The ton is buzzing with gossip about one Lady Charlotte, recently arrived from Jamaica. Lady Charlotte is a fabulously wealthy widow with unparalleled beauty and a gift for making friends and managing an estate. While these are accomplishments enough, there is more to this Lady than meets the eye. Some twenty years ago, she had been a member of this very same ton and the son and heir of Sir Oliver Royce. But when her father died and her mother remarried, Charlotte—who was then known as Charles—discovered the pure evil of her new stepfather, the Earl of Weybridge. The Earl discovered Charles was to inherit Sir Royce’s estate and orchestrated a murder to be carried out on young Charles. The Earl’s hitman, sensing an opportunity for further profit, arranged to sell the child to slaving ships instead.
Having endured sexual enslavement before being bought by a Jamaican plantation owner, Charlotte was resigned to a life lived for the pleasure of others. Remarkably, however, the plantation owner was as kind as he was tolerant and the two fell in love and married. For the first time since her father died, Charlotte found peace living her life as the woman she always knew herself to be. When her beloved husband passed, Charlotte had grown into a confident, competent woman. With funds aplenty, she was determined to return to England and exact her revenge against her odious stepfather. Before she can begin executing her plan, however, Charlotte needs an ally in the ton. She turns to James Beaufort, Duke of Camberly and her own godfather, for help. If she is to have any chance at success, she must convince James that Charlotte is indeed the godson believed to be dead all these years, and that Charlotte’s very presence and possible exposure as a trans woman is not too great a risk for the Duke.
There was a lot to enjoy in Lady Charlotte’s Revenge. Johnson’s story differentiates itself from many historical queer romances I have read by focusing very much on the titular character and her plans for revenge with no larger (read: paranormal) suprastructure to compete with the human drama. For me, this meant I could really lose myself in Charlotte’s story, her experiences, and machinations. One of the first and most enduring threads is the sexual tension between Charlotte and her godfather, James. The story actually begins with their “reunion” of sorts, though Charlotte has to convince James that she is the godson James though had perished years ago. She offers some compelling backstory and backs that up with a telltale birthmark. I suppose the biggest leap of faith the reader has to make is that James is rather accepting of this revelation, even from the very beginning. This is tempered with his struggle to reconcile his appreciation of Charlotte with the role she used to have as his godson. His struggle is reflected well in the narration, often with him flustered as to what pronouns to use when thinking about Charlotte…not to mention Charlotte is the first person to arouse any carnal desire in the man since his wife passed. I will admit, I cheered for the guy when he genders her correctly, only to then slip in former pronouns before mentally confessing he’s just not sure. This actually continues well into the book, though the Duke isn’t central in every scene, so I didn’t feel like he was constantly (at least on-page) fighting with this reconciliation. Ultimately, as the main love interest for Charlotte, James does some soul searching and comes to the conclusion that biology be damned, Charlotte is a fine woman.
Despite the title and Charlotte’s own narrations, I felt like we spent at least as much time on her reconnecting with her mother, Lady Oliva Weybridge, and her half-sister, Lady Amelia, as we do on Charlotte orchestrating the financial ruin of her stepfather and stepbrother. The book is filled with scenes of Charlotte going about her business in society: chaperoning James’ daughter’s first Season, visiting a modiste (dressmaker), holding a wedding for her two closest confidants. In retrospect, it seems like the scenes where Charlotte is actively working on getting her comeuppance against her stepfather are more sparse, but also rather pointed content-wise. Charlotte’s initial plan of simply ruining her stepfather financially grows into a personal vendetta when Charlotte learns how poorly the Earl treats Charlotte’s mother.
Given the time period (Regency England) and the subject matter (trans identities), I was delightfully stunned to get to the end of the story and see that these two facts never really cause strife in the plot of the story. Clearly, Charlotte is initially a nervous wreck as she makes her debut (as Charlotte anyway) in the ton. There are a few key people Charlotte meets that she fears may reveal her past. However, these are only close calls insofar as Charlotte herself is afraid of being recognized as Charles Royce…but her disappearance at 13 and her rebirth as Charlotte (plus some fancy medicinal herbs from her Jamaican friend) mean Charlotte is secure in her female identity. I liked these hints at “discovery,” but appreciated that such an obvious route for adding drama to the story was not used. That said, Charlotte herself used language like “true identity” and “real identity” when discussing her physical anatomy. I just found it somewhat incongruous that Charlotte would use such language. At one point, marriage to James comes up and Charlotte declines, saying “…despite my outward appearance and my most sincere wishes not to be so, I am in fact male, and as far as I know it, marriages between men are not exactly legal.” (Emphasis mine)
There were a few elements of the story that seemed a bit overly convenient. Charlotte’s wealth, for example, seems to be obscene. About halfway through the book, we learn the exact dollar amount she must pay in order to get her childhood home back. While I have no idea what 9000 pounds means for Regency people, the fact that Charlotte herself seemed taken aback at the amount made me wonder if there were some limits on her wealth (or at least her immediate access to it). After that scene, however, it seems as if money is no object. She ends up offering about twice that amount to secure the estate, offers to house and support her mother and stepsister, has no quibbles about doubling the wages for the tenant farmers working her estate, et cetera and so on. It became sort of a joke to me because I didn’t understand/appreciate just how obscenely wealthy she was. The other scene where things feel very convenient comes when Charlotte eventually tells Oliva her entire backstory and how easily Oliva accepts that Charles is now Lady Charlotte. It’s not that I think Oliva lacked the capacity to accept her so easily, it was that I didn’t KNOW Oliva well enough to believe she is being genuine rather than just conveniently being written to give Charlotte the acceptance she craves.
On the whole, however, I enjoyed this portrayal of the period. Though no expert, I found the nods to sartorial customs and social niceties gave me a solid mental picture of the era. Charlotte is driven by her plans for revenge, but the on-page scenes feel well balanced between her being a cut-throat schemer and a dazzling upper class Lady. Anyone who enjoys queer fiction and historical pieces would probably really enjoy this book.