looking for a purpose. That he finds both a purpose and love is icing on the cake.
One of the nice touches Pickens includes is her characterization of Augusta’s beautiful sister. The beauty is so often portrayed as an empty headed, self-centered cartoon. Marianne might be lovely, but she is also lovable.
It is a misconception of some readers that women’s characters were markedly different in the past. Certainly the social constraints they faced were much greater, but strong, intelligent women found ways to push the boundaries of their sphere. Pickens has given us a heroine and a story that suggests both how hard it was for women to move beyond their appointed roles and shows us how a determined woman might
do just that - and find true love in the bargain. I enjoyed A Lady of Letters for this very reason.