A Fallen Woman, the third of Cheryl Bolen’s Brides of Bath books, takes up in Regency England where the previous book left off. The author plucks a minor character from the second book and sets her up as the heroine of this story. In an interesting twist, Carlotta Ennis is not your typical, kind innocent. In fact, her character may have readers struggling to identify with her. So the question becomes: can we come to like Carlotta well enough, soon enough, to be satisfied when all is said and done?
Carlotta lives in Bath in 1818 with a singular purpose: finding a replacement husband. She was 19 when Steven Ennis, an army Captain, was killed in the Peninsula. Left to her own devices, Carlotta turned her infant son over to her grandmother in the country and settled in fashionable Bath to see what her stunning beauty and impeccable manners might stir up. She took up with the wrong man, though, and gave up her love and good reputation to a man with no intention of making an honest woman of Carlotta. Six years later she is ruined, cast aside because her paramour has married a younger, virginal type (their story is told in With His Ring).
Carlotta seems most unsympathetic at first. The problem of her sullied reputation is not really hard to overlook, after all she was in love with Gregory Blankenship and hoped to marry him. It’s more her selfish and narcissistic nature that is off-putting. The way she plies her charms is degrading. Her abandonment of little Stevie in order to husband-hunt seems cold and calculating, and she doesn’t spend time thinking about him. Initially her views on life seem a little myopic. Her thoughts tend to go this way:
Somewhere on this earth there was a man with whom she could grow old and reap her elusive happiness.
So, when James Moore, Earl of Rutledge shows up at her door, he is just what Carlotta has in mind. He served under Steven Ennis during the war, and has reason to blame himself for Steven’s death. That, and the fact that he has always had a tendre for Carlotta, brings him to Bath with the intention of providing her with financial support. He shows up with noble purpose and high hopes, seemingly ignorant of her bad reputation.
For her part, Carlotta was never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, and although she thinks James caused Steven’s death, she lets him assuage his guilt and assume financial responsibility for her. When he insists that she reunite with her son, Charlotte blanches at the prospect but realizes it could bring her more favorable living circumstances. She agrees, but points out that she will need a bigger house, more servants, better clothes and a nurse for Stevie, who is now 6 years old.
The man clearly wanted to meet her son, perhaps even to sponsor the lad - which meant that Stevie could be her ticket to economic freedom. No telling how far Lord Rutledge’s generosity would extend if Stevie lived here in Bath with her.
In some ways James seems too good to be true, and it made me a little uncomfortable. He borders on obsessive and the fact that he employs Bow Street runners to bring him information about Carlotta and her situation before he goes to Bath seems a little like stalker behavior. Still, he sets an example of selflessness, good works and capable parenting for Carlotta. However, he also refuses to confront the unattractive side of her personality in his efforts to overcome his feelings of guilt. Despite having done his homework prior to meeting Carlotta, “the big secret” is a big shocker to him, and of course Carlotta doesn’t ease the blow by spilling the beans to him herself.
Carlotta’s deceitful, self-centered ways aside, the book makes an effort to be historically accurate. The characters speak a kind of inconsistent Regency English that is sometimes stilted, though, and Stevie sporadically mispronounces his R’s , which I found distracting rather than cute. I give high marks to the author for turning the gender tables by having the hero be the naive, idealistic one and his love interest be the one jaded by life, needing to be forgiven her many faults. Did Carlotta redeem herself? No spoilers intended, but I thought she, and the author, pretty much pulled it off.