The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies by Alison Goodman

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

In the colourful bustling London of the first decade of the nineteenth century, Augusta and her twin Julia are constrained by the society’s strict rules as to the marriage eligibility of ladies aged forty- two.  Julia is unfortunately a widow. Her husband, Robert, died in a hunting accident. She is in mourning.  Augusta is unmarried and disinclined to be attached to any man she has hitherto met.

The author, Alison Goodman, is obviously a devoted fan of the regency novels of Georgette Heyer, and her book carries the hallmarks of Heyer’s style. Lively descriptions of early nineteenth century life, gentle wit, and romance where a spirited woman finally succumbs to the attractions of a dashing male.

‘Ill-Mannered Ladies’ differs in several ways and is therefore more appealing to the modern reader.

Augusta and Julia escape the strict boundaries of propriety which ruled English ladies at the time. They present a force to be reckoned with, with a reticule that hides a large stone, wielding firearms, disguising themselves in male clothing. They even enter a ‘ ‘house of ill repute’ when ladies were not supposed to even be aware of the existence of same!

Both resort to bad language when they find themselves in challenging, perhaps impossible, situations.

Their progress in the book is delightfully recorded as they fulfil their goals to help ladies in distress which often involve threats to their own safety. Retrieving letters for a victim of blackmail leads to another friend beseeching them to rescue an abused wife then ultimately to saving poor women incarcerated in an asylum…. just some of their unusual pursuits.

The plot is not merely an entertaining romp with a satisfying ending where the heroine at last finds happiness. It is a critique of that society where men had absolute power to determine women’s lives. Duffield, the twins’ obnoxious younger brother, is a tyrant who asserts his position as heir in several ways, the most distressing to Augusta is his selling her beloved horse, Leonardo, without consulting her thoughts on the matter.

With shades of Jane Eyre, there is a wife imprisoned in a darkened room. There the resemblance ends. Here, Lady Caroline is drugged and starved by her abusive husband, Sir Reginald, who wishes to dispose of her because she has failed to fall pregnant.  As is evident throughout history, it was never suggested that the male could be ‘at fault’.  The nightmarish conditions of the asylums are an horrific aspect of the treatment of people with mental illness, particularly women.

Diversity and acceptance, a rare occurrence in Regency times, are evident in the character of Weatherly, a coloured man who is the  butler to the two ladies. He is a staunch and vital ally in the course of their adventures and becomes more of a friend than an employee.

The twins’ age means they are not rigorously subjected to the watchful eyes of those who attempt to guard society’s mores. This allows more freedom to pursue their benevolent pastimes….

The drama woven around the character of Lord Evan, absconded convict, supposed murderer, and brother of Hester who is at the mercy of the villainous Judd, adds thrills and excitement; and he is the unlikely object of Augusta’s barely contained passion. Lurking Bow Street Runners threaten to end the possibility of a happy solution to the situation.

The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies is an immensely entertaining book. It is a clever blend of Regency delicacies and modern courage and enterprise. Above all, it is laced with humour. Spirited wit is most evident in the early exchanges between Augusta and Lord Evan and much later, Mr Kent the Bow Street Runner.

This is not merely a lighthearted romance….readers may also consider how the rights of women have improved in just over two hundred years.

The Benevolent Society of Ill-Mannered Ladies


by Alison Goodman

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 14607 6127 4

$26.95; 442pp


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