My review contains spoilers and they're mostly my thoughts as I went with the book...
I wasn’t surprised to find that Emily May’s The Unmasking of a Lady a wonderfully sweet read. I’m a big fan of her historical romances under Emily Larkin and have been meaning to read the Emily May books for a while now. So glad that I finally did as it didn’t disappoint!
Arabella Knightley is the granddaughter of an Earl. By all means, her life should’ve been a fairytale. If not, at least she shouldn’t want for anything while growing up. Sadly, that can’t be said about our Bella. Her years as a child, growing up in a slum alongside her fallen woman of a mother (I hate to call her a prostitute, you’ll know why in a bit), may have shaped her perspective of people, and life in general, but it didn’t steal away her inherent goodness of character. Arabella is kind and generous. Life has taught her lessons from experience no kid should have to face but it has also given her some directions on how she should structure her own. That is, by doing good for those children of the slum; of whom no one ever thinks. No one cares about whatever happens to them. They’re forgotten just as easily since the moment they’re born.
You ask, how can a girl grown up in a slum is going to help these kids? For that we have to delve a little further into her ill fated parents’ life. Arabella’s father was the second son of the Earl of Westcote. A painter and artist, he went to Paris at a young age and fell in love with a Parisian beauty; a love young woman from a good family. Unfortunately, Arabella’s mother’s whole family was executed in one fell swoop, so she had to leave with her husband to an unknown land. In London, the pompous, fool of an Earl, disowns his son because he didn’t approve of the match. He had the heir and a spare, so what does it matter if this one discarded, right? Both Edward and Therese were forced to live in baseline poverty, with meager income from the selling of his paintings. Then Arabella was born. She even had good life with her parents until Edward succumbs to a fever. Without any other way to support herself and her child, Therese seeks help from her in-laws, only to be turned out by the pathetically prideful Earl once again.
You can only imagine what to could happen to a beautiful, young French widow without anyone to her support her in this unforgiving world. She had to become mistresses of some of her husband’s friends, then find other protectors so that Arabella never goes hungry or without shelter. There was a blank in between, when for some reasons, Therese finds herself forced to work on the streets, until the day she also succumbs to consumption and God knows what else, and finally leaves this cruel earth. Now you know why I can’t bring myself to call Mrs. Westcote a prostitute. She was a kind, loving mother who had done everything possible to take care of her Arabella. In the story, you’d find more of her time with her mother in Arabella’s musings, and learn that Therese didn’t want to become a prostitute. I mean who does? She’d done other dead end, small jobs too but in the end, nothing was enough.
After her passing, at the age of 12, somehow Arabella finally finds herself at the doorstep of her grandparents, summoned by them. She was taken in, fed, given lessons, taken care of every other way but there was no deep, abiding affection between her and her grandparents. In the meantime, providence or whatever you call it, both of Arabella’s uncles die tragic deaths, living the Earl without an heir. His only grand issue was now the daughter of the ‘French whore’, whom he’d kicked out without a second thought. Surprisingly enough, the Earl, being aware of his granddaughter’s brilliance, be it her paintings or at pianoforte, makes her his sole heir. The title of course reverts to a distant cousin after the Earl’s death, alongside their country seat. Arabella would become an heiress on her 25th birthday; something she’s been waiting eagerly for, and not because of the reason you’re thinking. Arabella hates London, she hates seasons and she needs that money for a personal cause.
Why does Arabella hate London and the Season? That’s another story where she got her heart broken by this snotty guy, the nephew of a Duke, Mr. St. Just. The St. Justs, though untitled, have as much wealth and influence as, if not more, of a Duke. Adam St. Just is no different than his predecessors; handsome, distant and super arrogant; as if he’s born and bred into arrogance, which is quite true, as you’ll find from Adam’s musings. Six years ago, on Arabella’s first season something happened. Adam was young and rather impulsive. He saw a young Arabella and wanted her on the first sight. Her beauty and mysterious dark eyes blew him away. But the news of him dancing with her reached his tyrannical father, who not only forbade Adam to mingle with the ‘French whore’s daughter’ but also sends him packing to the continent. Enraged at his father, Adam strikes out at Arabella. Very immature and selfish thing to do, but he was also in his cups when he did it. He used Arabella and the smell of gutter in one sentence. *tsk tsk tsk*
A sobriquet was born out of Adam’s comment; Miss Smell O’Gutter. The name stuck; a sentence that forever changed Arabella’s life making it hell. On top of being called as the French whore’s daughter, now the whispers, the ‘new’ name calling, the laughter behind her back became almost too much for her. But Arabella didn’t shy away or hide behind the walls of her home. She became more vivacious, excelling in everything; from poise to her skills at art to music and dancing. No one could beat her in any of it. In the passing years, the gossip has died down quite a bit but not entirely. People still call her that behind her back but Arabella dresses impeccably and deports herself equally gracefully to beat the gossip. She equals her dressing up as her ‘armor’; tiny arrows of vicious gossip strike and fall down without hurting her. A coping mechanism no doubt, but it has worked so far.
What hadn’t changed in the intervening years though, was Arabella’s deep dislike of the snobbish Adam St. Just. St. Just, who is utterly handsome with his golden brown hair streaked with gold, with his baritone voice and grey eyes. From everything I could feel that Arabella was smitten with him when they first met, no wonder the barb of his comment struck her most viciously. She kept saying she felt this sense of betrayal, though there shouldn’t be having any such feeling as she’d just met him at that time. But it told me plenty.
Yet, that doesn’t mean Arabella won’t help Grace St. Just, the 17yrs. old half-sister of Adam, when she’s in dire need of some help. After all, Grace has nothing to do with Adam’s lousy mouth. You see, Arabella knew that Grace was being blackmailed by someone. Besides, the poor girl had been at the brunt of horrendous gossip regarding a mistake she almost made which made her debut Season a hell. No one more than Arabella knew better just how that felt like. Even though she knew St. Just won’t like her mingling with his sister... well, that idea gave Arabella more pleasure than she’s willing to admit. I loved how she becomes fast friends with Grace as she was in dire need of a friend. She also begins to adore Arabella on spot. Her advice on wearing one’s ‘armor’ and thumbing at the Ton was sure to win anyone’s adoration. I absolutely loved it when Adam finds them together, becomes instantly agitated, only to find that Arabella’s friendship makes Grace happy.
I won’t say Adam was a bad brother. He was caring, even if had no idea how to deal with Grace’s emotional problems. He was trying hard to lift her spirit ever since the ‘disaster’. In the beginning, Adam tried a few times to dissuade Grace from that friendship, but Arabella’s kind words and advises returned her self-confidence, even if a bit, so she remains resolute about not breaking it off. But then, even Adam begins to notice the changes in Grace Arabella brings and how useful her advises were. So, for the love of him, Adam couldn’t tell Grace to stay away from Arabella.
What happens next is through Grace’s friendship, he and Arabella also begin to see each-other more often than both would’ve liked to. Which also leads to this reluctant, yet not entirely unwanted, something blossoming between them. There was no denying that in their subconscious minds, they wanted each-other. You can say a case of opposites attract. And because of that ‘something’, as it gradually begins to grow into a friendship, Adam finds himself embarrassed and in utter shame every time someone would mention the words ‘Miss Smell O’Gutter’; be it around Arabella or not. And every time Adam think, ‘I did this to her. It was because of me she’s still suffering through this nastiness...’, even if Arabella won’t show any visible distress. TBH, initially I found Adam to be a little too stuck up and insufferable. However, with this thought and his reactions to Bella’s charms, he begins to win me over.
Now, I didn’t mention how Arabella came to know about Grace’s blackmailer. When the story opens up, we find a thief securing those blackmail letters and the valuables that Grace send to the blackmailer, from that woman’s bedroom. This thief goes by as ‘Tom’ according to the cards he leaves behind. Each card contains a message that denotes to some wrongdoing, and payment being made for that deed. Of course, the person who is responsible is usually been robbed by Tom off some valuables. This has been going on for quite a few years now and yet, so far, no one has been able to either catch or identify Tom. But every single person robbed was from the Ton. Every single one of them has done some nasty thing or the other, for which they ‘paid’ to Tom. People are actually agog, even applauds the thief for being brave, for serving justice in a manner. Like everyone else, Adam has also been quite obsessed with this ‘Tom’, more so when Tom returns Grace’s valuables alongside the identity of the blackmailer; a widow named Lady Bicknell. Be it curiosity or gratitude or plain boredom, Adam becomes determined to discover Tom’s identity; not because he wanted to reveal his identity to everyone and crow about it but basically to have a chance to thank him for helping Grace. But so far, his quest has been unsuccessful...
What Adam didn’t know was that he has been mingling with said thief almost every day, not to mention the fact that they have a ‘history’ of sort together.
So yes, it was Arabella. I should’ve found it really hard to believe but knowing her, I didn’t. She was smart and intelligent and I felt that she was quite able to pull something like that off nicely. Besides, Arabella didn’t rob these people for pin money. She didn’t need any and even if she did, she’d never use it all for herself. Not only she loved serving justice in a form to people who would’ve otherwise escaped it entirely, she also had a pet project; a school for slum children, mainly for young girls who have no one and nowhere to turn to. Arabella didn’t want them to find themselves without an option for a better life. In her school, they could have meals, clean clothing and bedding, also an education that would, hopefully, provide them with that option. Arabella can’t manage it on her own as she doesn’t want this secret to become public knowledge just yet. Especially, she’s sure that her grandmother, or he r grandfather for that matter, would’ve never approved of this venture. So I could see why she had to keep it a secret. Arabella’s friend from back in her days of the slum, Harry, has been running the school on her behalf with his wife. Harry’s sister Molly has been with Arabella in the guise of her maid but they’re more friends than employer-employee. Molly and she would go and visit Harry in Whitechapel, also in secret, to get updates on the school. She’s been supporting it with her stolen goods so far but her 25th birthday is coming and Arabella can’t wait to have her own fortune and become involved in this project openly and for good. She has already decided to leave her grandmother’s home and live on her own.
Back to the story and Adam and Arabella’s relationship. The moment Adam openly apologized to Arabella for his colossal ‘slip-of-tongue’, leaving her stunned (she didn’t even imagine that the snotty Adam St. Just can actually *gasp* apologize!), both knew they’ve just overcame a barrier. And no matter what, their meetings only helped their budding relationship blossom even more. It was obvious Adam held her in great esteem, seeing her for the person she truly was, totally awed by her various talents, while Arabella found herself falling for him a little bit every day, even though she knew it would probably lead to nowhere. He may enjoy their time together, but would someone like Adam St. Just approve of her secret identity and her pet project? Her mingling with ‘the sort’ no lady ever does?
I’ve had my doubts about Adam but had a change of heart the moment he realized his mistake. And I absolutely loved the way the author showed this gradual transformation of Adams’ mindset from a supercilious man to someone down-to-earth and absolutely in adoration of Arabella was superb. It didn’t happen in one day. No love at first sight and instantly all forgotten; these two didn’t even like each-other for the better part of the story. But when they started falling for each-other, it was wonderful. Their banters began to transform from out and out barbs and jibes, sarcastic comments to mild flirtation into straight-out wanting, with a desire to be in each-other’s arms. Adam was born in an absolutely arrogant family but we find him increasingly contemptuous of his father’s autocratic dictates that ruled his life so far. Even from the dead, the man seem to be toying with his brain again— that he shouldn’t be mingling with the French whore’s daughter. Little by little, Adam begins to discard the notions drummed up in him since childhood. And why wouldn’t he? His eyes were being opened to the real world by Arabella in a way that Adam couldn’t deny any longer. That acceptance, and the urge to prove himself to Arabella as a ‘better man’, is what made him a worthy hero in my eyes.
When finally Adam puts two and two together and finds out Tom’s identity, his had only praise for ‘him’. Arabella was rather worried so far. When she knew that her secret was out, at least to Adam, Arabella decides to confide in him about her school and her future plans for it. She was stunned, once again, when Adam not only applauds her courage but also expresses an avid interest in becoming an active part of her school. He wanted to see for himself what she was doing and how she had managed it all alone for so many years. If that wasn’t a colossal change of character, then I don’t know what is. Then again, by that time Adam knew he was in love. He also knew that he’s going to marry Arabella, come what may and spend his life making up for the misery his comment have wrought her. Arabella, on the other hand, had the same feelings but it wasn’t until Adam’s proposal that she knew. That proposal stunned her yet once again. She hoped that he felt something for her but a marriage proposal she wasn’t expecting at all!
One other exceptionally beautiful, yet heart-wrenching, scene was at the end with Arabella and her grandmother; the revelation of truth, the knowledge that her grandmother has loved her all along. The fact that she too had suffered in silence. Her grandmother was so guilt ridden, and knowing Arabella despised them all, couldn’t let her feelings be known. She took the loss of all her sons as penance for her deed; for not stepping up further to save Arabella and her parents, even though it was revealed by then what kind of a bully the wretched Earl was. Her grandmother tried but it just wasn’t enough. So many mistakes, so many regrets. Two lives could’ve easily been saved, perhaps, if the Earl didn’t turn her parents away. Her mother could’ve been saved from so much humiliation, pain and misery in her short life. My heart just breaks at the thought of it. Poor, poor Therese! :( Born and bred a lady, yet what she had to suffer the worse until her passing because she had no other options. I simply couldn’t help my tears while reading that scene, and couldn’t thank Adam enough to bring it about. It was so very necessary IMO that they, at the least try, to mend their broken fences for the sake of family, their sanity and Arabella-Adams’ future.
Honestly, I can go on and on but the fact remains. I loved this story, with its heartwarming, yet oftimes heart-rending moments; with its adorable characters and those hilarious moments, not to mention the flowing writing style. Arabella was a unique heroine. Then again, I’ve come to learn that Emily May writes unique heroines for whom you’d only have adoration and respect. You’d want them to be your friend. My only big complain would be that there’s no book for Adam’s friend Jeremy, the Marquis of Revelstoke. He was such a character! It's a downer TBH because he SO deserved one! I adored him without a doubt. You must read and find out exactly why. ;)
Lovely, simply lovely. I only wish it was longer. 4 stars and recommended!