Believe me, it is a definite shock to discover that one's father was a blackmailer.
That's the great starting line of Joan Wolf's newest regency-era historical. Georgiana Newbury, the terrific, intrepid heroine of The Gamble, discovers that her deceased father has been blackmailing several gentlemen. Georgiana is in desperate straits because her father's title and estate were entailed on a cousin. She must marry but just not anyone will do. Because of her sister, Georgiana requires a husband with certain qualifications.
Georgie's solution is to follow her father's example and blackmail someone into presenting her. She chooses Philip Mansfield, Earl of Winterdale because she reads in the papers that the Winterdale daughter is being presented this season. Unfortunately, the present Lord Winterdale is the nephew of the late earl that her father had been blackmailing, but Georgie is not so easily discouraged. Eventually, Winterdale accedes to her demands but more in the interest of annoying his Aunt Agatha than in surrendering to Georgiana. Winterdale's aunt had refused to take him as a child into her household on his mother's death leaving him in the irresponsible charge of his dissolute father.
Georgie moves into Winterdale's London house where Lady Winterdale and Catherine Mansfield, the earl's aunt and cousin, have also taken up residence. Catherine is plain and retiring having been thoroughly cowed by her overbearing mother, her considerable musical talent all but ignored. Georgiana extends her friendship to Catherine who gradually gains confidence in herself.
Georgiana has destroyed the blackmail evidence and written a carefully worded message to her father's victims before leaving home. In London, all the men inform her that they do not believe she has destroyed the papers and threaten her if she does not return them.
Georgie is a considerable social success and is sought after by several suitors, but she is cautious in her response. When Anna, her sister, arrives in London after having been evicted by the cousin, Georgie's need to marry someone suitable is revealed: her sister is mentally retarded due to a childhood accident. Georgie becomes engaged to one of her admirers even though her affections are centered on the aloof Lord Winterdale.
When one of the blackmail victims kidnaps Anna, Georgiana and Winterdale race in pursuit and end up spending the night together. Georgie's fiancÚ fails to support her, and Georgie and Winterdale marry in order to save her reputation. After a brief idyllic honeymoon, the newlyweds return to London where it soon becomes clear that danger threatens both Georgie's life and their marriage.
The Gamble is written in the first person from the heroine's point of view as are many of Joan Wolf's novels. This has the advantage of the reader's coming to identify with the heroine, but it has the disadvantage of distancing the reader from the other characters, most especially the hero. As presented here, Winterdale seems particularly austere and detached with sometimes inexplicable motivation and contradictory behavior. All is revealed at the end, but to me it felt too little, too late.
But Georgie's a great character: intelligent, forthright, responsible, entertaining. There aren't many women who could stand up to both adversity and Aunt Agatha with such style.
Several secondary characters are well developed as well. The change in Catherine's personality over the course of the story is particularly noteworthy.
Readers who, like me, are fans of Joan Wolf may be disappointed that The Gamble doesn't achieve the level of excellence of her last book, The Arrangement. More emotional intensity in Georgie and Winterdale's relationship would have added to the story. But The Gamble is an easy, sometimes amusing read with a charming heroine and Wolf's usual exceptional writing. Only a fortunate few romance novels can claim such distinction.