From the desk of Katie Patchell:
Pop Quiz: Which of the following is a penny dreadful — a) the title of a recent TV series, b) a term for a gory but thrilling story or c) a serialized novel from the 1800s?
If you answered any of the three, you would be correct! Besides being the name of a 2014 TV show, penny dreadfuls were serialized stories during the 19th century. They’re most famously known for their affordable price and plots filled with all kinds of thrills, such as hauntings and kidnappings. Sarah M. Eden, an author previously reviewed by Austenprose, visits this colorful world of penny dreadfuls in this, one of her latest novels, The Lady and the Highwayman.
“Rumor had it, Fletcher Walker wasn’t born but had simply appeared one day, swaggering down the streets of London.” (Chapter 1)
It is London, 1865, and Fletcher Walker is a man on top of the world. From pickpocket to the author of wildly popular penny dreadfuls – and leader of a philanthropic secret society – he has created something unshakable. Or so he thinks. His confidence in himself and his mission to change the world is threatened when a new “king” of penny dreadfuls arrives on the scene. And this king, Mr. King, is none other than:
Elizabeth Black — headmistress of Thurloe Collegiate School, a respected member of society, and secret author. As the male writer King, Elizabeth enjoys growing fame, especially for her serial, The Lady and the Highwayman. Yet she soon discovers that she has at least one enemy intent on destroying King’s career. When Fletcher enlists her aid to help him track down King, little does he know that he’s gone to the very last person in the world to wish him success.
As Elizabeth becomes more involved with Fletcher, she struggles to prevent him from finding out her secret identity, while at the same time, trying to further her goal in discovering the truth about the shadowy Dread Penny Society and Fletcher’s involvement. Will she reveal her secret identity so he can reign as the penny dreadful king again, as he wants? Or can she find a different way to help the people of London as Mr. King, while staying true to her desires?
If anyone finds the premise of The Lady and the Highwayman intriguing, I can promise you that this brief synopsis is only a flavor. This novel is brimming with romance and delightful double-dealing. In addition to both, there’s also the added element of the mysterious Dread Penny Society. Their admirable motto is: “For the poor and infirm, the hopeless and voiceless, we do not relent. We do not forget. We are the Dread Penny Society.” (Chapter 1) The members’ quest to save the hurting and abused adds another layer to this novel that gives it extra heart and depth.
Elizabeth is a fascinating heroine. As an author of (well-written) penny dreadfuls who choose to write under a pseudonym, she is naturally at odds with Fletcher and his intimidatingly thorough hunt for answers. I loved the fact that they were working together throughout, yet also at cross-purposes. It makes for a thrilling and often hilarious read. A genius twist by Sarah M. Eden was to add excerpts from Fletcher’s and Mr. King’s (Elizabeth’s) serials, The Vampire’s Tower and The Lady and the Highwayman, respectively. From there, readers can see what each lead is preoccupied with, both for good and for mischief. One of my favorite examples happens after Fletcher’s cold behavior to Elizabeth causes her to plot revenge:
“There was nothing to be done but write him into the next installment of The Lady and the Highwayman and make certain something miserable happened to him. One did not treat an author poorly without consequences.” (Chapter 9)
Unlike with the likable heroine, Fletcher got on my nerves. If you’re looking for a hero in the vein of Georgette Heyer or Jane Austen, you’ll be disappointed in him. On the other hand, if you love Dickensian heroes then you’ll be rooting for him from page one. Dickens’ exaggeratedly precocious characters — despite his skilled prose — make me want to forcibly transplant them to Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm or Emma Woodhouse’s household to gain some sense and humility. Fletcher needed a good dose of this too. From his cocky attitude (he sat on a throne in Dread Penny meetings, folks – an actual throne) and constant street slang, to his pompous goal to wreck a fellow author’s career to keep money flowing for his mission, he was a character I couldn’t stand, despite his good deeds. A hero in a romantic novel is supposed to make the heroine fall in love with him, and perhaps more important, the reader. The Lady and the Highwayman’s hero failed for me. Since every reader is attracted to something different, however, you might just fall madly in love with Fletcher Walker.
Despite my negative response to the hero, I still recommend The Lady and the Highwayman for your next historical romance read. Its heroine is delightfully brave and smart, and the cat-and-mouse nature of the plot is sure to keep you turning pages until you arrive at its perfect conclusion.
4 out of 5 Stars
The Lady and the Highwayman (Proper Romance Victorian), by Sarah M. Eden
Shadow Mountain (September 3, 2019)
Trade paperback, eBook, & audiobook (384) pages
Cover image courtesy of Shadow Mountain Publishing © 2019; text Katie Patchell © 2020, Austenprose.com