The Suffragette Scandal is an instant classic and a master work of romantic fiction.
In a genre that wallows in cultural necrophilia, you have to love characters fighting actively against the aristocracy and existing power structures. Or at least I do. Apparently, so does author Courtney Milan because she is doing it again in a novel that is easily one of the best historical romances ever written and one that simultaneously subverts and embraces the genre. Never afraid to beat romance tropes about the head and shoulders, The Suffragette Scandal, like The Countess Conspiracy before it, takes feminism and themes of identity and wraps a love story around them.
In 1877 Cambridgeshire, Frederica Marshall, Free to her friends, runs a newspaper that is, by, for, and about women and the issues they face, much like the romance genre. A radical who has chosen her battles carefully, she is the target of derision and efforts to silence her. Into Free’s life walks Edward Clark. He approaches her with a warning that someone is trying to sabotage her and an offer to help stop him. He makes it clear that he is not doing so out of altruism, he claims to be incapable of it, but because the enemy of his enemy is his friend. Already aware of the challenge Edward mentions, she decides to trust him even when he says she shouldn’t. Free knows better than Edward. She knows better full stop.
Free’s current problem comes in the form of Lord James Delacey, a man whose overtures she had the temerity to reject. It would seem farcical that a man should react so extremely to rejection, if we didn’t know that it is sometimes so sadly true. A woman standing up when virtually the whole world is telling her to sit down, Free makes a convenient public target for Delacey’s ire:“That’s precisely it. You said no, so that is what I am giving you. No newspaper, no voice, no reputation, no independence.”
Spending her life lighting candles against the darkness, Free is a magnificent character. Sanguine and undaunted, she hides none of her intelligence and knows she should not have to. She is not naive, she knows what she faces, but she has decided who she will be and acts accordingly. Her choices have a price she is willing to pay and she finds strength in small victories and in laying the groundwork for the victories to come, even the ones she knows she will never see. Her swain is one of those alluring rogues one encounters in romance. Edward has a disaffected view of the world and of himself, but he is also heartbreaking, appealing, and understandable. As a younger man, he tried to stand up and was forced down so violently that he tells himself he has withdrawn from considerations of right and wrong. Free makes him see that “maybe pessimism was as much a lie as optimism” and in each other they find a suitable partner to stand against the world with.
I cannot possibly do The Suffragette Scandal justice. It is everything a romance novel can be when giving full rein to the genre’s central tenet of a woman’s right to self-determination and in conjunction with Milan’s undoubtedly masterful skills as a writer. It’s a glorious homage to the brave and quiet warriors of the world insisting on what is right. It’s romantic. It’s funny and moving and entertaining. It’s on sale now and you should buy it.
Reviewer’s Note: As a captious reader (I maintain a list), I want to give kudos to Milan for the little details, too, such as the fact that Free’s long hair is held up by nineteen pins instead of the usual two, and, although Free is “small but mighty”, Edward acknowledges that their height difference makes kissing somewhat awkward.
A complete summary of Courtney Milan’s catalogue, with recommendations, can be found here.