Since there’s no such thing as a perfect person, we can’t say that Julie LeMense has written a perfect Regency romance.
Darn close, though.
Once Upon a Scandal nails it on so many levels: plot and characters driven by the era they live in; smooth, clean writing; a fully realized heroine who’s smart, vulnerable, resourceful, flawed, compassionate, and funny; an aristocrat hero who’s believable as a man; and a fresh, twisty plot that demands pages be turned to find out what happens next.
Because the story is a romance, we can expect a happy ending. How Jane and Benjamin are ever going to find it, however, remains a mystery until the end. Both are trapped in their roles in society and hide dangerous secrets behind their identities. Jane actually has to give up her identity and become a false person in order to escape poverty and shame. Her sacrifice, it turns out, helps save her country from a traitor—who just might be her own father.
Operating in disguise creates a satisfying turnabout, wherein the honest woman rejected by society allures the snobs, doyennes, and chauvinists into eating out of her dishonest hand. Jane observes: “Their strict rules and codes of conduct had been instituted for one reason and one alone: to prove themselves superior. They didn’t judge a person’s suitability by intellect, achievement, or even kindness.”
That thought forms the theme of the novel and the deceptions practiced throughout it.
Jane’s identity switcheroo is engineered by Benjamin for his own noble yet selfish purposes, though he soon realizes he’s bitten off more than he can chew and falls crazy in love with the real Jane—jeopardizing both of their masquerades.
The moral and behavioral strictures of society during England’s Regency period seem unbelievable to those of us reading about it generations later. But they were painfully real at the time and forced many a clandestine affair. This suppression gives plausibility to the characters’ secrets and skulduggery; and the era’s lack of technology as we know it allows them to get away with stunts that would be immediately caught, and widely broadcast, today. Thus, when modern anachronisms appear in the narrative, they draw attention to themselves. The word “feminist,” for example, used in conversation by Jane in 1813, was not actually coined until decades later. Bloopers like this in such a period-sensitive novel raise doubts about the rest in the reader’s mind.
Fortunately, the story holds its own with romantic intrigue and close brushes with disaster. The result is a conflict parfait, with Jane and Benjamin’s impossible love at the top, overlying the contradictions and inequities of their society, which forms a harsh class division between the haves and have-nots, in a country deep at war. In this multi-layer mess, how can anyone dream that true love will conquer all?
Jane and Benjamin give it their best shot in this classy, cork-screwy romance that turns scandal on its head.