The Lady’s Secret, by Joanna Chambers is a sexy and suspenseful Regency-era romance slightly reminiscent of that wonderful movie, Victor/Victoria. And just as in the movie, the lady has more than one secret, people see what they expect to see, and the clothes make the man, or woman.
Georgiana Knight and her brother Harry are part-owners of London’s Camelot Theatre. But in 1810 London, working in the theatre, even owning one, is not exactly respectable. And that’s the story of their lives. Georgy and Harry know that their father was the second son of the Duke of Dunsmore, but their mother was an actress. Their parents were married, they just can’t prove it–and the Duke disowned their father when he married their mother. As long as their father was the second son, it didn’t matter quite so much, and their parents had a very happy and loving marriage.
But the oldest son died without an heir. Which makes Harry the Duke of Dunsmore–except he can’t prove it. Their parents are dead, and their marriage lines seem to have disappeared without a trace. Harry wants to search the Dunsmore country estate, but he’s been there, and been thrown out.
Georgy decides to help Harry, one last time, on this mad quest to secure their birthright. She tries to get hired as a servant in the Dunsmore household, but they’re not hiring. Then her friend Lily discovers that one of the current Duke’s friends needs a valet, and that said friend is invited to a houseparty at the Duke’s estate in six weeks time. All Georgy has to do is get herself hired as Lord Nathaniel Harland’s valet, and survive in that position for six whole weeks. And to be a valet, she has to transform herself into a man.
Georgy has spent most of her life in the theatre. Not as a actress, but behind the scenes, doing props, scenery and makeup. She has also been blessed with a relatively slim and boyish figure. She sacrifices her hair, binds her breasts, and dresses herself from the costumes available. She doesn’t try to stand out, she tries to fade into the woodwork, she makes herself invisible. Capable, but otherwise nondescript. It works. She’s hired.
There’s only one thing that Georgy doesn’t count on. She finds Nathan Harland devastatingly attractive. And he thinks she’s just his valet. Not merely just another man, but part of the furniture, at that. She has to watch him bathe, help him dress, even shave him, all while pretending that she doesn’t see him as anything other than her employer, instead of as the first man to make her heart beat faster.
Nathan sees Georgy as a young man named George Fellowes. He likes George, finds him soothing to be around. George is always efficient, always careful, and knows exactly what to do to make his life easier. Until one incident when Nathan realizes that he might possibly be attracted to his young valet, and is totally unnerved by the realization.
Then one evening when he returns unexpectedly from an evening out, and discovers George in his, Nathan’s rooms, taking a bath, and finally realizes that the young man he has been attracted to is not a young man after all.
Escape Rating B+: There were two plots going on in this book; the romance between Nathan and Georgy, and the recovery of Harry and Georgy’s inheritance and the villain’s quite nasty attempts to prevent that recovery. Both come to a lovely happily ever after at the end. The irony of the villain providing the solution to the puzzle was quite delicious.
There are multiple points of view about gender identity and homophobia or the lack thereof in this society. For what would otherwise be a pretty light story, there’s a fairly serious discussion going on here.
Georgy spends most of the book successfully pretending to be a man. There will be questions about whether that would have been possible. There are a lot of historic precedents, not in upper class service, but in wartime, in the American Revolution and the U.S. Civil War on both the Union and Confederate sides. So before and after this time period. It clearly could be done if the person could avoid needing medical attention, which Georgy does.
Once Nathan reveals that he knows what Georgy is, his every action reveals the secret to the entire universe. The charade should have fallen apart at the point, but somehow it doesn’t. But I was enjoying the story enough that I didn’t let it bother me too much.
Victor/Victoria is about a female singer who can’t get work as a woman, so she pretends to be a man who works as a female impersonator. In other words, a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. However, the scene where the man who is attracted to “him” and has never been attracted to men before, discovers that Victor is really Victoria is when he spies Victoria taking a bath. The scene is a classic. So is the movie.