Book of the Month: Mistress of My Fate by Hallie Rubenhold
Author: Hallie Rubenhold
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Pub Date: January 8, 2013
What it’s About: Set during a period of revolution and turmoil, Mistress of My Fate is the first book in a trilogy about Henrietta Lightfoot, a young woman who was abandoned as a baby and raised alongside her cousins, noble children of a lord and lady. At just sixteen years old, circumstance and a passionate love affair tear Henrietta away from everything she knows, leading to a new life fending for herself on the streets of 18th century London as a courtesan, gambler, and spirited intellect of the city.
About the Author:Hallie Rubenhold is an historian and broadcaster and an authority on British eighteenth-century social history. She has written two works of non-fiction to critical acclaim: The Convent Garden Ladies and Lady Worsley's Whim: An Eighteenth-Century Tale of Sex, Scandal and Divorce. In addition to writing books, articles and reviews, Hallie regularly appears on TV in the UK as an expert contributor to documentaries. Hallie lives in London with her husband.
Why you should buy it: I was lucky enough to get a cover blurb from Hallie Rubenhold when Scandalous Women was about to come out two years ago (has it really been that long?), so when she contacted me and offered me the chance to review Mistress of My Fate, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately life intervened, and it’s only until now that I actually had the chance to sit down and read the book over the long Easter weekend.
Mistress of My Fate is juicy page-turning adventure reminiscent of Richardson’s Clarissa with a few gothic overtones thrown in for good measure. Narrated by Henrietta herself, the novel is told in a witty, confessional style, drawing in the reader with rich details of the 18th century to great effect. Raised in the country, Henrietta Ingerton is an orphan, the niece of the Earl and Countess of Stavourley, raised alongside her more noble cousins. From childhood, Henrietta is aware that due to her station in life, the best she can hope for is marriage to the local vicar or to spend her life as the spinster companion to dazzling but spoilt cousin Lady Catherine. Her life is turned upside down when she meets Lord Allenham who is courting her cousin. She falls deeply in love with him and to her shock and surprise her feelings are returned. However Allenham’s estate is heavily in debt and he needs Lady Catherine’s dowry to restore it to its former glory. The fickle finger of fate intervenes and Henrietta’s life is turned upside down.She learns the truth of her parentage, and is suspected of murder. When her uncle proposes that she marry against her wishes, she flees first to her beloved and then to London where somewhat naïvely becomes a member of the demimonde. She makes her way through London's gambling halls, ballrooms and bedrooms, before finally taking matters and her life into her own hands.
I enjoyed this book tremendously but I have to confess that there were times that I wanted to shake Henrietta; she wandered occasionally into the Too Stupid to Live territory. I began to wonder if Henrietta was a little bit too sweet, innocent and trusting for her own good. On the other hand, it was nice to see a heroine who didn’t instantly become jaded. Henrietta’s relationship with Allenham is almost too good to be true, they read Rousseau and Goethe together, and he appreciates not just her intelligence but her talent as an artist as well. Henrietta becomes enamored of The Sorrows of Young Werther after Allenham mentions the book to her. She becomes obsessed with it and the parallels to the love triangle between herself, Allenham and Lady Catherine. It’s not until the final third of the book that Henrietta finally becomes the mistress of her fate. For most of the book, she seems to make reckless and rash decisions without really thinking things through. When she arrives in London, she tends to ignore the advice of her more worldly friends.The book for me really took off once Henrietta, who becomes fearful and paranoid when Allenham disappears, runs off recklessly to London to find him. Rubenhold proceeds to dirty up Henrietta a bit, slowly peeling away her innocence and naiveté as she’s forced to survive the only way a woman in her position could at that time, by becoming a member of the demimonde where she consorts with some of the most notorious rakes and birds of paradise in 18th century London including Gertrude Mahon and Elizabeth Armistead. She even makes the acquaintance of some of London’s leading actors such as Sarah Siddons and Mrs. Jordan when Henrietta is forced by her new protector to play the role of Maria in a production of School for Scandal (I confess that this was one of my favorite parts of the book).
It will be interesting to see what happens to Henrietta in the second volume as the 18th century comes to a close, and she experiences the dawn of the Regency era.
Verdict: A wonderful journey through the late 18th century, filled with fascinatingly juicy historical details, a passionate love story, and a heroine who learns to learns to take control of her own life.