Reader beware: In compliance with FTC guidelines, readers should be aware that my copy of this novel was obtained directly from Ms Milan in a multiple-title drawing she held at her blog in early December. Thank you.
Proof by Seduction, by Courtney Milan
Published by Harlequin Historical Romance, this novel is Ms Milan’s full length debut. Set in London during the late 1830s, Proof by Seduction follows the story of one Jenny Keeble—aka Mme Esmerelda, soothsayer and future diviner—and a marquess.
Here is the (much hated) back cover blurb:
She was his last chance for a future of happiness…
A gifted fortune-teller from a humble background, Jenny can make even the most sophisticated skeptic believe her predictions simply by batting her smoky eyelashes. Until she meets her match in Gareth Carhart, the Marquess of Blakely, a sworn bachelor and scientist.
He just didn’t know it yet
Broodingly handsome, Gareth is scandalized to discover that his cousin has fallen under the spell of “Madame Esmerelda,” and vows to prove Jenny a fraud. But his unexpected attraction to the fiery enchantress defies logic. Jenny disrupts every facet of Gareth’s calculated plan—until he can’t decide whether to seduce her or ruin her. Now, as they engage in a passionate battle of wills, two lonely souls must choose between everything they know… and the boundless possibilities of love.
I often complain about how inaccurate and misleading blurbs are, and this one is a good example of my gripe. Not only does it make the novel seem run-of-the-mill historical romance, but it also contradicts some of the best aspects of the characterization and background in Ms Milan’s writing.
Yes, Jenny is relatively successful at convincing her clients of her ability to communicate with the spirits and see the future, but no where in the book is it even implied that she’s famous or even well known among the ton—or that she aspires to such. In fact, other than Ned, Gareth’s cousin, it doesn’t seem as if her clientele is anything but moderately well-to-do. Further, the very first chapter emphasizes the pains Jenny takes to alter her appearance from young, vivacious and pretty, to elderly, matronly and unattractive. Between unnecessary layers of dress and unflattering makeup, the whole point for her is to convey an air of mystery and authority, not allure. The former are an essential element of her success, while the latter would put her in direct competition with at least some of her own clients—unhappy wives, for one.
Jenny Keeble is a well educated but illegitimate young woman who has spent over a decade building up her business as a fortune teller. Her creation, Mme Esmerelda, is discreetly successful; she has a number of repeat customers and gets new clientele through favorable word of mouth. Jenny’s goal in life is to achieve financial independence, and Mme Esmerelda is simply an effective tool to do so.
What makes Mme Esmerelda successful is not Jenny’s non-existent ability to ‘communicate with the spirits’ but her personality. She’s both observant and capable of great empathy, which allows her to discover her customers’ ‘tells’ and figure out what they want—and in some cases, need—to hear.
Among her best customers is the young Mr Carhart. Ned, cousin and heir to the Marquess of Blakely, suffers from what today we would probably call clinical depression—if not bipolar disorder. It is only Mme Esmerelda’s prediction of a better future that has allowed Ned to cope with his mind’s spiral into darkness in the past.
Lord Blakely, however, is convinced that her influence on his cousin can have no other purpose that lucre, and given his own skeptical nature and Ned’s position as his heir presumptive, he decides to free his cousin from such a nefarious influence.
The novel starts with the meeting of these two very different characters.
There is an obvious if passing similarity to the Cinderella tale, of course, but Jenny is no meek doormat—and definitely she is never TSTL.
One of the things I enjoy the most about Proof by Seduction is that the conflict between Jenny and Gareth is fairly realistic: lack of trust. He fears that her true goal is to control the future Marquess of Blakely, while she fears that his aim is to destroy her career and end her independence. Such fears are consistent with both their characters and their respective circumstances, and simultaneously fueled by the same.
At first glance, there is the difference in their backgrounds—noble birth and education in accordance with it, vs illegitimacy and poverty—which are evident in their reactions to each other’s environment. Then there are the differences in their personalities, which are only emphasized by the superficial similarities in the loneliness of their childhoods.
Jenny’s reaction to Gareth’s world is very realistic; all the things that he would take for granted—from dress to physical spaces—are alien to her. Yet there is neither envy nor lust in her for these; Jenny is very secure in who and what she is, socially speaking. Her ultimate ambition, financial security and independence, fits her personality and circumstances very naturally. More than anything, Jenny is pragmatic. She aims to achieve only what is realistically within her reach.
For his part, Gareth’s obliviousness to Jenny’s circumstances is both funny and sad. The incident with the evening dress is a perfect example of the unwitting distance between high society and the low-born: it doesn’t even occur to him that a woman who lives in two rooms wouldn’t have a maid to help her dress. Further, his isolation from his peers and family also rings true. If anything, it is his realization of how unnecessary such distance from his fellow humans is, that may be a bit too quick.
Something I found particularly interesting was Ms Milan’s take on mental illnesses. It seems to me that we often think of mental illnesses, particularly the relatively mild* ones, as new, born of modern times and idleness. In Proof by Seduction, though, two different facets of a mental disorder are explored: Ned’s depression and Gareth’s almost pathological awkwardness. (In fact, I am very intrigued by the idea that Ned is the hero of Ms Milan’s next novel.)
I have only one quibble with the novel, frankly: the use of Esmerelda. Seriously, it’s Esmeralda (says ME)
Proof by Seduction gets an 8 out of 10 from me.
*relatively mild in the sense that there are no manic attacks, sudden fits of rage and violence, etc.—not mild in the damage they inflict to those who suffer from them.