Mistress of My Fate, By Hallie Rubenhold

Step away from the bodice

James Kidd
Sunday 10 July 2011 00:00

Mistress of my Fate is a full-blooded historical romp that is eager to please.

The debut novel by the historian Hallie Rubenhold is set in England at the start of the French Revolution, and it leaves no late 18th-century narrative convention untried. Spirited heroine caught between self-determination and social restriction? Check. Family saga with more scandals than the News of the World newsroom? Check. Handsome hero with statuesque build and bulging trouser? Check. Dandies, letters gone astray, and well-meaning prostitutes? Great Big Check.

Henrietta Lightfoot is the ugly duckling of her wealthy family, playing second fiddle to her accomplished cousin, Catherine. When the handsome Lord Allenham hoves into view everyone expects Catherine to capture his heart. So Hetty is not a little shocked when Allenham woos her – with Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther, the literate devil. Catherine responds by kicking the manure out of Henrietta, then kicking the bucket. The 18th century, eh?

Henrietta's guardian then insists that she must marry a wilted piece of celery called the Reverend John Pease. Hetty does a runner, landing first at Allenham's estate in East Anglia. After some blissful coupling, Allenham mysteriously disappears. Just what is up with those secret political meetings about French Revolutions? Hetty follows him to London, where she learns that her mother was a heroine of the demi-monde, earning the patronage of rich men through sex. Henrietta enters the family business, in the hope of tracing her beau, now en Paris.

The title, which alludes to Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece, suggests Rubenhold's more high-minded intentions: to narrate women's lives candidly in their joys and sorrows. Henrietta tells her story to exert the sort of control over her life that life itself denied: "You may think me a radical, but I have always been of the mind that womankind is rendered helpless by her dependency upon men."

Occasionally, the enterprise comes perilously close to pastiche: "Soon his hands were upon my hair, my waist and running at the edge of my bodice." Blimey! What saves the day is Rubenhold's research, her vivid period details and exuberant narrative. Henrietta is especially pleasing: two parts Lizzie Bennett and Tom Jones's Sophia Western to one part Moll Flanders – with a splash of Fanny Hill.

Episode one of a trilogy, Mistress of my Fate is superior commercial fiction. Most importantly, it is great fun.

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