Note: This review has been updated from the original to correct factual errors. The original review also suggested sexual coercion took place between the main characters and the review has been change to correction that impression. Thanks.
Benedict Pennington is an artist with no muse. Knowing his own talent will never match that of the great masters — past or present — he has turned his mind and his heart to a new calling: to establish England’s first National Art Museum, where anyone and everyone can go to witness and be touched by the works of great artists. Unfortunately, there are those who would stand in his way, the fine and blooded men who are connoisseurs of art and who would rather see it kept in private galleries where it may be admired, and judged, only by men of the greatest taste and discernment.
One such man is Lord Dulcie, Sinclair Milne, who — along with his fellows, such as Norton and Leverett — pride themselves as being the final word on what is, and what is most decidedly not, art. When Benedict was 12 and at boarding school, he first met and then fell in love with Dulcie and professed his love by sending him a letter containing all of his ardor, passion, and devotion. There was no reply to his letter. Instead, Dulcie never returned to the school, leaving Benedict to the tender cares of Leverett, Dulcie’s greatest friend and Benedict’s most hated memory.
Benedict’s greatest hope for his museum is his mentor, the philanthropist Julius Adler, whose expansive collection contains some of the most heart stopping and extraordinary pieces, such as Caracci’s Saint John in the Wilderness, Benedict’s favorite painting. He has been tutoring Adler’s granddaughter, Polyhymnia, serving as her instructor in painting and joining them in their tours to the continent to witness and admire other great works. Polly is Benedict’s friend and also believes in his great dream, but she too has her own struggles. Her grandfather would see her married to a wealthy, well-blooded man, someone who will care for her — and someone who will produce wealthy and powerful grandsons. One such man under consideration is Lord Dulcie who has been, of late, paying greater attention to Polly… and to Benedict.
This story is book four of The Penningtons series involving Benedict’s family as they look for and find love. While it can be read as a standalone, it would help greatly in understanding the small scenes and glimpses of plots to be somewhat familiar with the other books in the series and the people within them. Taking place in the early 1800s, this book uses terms that — while they may sound offensive to modern ears — are historically accurate and are true to the period: fagmaster, fagging, fags, and fagboy. In boarding school, a fagmaster was an older boy given charge of and power over younger students (fags and fagboys). They were mostly worked as body servants, blacking boots, brushing out clothes, and tending to their fagmaster’s rooms and meals in exchange for a glimpse at a senior’s schoolwork and books. It’s not meant to be vulgar or an aspersion; it’s simply a part of English boarding schools.
Benedict has several brothers and at least one sister who was briefly engaged to Dulcie before she found someone she truly wished to marry. The two men move in similar circles, but neither of them made an effort to rekindle the friendship they had in school. Indeed, Benedict would be grateful to never see or speak to Dulcie again, considering Dulcie’s friendship with Leverett. When Dulcie left the school, with no letter or comment or farewell to Benedict, he left him in the hands of Leverett who took full advantage of his position of fagmaster, bullying the younger boy. Leverett told Benedict that it was Dulcie’s wish that he have control over Benedict, and that Dulcie not only knew what was happening, but either endorsed it or simply didn’t care. It broke Benedict’s heart and a bit of his spirit.
For Dulcie, the letter sent by an innocent young boy infatuated with his mentor was only a small problem. To keep his son away from scandal, his father moved Dulcie to Oxford and put the matter behind them. However, while in Oxford, Dulcie fell in love with another young man, a stableboy with whom he had a passionate and unfortunately one-sided affair. The boy’s uncle (or perhaps the boy himself) sent a letter to Dulcie’s father, demanding money in exchange for the ruination and corruption of the youth. That letter destroyed much of the relationship Dulcie had with his father and it has never fully recovered.
When Dulcie is given the chance to be around Benedict, again, he sees Benedict almost for the first time as someone tall, dark, and handsome… and talented. The fact that Benedict wants nothing to do with him seems to only make Dulcie more interested. While Benedict is nursing the flames of first love, Dulcie seems only interested in what he cannot have. Benedict is a soft-hearted romantic who wants Dulcie to be faithful and emotionally open, and would be delighted if Dulcie would be willing to be completely and utterly his. Dulcie, however, neither sees a need for such a thing, nor has any interest in it. His charm and wit are both his armor and his safety, and lowering his defenses for another person, no matter how intimate their physical relationship, isn’t something he wants.
To get closer to Benedict, Dulcie blackmails him with threats against his family. Dulcie can’t seem to win the young man in any other way — not by charming, wooing, or even being patient and flirting, so he threatens to destroy Benedict’s sister’s happiness in order to get Benedict into closer company with him. He wants Benedict to paint his portrait, something that might prove difficult to a man already struggling to paint anything worthwhile at all. It is seemingly supposed to be charming, but I found it to be rather distasteful.
We’re told again and again how charming and witty and clever Dulcie is, but it never resonated with me. I never found his comments cutting, insightful, or funny. However, as I’ve said in other reviews, not everyone finds the same things funny. Throughout the story, I did not feel either Benedict or Dulcie grow, learn anything, or even mature. They feel like the same characters from the first page to the last. Even during the confrontation with Leverett, nothing actually happens. They speak angry words and then, that’s it. Scene over, on to the next one. It’s a feeling the permeates the entire book as, again, this is book four of a series, but rather than be it’s own story, it weaves in events and people from books two and three. Plots are brought up — an election for a parliamentary position, a wedding, a missing dowry — and then just feel left there. Once the scene is over, it’s dropped as though it never happened and neither Benedict nor Dulcie mention it or think of it again.
The timing feels both rushed and glacial. Some scenes take forever to end and others barely have a chance to start before it’s time for the next chapter. This is due, I think, to the fact that the author is trying to put in people and events from previous books into this one; unfortunately, it skewed the pacing for Dulcie and Benedict’s story. The relationship felt very much one sided for the first half of the story, and badly unbalanced by the end; nothing was resolved and all the plot points between the two characters seem to just vanish, leaving the story behind. This might have worked better as a short story or as its own story, rather than the way it is integrated into the series.
That said, though, the writing was good. The author managed to evoke a vaguely Regency-era world with language that felt true to the time period. The research done into the artwork, artists, and the complex world of collectors versus museums was interesting and I found myself honestly caught by the idea of the National Art Museum. I just wish the story had been more about that and less about … whatever it was about. If you’ve read the other three books or are a fan of Regency-era romances, you might enjoy this book. Otherwise, I’d give it a pass.
Note from Elizabeth: A previous review of this story was published with inaccuracies for which I take sole responsibility. I have apologized to the author and to Jay and have made the necessary corrections.