Tuesday 23 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 21: "An Offer from a Gentleman - with 2nd Epilogue" by Julia Quinn

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 5 stars

Sophie Beckett is the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Penwood, but until he marries, her life isn't all too difficult. Her father never acknowledges her as anything but his ward, but sees to it that she has a proper education and that she never lacks for anything but actual parental affection. Then he gets married and Sophie's new stepmother Araminta can't stand the constant reminder of her husband's weakness. Her eldest daughter is awful to Sophie and the youngest is too scared of her mother and sister to protest about their mistreatment much. When the Earl of Penwood dies, Sophie isn't told about the dowry her father provided her with, and is forced to become an unpaid maid of all work to her stepmother and stepsisters.

Then, one magical evening, the Bridgertons are hosting a masked ball and after having seen her step-family off, the servants surprise Sophie with a dress, mask and shoes they've borrowed from Araminta's closet. Sophie gets to go to the ball, if only for a few hours. She catches the attention of the eldest unmarried Bridgerton son, Benedict, and they share some banter, a dance and one kiss before Sophie has to rush off to be home before her stepmother and -sisters discover her audacity. Unfortunately, Sophie leaves a glove behind, and with the help of his mother, Benedict manages to deduce that the mystery woman he became infatuated with had some connection to the Penwood family. He visits Araminta, but doesn't recognise any of her daughters. His visit clues Araminta into the fact that Sophie was at the ball, and she sends Sophie packing with nothing but her hard-earned savings from before her father died to her name.

Two years later, Sophie runs into the man of her dreams, Benedict Bridgerton once more. He is attending a party hosted by the son of the family Sophie works for. With his parents away, the son believes he can finally sexually assault his parents' pretty maid, but luckily Benedict interrupt him and his friends before they can actually do more than grope Sophie. She is at first startled to see him, then shocked and disappointed that he doesn't know her. The only thing that's kept her going for the last two years are the happy memories she has from that evening, and while she realises that now she is thinner, more gaunt, has shorter hair and isn't wearing a pretty dress or an elegant mask, she was still hoping that he would instantly recognise her. She doesn't realise that Benedict has been dreaming of her and thinking about that evening all the time as well, refusing his mother's entreaties to settle down as he can't get the thought of the beguiling mystery woman out of his head.

Benedict refuses to leave Sophie to fend for herself and offers her lodgings until they can go to London, where he can help her find a position. When he is struck down with a fever, Sophie nurses him back to health until his housekeeper and her husband return, to take care of both of them. While Benedict doesn't exactly recognise her, he feels more comfortable with Sophie than he can remember doing since he danced with his mystery woman. He's very attracted to her, and wants her to be his mistress. Sophie has sworn never to make her mother's mistake and settle for being some man's mistress. She's also had a miserable enough life that she would never risk bearing an illegitimate child of her own. Though she returns the attraction, she rebuffs Benedict and asks him to respect her wishes. He takes her to London, to work for his mother. Violet Bridgerton, however, as well as Benedict's younger unmarried sisters clearly recognise the feelings between the couple and do their very best to meddle and matchmake.

An Offer from a Gentleman is Julia Quinn's Cinderella retelling and it is absolutely delightful. Of all the Bridgerton books, this one is my absolute favourite. Benedict is a wonderful hero, who literally comes to the rescue of victim of circumstance Sophie more than once, yet while she needs saving every so often, she is so strong and resilient and stands up for herself so admirably throughout the book. All the Bridgerton siblings resemble each other, and on a first look, the only thing that distinguishes Benedict from his other brother is that he's the tallest. Most people don't see him, they see just a Bridgerton, or "number two". They know that he's wealthy, handsome and sought after, but they don't know what drives him or what he's looking for in life. Not really all that comfortable in the city, he thrives in the countryside, and loves to draw and paint. He's never told anyone, not even any of his siblings, but Sophie discovers his sketches and is awestruck.

Even during their very first meeting, she correctly identifies him from the many reports she's read in the Lady Whistledown gossip papers. Benedict is surprised she's going by written accounts and hasn't actually ever met any of the Bridgertons. The fact that Sophie sees him for himself and takes him as an individual, yet also immediately takes to his family and is loved and accepted by them. He doesn't really want Sophie to have to work as a maid, but she refuses to become a kept woman, no matter how strongly she feels about him and how sizzling the attraction is between them. This frustrates him immensely, and he keeps pressing his suit. Sophie has the occasional lapse, because it's hard to resist when a devastatingly handsome man you are in love with sets out to seduce you. She still sticks to her principles and does her best to explain to Benedict why she can't give in entirely, all the while trying to keep her real identity secret from him.

The fact of her illegitimacy has been hanging over Sophie her entire life. She had a friendless, fairly loveless childhood with only the affection of servants. Initially hopeful when her father got married, she quickly realised that having a stepmother and stepsisters was only going to make things worse, and once her father died, her life became one of drudgery and verbal abuse. Thrown out with barely a stitch to her name, she was forced to make a living without any references and has been lucky enough to escape sexual assault or rape during her years of servitude. The closest she comes is the near-rape that Benedict saves her from. He can't understand why she'd choose to stay a maid when she could live a life of luxury as his mistress, wanting for absolutely nothing. Sophie isn't particularly surprised that he doesn't offer her marriage - she has no illusions that a maid could marry an eligible gentleman of the ton. Having to live as his mistress and eventually seeing him marry someone else would break her heart, like it most likely did her mother's and she can't ever sentence a child to the same fate she suffered, not even when Benedict swears he would do right by any children they might have.

Having lived a life of luxury and privilege, Benedict really can't understand the position Sophie is in. He gets angry every time she rebuffs him, not able to contemplate formalising their relationship because of their class difference. It's quite clear that the Dowager Viscountess, his mother, isn't too bothered by Sophie's apparent inferiority, and from Sophie's bearing, education and speech suspects that the young woman is much more than she appears to be presenting herself as. Violet and Benedict's younger sisters do what they can to throw the couple in each other's way as much as possible and Violet is one of the people who come to the rescue towards the end when Sophie's stepmother has discovered she's back in London and is determined to make her life miserable once more.

Even with Benedict's bullheadedness and determination to make Sophie his mistress, he never once forces himself on Sophie, just tries to persuade her. It takes him time, and a conversation with his mother to realise that he needs to go about things differently. He's a very convincing Prince Charming to Sophie's Cinderella and Araminta and her eldest daughter are truly despicable villains who make Sophie's life a misery. The younger daughter, Posy, has grown a stronger backbone in the years since Sophie was forced to leave their home, and finally stands up to her mother and comes to Sophie's defence in the end.

The second epilogue for this book mostly concerns her, actually and how she finally finds a suitor worthy of her. Sophie and Benedict are happily married in the countryside and Benedict is pursuing his art career. Posy comes to visit and they set her up with an eligible young man, to very successful results. As is the case with all the second epilogues, the story is throwaway and doesn't really add much to the general story, but it is nice to see yet another happy ending.

My re-read of this has done nothing but confirm that this is a lovely book. If you haven't read it, you are in for a treat. Some of Ms. Quinn's more recent books have been hit and miss, but this is her writing at its finest.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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