Once A Fallen Lady by Eve Pendle
Once upon a time, Lydia Taylor was a respectable young woman who aspired to marry an earl. That was a long time ago, though, and the balls, parties and pretty gowns belonged to another life… one where she wasn’t a single mother desperate to conceal the fact that she’s not really a widow, for her daughter’s sake. Living in poverty and gouged by an unscrupulous rent collector, when Annie falls ill she’s at her wits’ end until Annie’s schoolteacher appears on her doorstep with an entirely unlooked-for offer of help.
Eve Pendle writes her characters so well, such that Lydia’s fear makes absolute logical sense. There are no contrived leaps of logic here for the sake of the plot; Lydia’s fears are very real and the risks she must take have to be carefully weighed, every decision taken with the full awareness that she might be jeopardising everything she holds dear. Alfred isn’t operating with all the relevant operation for most of the book, but he immediately grasps the magnitude of the problem once Lydia tells him the truth.
Alfred’s a decent man, but also somewhat of an ambitious one. He had a dream of opening a school, but it’s an entirely unattainable dream unless he can marry a woman with money. A penniless widow with a child of her own definitely doesn’t fit the bill… and yet he can’t walk away, because there’s something about Lydia which calls him. Her pride, her quiet desperation, her determination; she’s very compelling.
I won’t spoil how it all resolves for the pair, but be assured that this is a romance and there is a happy ending. One of the villains of the book turns out not so villainous in the end, though I admit the grovel wasn’t quite as abject as I would have liked. Something I did very much enjoy was that not all the characters were lily-white; Sir Thomas, the major landowner of the area, is a Black man who made a fortune importing guano from the Caribbean, and his daughter makes an appearance late in the book - for just long enough for me to hope she gets her own story soon!
Five stars for an excellent Victorian romance about two ‘average’ people - a pleasant change from infinite dukes and earls.
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this title via NetGalley.