Book Review for “The Lady and the Highwayman” by Sarah M. Eden.
During Victorian England, there were essentially two types of books available. Of course, one was considered literature; well written tales that both middle and upper classes found worthy of reading, known as “silver-fork” novels. The other was what they called “penny dreadfuls” which were cheap (costing only a penny), serialized novels of high adventure and lowbrow content. Fletcher Walker was one of the favorite authors of the latter kind, but lately he’s lost his standing to an unknown newcomer called Mr. King. Elizabeth Black is also an author, but known for the former kind of novels, since writing anything less would put the school for girls that she runs in disrepute. That’s why she has to hide her identity with those penny dreadful stories she’s been writing on the side. When these two come together under unlikely circumstance, they both have secrets, but they find they also have some mutual goals.
From the title of this review, I think you can already see that you’ll be getting more than you bargained for if you decide to read this novel. What I mean by this is that Eden not only tells us the story of Walker and Black, but she also gives us two penny dreadful novels – one by Walker (about street urchins and vampires), and the other being the eponymous story by Mr. King, aka Elizabeth Black. This makes for a rollicking story where some of the interactions between Walker and Black end up in Mr. King’s story.
The other parallel for these two protagonists is that they’re also involved in education. As noted, Black has her school, which caters to the middle classes, or girls whose higher birth no longer matches their family’s level of financial resources. Giving this education to these types of girls means that they’ll have a chance at making their own way in life, since their marriage prospects are less than stellar. Walker’s involvement in education is through his support of what they call a “ragged school” which offers street urchins and homeless children just enough of an education to keep them from turning to crime or being abused by criminals. The problem is, getting those kids off the streets. That’s where Walker’s “Dread Penny Society” comes in. This is a group of penny dreadful authors who are willing to do some unsavory, and sometimes less than legal things, for the sole purpose of rescuing these youngsters.
So, what we have here is an historical fiction novel that many might consider a romance novel as well. And yes, there is some romance there between our protagonists. However, once again I find that what keeps this from being overly romantic is that Eden gives both of her protagonists’ goals that have nothing to do with falling in love. Furthermore, the obstacles that they both face in their separate lives, as well as together, are highly consuming of their time and energy. Their attraction for each other just happens along the way, and there are no small number of obstacles for them ever becoming a recognized couple.
Aside from the addition of the two penny dreadful stories, what I liked the most about this novel was Eden’s portrayal of Elizabeth Black. Here’s a woman who herself might have had to make an unhappy marriage, if she could even find a husband willing to take her, who instead becomes a teacher and later starts her own school for girls like herself. Eden gives Elizabeth not only a strong will, but quite a wonderful sense of humor, together with a lovely level of humility. When we read her penny dreadful, we know that she’s often drawing on her own life, while adding bits of horror and fantasy to keep her target audience’s attention. In addition, Elizabeth’s concern for those less fortunate than herself is admirable, and something I totally identify with. Yes, Elizabeth is one of those characters you’d like to sit down with a cup of tea or coffee with, and you know you’d have lots to talk about.
However, I must admit that I wasn’t as thrilled with how Eden developed Fletcher Walker. While I can’t say I disliked him (I actually liked him very much), I didn’t find him as sympathetically drawn as Elizabeth, and I also felt he was a bit inconsistent. There were times when his colloquial use of language felt strained or even over the top, rather than natural. Yes, we understand that he started out just like the urchins he’s trying to help, but now that he’s been able to rise above that, and he’s now mixing with some people who were always on a higher social rung than him, surely he has learned better grammar and sentence structure by now. Interestingly enough, I found that his penny dreadful story was told using less slang and better syntax than he spoke with himself. That’s why I thought that at a minimum, he could have used less idiomatic language when speaking to Elizabeth and others of her ilk, even if he reverted to his old habits around those from his own background.
I should also note that although the ending had no special twist, it was quite cleverly done, even though Eden leaves us with a serious unresolved conflict. Mind you, I have a feeling that had Eden tried to resolve this, the only resolutions I can think of are either trite or essentially unbelievable, so I guess she decided to get out while the going was good. Smart choice, if you ask me. In short, while I didn’t find this book to be perfect, it was quite a fun read, with a very witty and special female protagonist, and some resounding action scenes. That the penny dreadful stories had some horror, fantasy, and thriller/adventure aspects, while the main plot included nice dollops of romance (as did one of the penny dreadful stories), and some humorous turns as well, means that Eden ticks so many boxes for historical fiction, I can’t see anyone being be put off. Therefore, I’ll recommend this with a healthy four out of five stars.
Shadow Mountain Publishing will release “The Lady and the Highwayman” by Sarah M. Eden on September 2, 2019. This book is/will be available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.