I was expecting a Regency romance when I began Mistress of My Fate, the first in The Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot, by Hallie Rubenhold, the intimate first person narrative and beautiful, detailed prose of which caught me one night. What I got instead was a Regency tragedy: the ruination of a young girl gently raised but always separated by birth from the upper echelons. The romance died within the first 200 pages and the story only returned to its romantic beginnings in the last four pages of the book.
The heroic gentleman to which Henrietta is exposed is more flawed than the gallant Lord Orville of Evelina’s acquaintance. Lord Orville is a hero with whom I can fall in love, a veritable knight in tails. Lord Allenham, who seemed on his way to being Henrietta’s Lord Orville, broke my heart by compromising Henrietta’s virtue, though I understand his reasoning; it is much like Willoughby’s reason for snubbing Marianne. But Willoughby left Marianne heartbroken but uncompromised, leaving Marianne able to go on to have her happily ever after with the wealthier and more steadfastly in love Colonel Brandon, which makes Lord Allenham a bigger jerk than Willoughby and more like Wickham without a Darcy to force him back onto a more righteous track.
I held with Lord Allenham even through his forbidden feelings for Henrietta and his decision to marry her cousin in order to provide Henrietta with a loving home in which to live out her spinsterhood. And while he swept me from my feet again during the last four pages, I blame him for her ruination, and so cannot praise his virtue as I can Orville’s or even Darcy’s and know I should not love him as I feel I can safely love and admire the other two.
Allenham’s decision to make Henrietta his lover without ever intending to make her his wife jolted me out of the romance that I expect from this sort of Regency novel, but it was Lord Stavourley’s earlier confession that Henrietta is his bastard that ought to have informed me that I was reading a tragedy not a romance. From then, the story became, it seemed, almost a soap drama, with Hetty falling prey to every ill that can befall a gently raised young lady of her time.
Until I had recovered my senses from that jolt, I actively disliked the book. Once I had reconfigured my expectations, I was able to read through the middle of the book but without much joy. Hetty’s is a hard life, and Rubenhold does not tidy it but instead gives all the gritty details of Hetty’s life as a kept woman. A reader ought to know that and be prepared for it going in. Here are affronts, rapes, unwanted pregnancies, and abortions.
The final four pages of the book, where the romance sweeps the grime from the previous pages, tease me to read the sequel. The mystery of Allenham’s abrupt disappearance remains unsolved, though I have guesses, and what I have are like carrots before my face. Well done, Miss Rubenhold. Whether those carrots will remain fresh enough to be tempting when the sequel comes to print is doubtful, but it might be worth a trip to the library.
Rubenhold, Hallie. The Confessions of Henrietta Lightfoot, Book One: Mistress of My Fate. New York: Grand Central-Hachette, 2011.
This review is not endorsed by Hallie Rubenhold, Grand Central Publishing, Hachette Book Group, or the original UK publisher Transworld Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader. The review is of an uncorrected proof sent to Barnes & Noble by the publishers.