A Purely Private Matter by Darcie Wilde is the 2nd Rosalind Thorne Mystery—inspired by the novels of Jane Austen—which sees the audacious Rosalind strive to aid those in need while navigating the halls of high society.
Regency London has been much romanticized thanks to the BBC and Masterpiece Theater; for most, the setting immediately brings to minds the witty romances of Jane Austen. But life there was not always rosy and romantic for the women of the haute ton. Society was a stifling, constrictive cage for many, and ladies could be ruined at the slightest provocation.
Such is the case for the glamorous poet Mrs. Margaretta Seymore. Her belligerent husband is threatening to file a suit of “criminal conversation” against her oldest friend, infamous actor Fletcher Cavendish. As women are legally owned by their husbands, any man who interacts with them without the express permission of the husband can be sued for property damage under criminal conversation laws.
Should the suit go forward, Mrs. Seymore will be labeled an adulteress, her reputation completely destroyed.
“That this accusation should come so suddenly … I am bewildered.”
You're not, thought Rosalind. You're hurt and you're angry, but you understand this all too well.
“The fact of the matter is, Miss Thorne, I would not care whether Seymore brings his ridiculous suit or no, except for one thing.” She fumbled in her bag for a handkerchief to press against her eyes. “I am with child, Miss Thorne.”
Rosalind made no answer. Felicitations did not seem appropriate, given that Mrs. Seymore was struggling against tears that had much more to do with outrage than with sorrow.
“Seymore insists the child is not his. If he says this publicly, if he divorces me, then I am not the only one ruined. My child, my son or—God forbid!—my daughter, will be labeled a bastard and must carry the taint of the accusation, and their mother's disgrace, through their life.”
In her hour of need, Margaretta has turned to Rosalind Thorne, a “useful woman” with a knack for helping beleaguered gentlewomen who have problems that must remain secret.
Once a proper member of the haute ton herself, Rosalind has been forced to work for her living since her father, a profligate gambler, destroyed the family's fortune. An intelligent and determined lady with numerous connections, Rosalind is a quick and competent sleuth able to navigate both businesses and upper-class mansions.
She promises to uncover the writer of the poisoned-pen letters that have set Margaretta's husband on this path towards a lawsuit—but things become infinitely complicated when Fletcher Cavendish is stabbed to death following a dinner Rosalind herself had attended.
Captain Seymore was soundly drunk the night Cavendish died, and Margaretta, too, was out all night, her whereabouts uncounted for. Cavendish was a highly touted rake and could have angered any number of other husbands or seduced the wrong woman. The actor had many outstanding debts and a mysterious past.
There's no lack of potential suspects.
Rosalind begins to wonder just how truthful her latest client is being with her. This no longer seems as simple as a hypothetical love affair gone wrong or a cuckolded husband seeking revenge. And Fletcher Cavendish wasn't the only accomplished actor in the unfolding drama…
“I went to the theater last night, Mr. Townsend,” said Mrs. Seymore softly. “Quite late and quite on my own. I … I found … Mr. Cavendish.”
With this, Mrs. Seymore began to cry. These were not the cold shuddering sobs Rosalind had seen before. These were decorous tears that would have been easily blotted by a handkerchief, if she had one. The captain stared.
Mr. Townsend came forward at once and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to press into her hand. “There, now, Mrs. Seymore. You must compose yourself.”
And smile in thanks, thought Rosalind, a moment before Margaretta did just that. Margaretta also nodded, and sniffed once.
Rosalind felt the urge to salute her. For all her years in ballrooms and drawing rooms, she had seldom seen a woman who raised the public display of femininity to such a height. Rosalind looked toward Mr. Harkness. She could tell he drank down every word, and every show of emotion. She wished for some hint of what he thought of this little tableau. Absurdly but desperately, she wanted to know that he could see it for the performance it was.
Amidst the machinations of thwarted love, possessive jealousy, pragmatic self-defense, and the scheming of a family desperate to climb the social ladder, Rosalind finds her own personal life in quite a turmoil. Her trusted and loyal housekeeper/maid, Mrs. Kendricks, is threatening to leave her position. Two worthy, handsome men—childhood love and current Duke of Casselmaine, Devon Winterbourne, and the dashing Bow Street runner Adam Harkness—are pulling her heart in opposing directions. Then, to complicate matters further, there's a chance her long-lost sister Charlotte is still in London…
The Rosalind Thorne mysteries are loosely inspired by Jane Austen's novels, and Wilde has done a masterful job of recreating the tone and language of Austen's England. The now archaic laws and investigative practices—such as displaying bodies and holding public inquests in local pubs—puts into perspective how much things have changed while bringing the period fully to life.
Rosalind is a spirited, sympathetic heroine; while her position as a “useful lady” brings her into the orbit of criminality, she remains very much a product of her time, ever heedful of her reputation and standing in society. Wilde has given her just enough modern sensibilities to make her relatable but never oversteps in a way that divorces from the realities of the time.
A fun and varied cast—from Rosalind's closest friend Alice, an outspoken lady journalist, to Mr. Clements, the Argentinean owner of a circulating library—brightens the background and keeps the plot's pace brisk. There's just enough scandal to sharpen the edges, and the obvious villains of the piece are thoroughly, satisfyingly unlikable (while the not-so-obvious villains are surprisingly sympathetic).
Here is a mystery with a nice balance between the salacious and the sad, the gratifying and the tragic. A Purely Private Matter is only the second in the Rosalind Thorne series, but one hopes there will be many more to come.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.