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Book Cover

Sophie Irwin

A Lady’s Guide to Scandal

Bath, with its handsome squares and elegant crescents, the great watering hole of Georgian England, forms the backdrop to Sophie Irwin’s new novel, "A Lady’s Guide to Scandal". Her first novel, "A Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting", was a successful modern iteration of the Regency romance genre forever associated with Georgette Heyer. It became an instant best-seller and has already appeared in nearly thirty countries.

This novel’s heroine, Eliza Somerset, is ‘an unusually young widow of great fortune’, having been left estates worth £10,000 per annum by her late husband, the Earl of Somerset – a fortune in 1819. His death left Eliza a wealthy woman but their marriage had been one of convenience, childless and loveless. Her late husband described her in his will as ‘obedient and dutiful’ and ‘incapable of causing a raised eyebrow’. Eliza spends the rest of the novel proving her late husband wrong on both counts.

The novel opens with the reading of Eliza’s late husband’s will which reveals her unexpected inheritance. At the same time, we are introduced to the earl’s nephew and heir, Oliver, with whom, it soon transpires, Eliza had a romantic if chaste entanglement before her marriage to his uncle a decade earlier. Eliza’s vast inheritance, however, comes with a condition: that she brings no dishonour upon the Somerset name. The sole judge of this condition is to be the new earl, Oliver, Eliza’s nephew-by-marriage and erstwhile heartthrob.

The reading of the will complete, the newly enriched Eliza decamps from her late husband’s gloomy country pile to Bath to see out the remaining weeks of her period of mourning in the company of Margaret, her cousin and childhood friend. En route to Bath, the women’s carriage collides with a post chaise driven, it turns out, by the Earl of Melville.

Once established in Bath, Eliza’s affections are torn between her longing for her first love, Oliver, and her increasing attraction to the charismatic, unconventional Melville modelled, none-too-subtly, on Lord Byron. With these foundations in place, the plot twists and turns as Eliza tries to take control of her own destiny while navigating a passage between and around the competing attentions and attractions of the two earls.

The novel may in spirit be an old-fashioned Regency romance but Irwin adds some contemporary themes to the mix. The Earl of Melville is, it transpires, of mixed-race, Anglo-Indian descent, a nod, perhaps, to the success of "Bridgerton" while one of the novel’s subsidiary plot lines concerns a lesbian relationship which put this reviewer in mind of "Gentleman Jack".

Irwin’s use of language is clever. By the occasional use of words like ‘se’nnight’, ‘quidnuncs’, and ‘nuncheon’ and an old-fashioned, slightly formal phrasing, she creates a Regency tone without distracting the modern reader. Likewise, her command of period detail, the minutiae of dress, food and social etiquette is convincing. Similarly, an important element of the story concerns portrait painting, the essentials of which are elegantly rendered. The result is a thoroughly engaging, enjoyable novel which would be a splendid companion on the beach or poolside this summer.

Richard Hopton

Harper Collins

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