When Lucien Saxby walked into the box seat, he thought he’d found a delightful dalliance with a high class man. He never imagined he’d be risking his life for the type of consuming love that constantly left him desperate for more and dreading discovery. True, the first handful of sweet nights with the Honorable Aubrey Fanshawe concluded with bitter realities—a gossip writer tupping a nob?! Yet attraction turned into affection and Aubrey, for all his class, knew how to communicate. As well he should with two other lovers, Lord and Lady Hernedale.
Aubrey first fell in with Rupert Hernedale when they were students at Eton—popular for offering a particular sort of friendship to other boys, but also as often shunned for it, Aubrey can breathe a bit easier now that he is well into his majority. Being a gentleman surely helped put those school-yard rumours to rest…even if they were true. When Henrietta joined the mix, Rupert and Aubrey were delighted to have and indulge in her, and each other. It was therefore a bit of a surprise that Aubrey also felt so keenly and deeply for a working man named Lucien. Yet that is exactly what happened.
While Aubrey is content to love whom he loves, even if that glorious love must be kept secret from so-called civil society, there are struggles brewing. Lucien and Aubrey’s mutual attachment sends niggles of doubt through Rupert and when Henrietta”s elder brother becomes privy to those vicious Eton rumors, he doesn’t hesitate to wield them against his own sister, her husband, and Aubrey.
Can one vindictive little man really destroy the decades-long friendship and love between Rupert and Aubrey? Can that same man shame his sister into submission? And what about Lucien, who may end up as collateral damage for his harmless, but flirtatious remarks to Lady Hernedale one night at the theater?
It’s delightful to have just read a polyamorous story (Badge of Loyalty) and be able to juxtapose this book against it. With this story, I have managed to randomly bump into a book that ticked all the boxes I wanted ticked in a story about polyamory. It’s worth noting that Aubrey, Rupert, and Henrietta’s relationship is on display from page one and Lucens does a delightful job of detailing the dynamic of these three long-time lovers both in public and in private. The new relationship Aubrey finds himself developing with Lucien is then something new and separate from the one he enjoys with the Hernedales, but Lucens provides perhaps even more depth when describing how Aubrey and Lucien react and interact as they learn more about one another.
One of this books strongest pluses is the focus on interpersonal scenes. Our narration is split fairly evenly between Aubrey and Lucien. This means Aubrey’s scenes highlight his values of infinite, but unique, love for all his lovers and acknowledgement that he wouldn’t take on more lovers than he could reasonably satisfy, not just sexually, but emotionally. For example, Henrietta’s brother’s actions threaten to ruin the romance, if not even the friendship, between the Hernedales and Aubrey. We have glorious pages upon pages where Aubrey discusses the impending fall out and falling out tete-a-tete with Henrietta and again with Rupert. The reader is treated to intimate discussions between the lovers, raw emotions, and how powerfully the threat of exposure can affect the dynamic in Aubrey’s love affair with Rupert and Henrietta.
Similar discussions happen, and more frequently, between Aubrey and Lucien. Part of the reason is the newness of their relationship. Lucens does not shy away from confronting the obvious issues with this fledgling relationship: (1) how can opposites like Lucien, working man and gossip reporter, have any sort of meaningful relationship with Aubrey, a bona fide gentlemen and wealthy to boot? And (2) can Lucien accept that Aubrey really can and does have romantic love for more than one person? These issues are explored from both characters’ perspectives and Lucien makes a particularly sympathetic character in that he has trained in service to be a valet. He is able to call Aubrey’s attention to the way the social fabric automatically assigns values to people based on birth, and why it rankles.
Of course, not everything is all about these romantic relationships. Lucien maintains a friendship with the wealthy aristocrat named William in whose house he trained as a valet–and with whom he played as a young child. This side character was used to delightful effect, helping round out and shore up Lucien’s feelings about class and being “born into” any particular trade. There is also Lucien’s colleague at the newspaper, a woman (also a lesbian) by the name of Miss Enfield. Unlike Aubrey—and to a less noticeable extent, the Hernedales—who is shown virtually exclusively through the lens of his various love affairs, Lucien and these side characters flesh out non-romantic aspects. William serves to highlight how almost thoughtlessly the aristocracy takes their lot in life,and everyone else’s, for granted. Miss Enfield is a delightful foil to Lucien. As they work on articles for the newspaper where they work, they get thrust together on the story of women’s suffrage. It is Miss Enfield who points out double standards don’t just exist between the classes, but also the genders.
My only real gripe is how, late in the game, Lucien has an epiphany about how he loves who he does. Given the type of love he feels and his accidental, but not unhappy, education about how polyamorous love may work, I was a bit surprised and disappointed Lucien’s time with Aubrey didn’t cast any light on how Lucien viewed any previous lovers or current sexual partners apart from Aubrey.
On balance, this was a immensely satisfying read. I appreciated the deeply thoughtful exchanges that occurred between the various characters. While I’m no expert or even widely read in multi-partner relationships, Lucens approach gently guided me through one set of carefully mapped out romantic relationships. Though broad social commentary on class and gender inequality was minimal, the former received its due attention through Lucien’s struggles to love and be loved by a member of the aristocracy. The gender issues are also worked in bluntly through Miss Enfield’s dedication to reporting on suffragist activities and more subtly through the climax where Henrietta’s brother wreaks havoc on her relationships with Aubrey and Rupert.
Overall, this is an utterly delightful read.