One of the great gifts of hosting New Books in Historical Fiction has been the wonderful writers I’ve met along the way. Many talk to me but then go about their busy lives, and I’m grateful to everyone of them for sharing an hour or so of their time with me. Some become friends, and that is more precious still.
Andrea Penrose, whose latest novel came out just this past Tuesday and is the subject of my January 2024 New Books Network interview, is in the latter group. We met when I contacted her after reading several of her Wrexford & Sloane novels to ask if we could talk about the next one in the series. Since then, I have read both that series and her self-published one, the Lady Arianna Mysteries (Russians and chocolate—who could resist?). I have also proofread several of her books for typos and the like.
The Diamond of London, which came out this week and which I didn’t get to work on due to an email snafu and a tight production schedule, is something of a departure for Andrea. There are no gruesome corpses, and the political intrigue that characterizes the Lady Arianna series involves the main character’s family and love interests more than the heroine herself. But the time period is the same, and all the richness of historical detail that has infused the mystery novels brings these characters and settings to life as well. Read on to find out more.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
I’ve interviewed Andrea Penrose before about her mysteries set in the Regency period—most notably, her ongoing series starring the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane. In this latest novel, she takes a break from dead bodies and the complicated plots associated with them to tackle a real-life question: how did a supposedly sheltered nineteenth-century aristocrat defy all of society’s expectations that she marry to suit her family and instead craft a life that suited herself?
The titular Diamond of this fictional biography is Lady Hester Stanhope, tagged even today with adjectives such as “notorious” and “eccentric.” After her politically radical and mentally unstable father threatens her with a knife, Lady Hester flees her country estate for London. There—with the help of the noted dandy Beau Brummell during a previous visit—she has already acquired a reputation as outspoken, passionate, and “different.” At twenty-four, she is also regarded as almost too old to wed, but her ties to the politically powerful Pitt family, which boasts two prime ministers among its ranks, mean that she is still a “catch” for men of ambition.
Lady Hester wants none of it. She’d rather dress in men’s clothes and sneak out to prize fights with her cousin Camelford, known to society as the “Half-Mad Lord,” or ride hell-for-leather across the moors. And so the stage is set for what will become, over the course of the book, a spectacular and wholly unconventional life.
Penrose’s decision to focus on Lady Hester’s time in England, rather than her later and better-known sojourn abroad, makes sense in dramatic terms because that’s where the character change happens. And the author does a wonderful job of balancing the demands of history against the requirements for a good novel. Lady Hester is herself a diamond: brilliant and multifaceted, but also cutting and razor-sharp. Although not always likable, she is unforgettable—just as she must have been in real life. I rooted for her all the way, even when I wanted to shake her and say, “Are you nuts? Why would you do that?!”
Image: Contemporary drawing of Lady Hester Stanhope later in her life, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.