Rereading Elizabeth Essex’s Dartmouth Brides

In 2011, I read the first of Elizabeth Essex’s Dartmouth Brides books, The Pursuit of Pleasure. This is Ms. Essex’s debut novel and, especially for a first book, quite good. In my B review I wrote:

I liked James and Lizzie but had a hard time understanding why they made the choices they did. James, in the name of his work, allows Lizzie to suffer tremendously while claiming to love her. Lizzie, bedazzled by sex with James and still hell-bent on being independent, behaves in ways that are at times unsympathetic and flat-out self-destructive. And for all the thinking they do about each other — and Ms. Essex spends a good deal of time relating her characters’ thoughts — neither really sees the other very clearly until, perhaps, the end of the novel. This lack of unambiguous relationship development combined with too little information about their pasts left me feeling unsatisfied. I wanted more clarity, more information, and more unguarded interaction between the two.

That said, this is a lovely book to read. Ms. Essex has a true gift for language and description. Her knowledge of the speech and mores of late 18th century England is patent and used to great effect. She does a fabulous job of making James and Lizzie physical people — as they move through the novel, both together and apart, I could see them clearly. Her sex scenes — the first of which takes place over 50 some pages — are exquisitely written and palpably sensual. Ms. Essex is a “show not tell” writer and clearly believes her readers are smart enough to follow her complex prose.

I read the next book in the series, A Sense of Sin, and reviewed it as well–I gave it a B+. All that kept it from being a DIK was an overly abrupt ending. I loved the leads, Celia and Del, and felt Ms. Essex’s prose was simply superb. I wrote:

I enjoyed Ms. Essex’s first novel, The Pursuit of Pleasure, but had a hard time visualizing her two lovers. I had no such trouble in A Sense of Sin. Ms. Essex is an accomplished writer and she deftly depicts not only Celia and Del, but a host of interesting secondary characters. Her Georgian households and their denizens have a palpable feel. Ms. Essex doesn’t shy away from the barriers class and power place between upper crust families and their servants; nor does she deny the compassion and care that often undergird those relationships. Celia’s maid, Bains; Del’s cook, Mrs. Bobbins; Lady Burke’s coachman, Mr. Filbert; and others, all bring verve and humor into the homes they serve and the story Ms. Essex tells. Del and Celia, apart and together, are two of the more vibrant lovers I’ve encountered in historical romance. Del, furious about his sister’s death, angry at his father for existing, and contemptuous of the legion of widows, harlots, and adulterous wives he’s bedded, is undone by Celia. Ms. Essex makes the way Del falls first in exhilarating lust and then in bewildering love with Celia a moving and tempestuous thing. Celia, a generous young woman without a whiff of saccharine sweetness to her, changes the way Del sees her and then, powerfully, the way he sees himself. And she, at heart a thinker, lets Del guide her to trust her heart, her body, and her passion for him as much as she trusts her brain. I loved their story.

The last book, The Danger of Desire, I also gave a B+. Its hero, Hugh McAlden, had appeared in the first two books and I’d been curious how he might find love. I was not disappointed.

When the two become lovers, Hugh feels his heart and body “align” for the first time in a very long time. He begins to imagine and then work to shape a shared future for himself, Meggs, and Timmy. Hugh’s dream, though, is not Meggs’s. She’s given Hugh her body and heart but is unwilling to give him the truth about her past. For Meggs, the day she stole her first purse, was the day she gave up any hope of a life with a man of Hugh’s class. It was also the day she determined she’d never trust anyone to care for her — the loss in Meggs’s past is so great, the pain of it prevents her from fully sharing herself with Hugh.

I found Ms. Essex’s lovers compelling. Hugh and Meggs are dazzlingly real characters, each layered in ways one expects to find in great literature. I loved their story and cared deeply about their travails and their joys.

These three books have stayed with me over the years. Until recently, they were only available in paperback–I am an adamant e-reader–a fact which I hoped would change. It has. Not only are the books now digitally available, Ms. Essex has revised and re-edited them.

I’ve spent a pleasurable week re-reading the trilogy and am happy to say not only are all three still first-rate reads, Ms. Essex has improved upon her earlier efforts.

Of the three, my favorite is A Sense of Sin. Ms. Essex added the ending–readers be warned, it’s mostly in a epilogue, a rather lovely one–I’d hoped for and tightened her prose. The writing here packs a wallop and man oh man is it sensual. Del and Celia are the sort of lovers who simply have to be together–their dance towards passion is a step by step joy to read. And, for a book in which a man is ineluctably drawn to a ravishing–she’s literally called the Ravishing Miss Burke–woman, Ms. Essex makes it clear that what truly compels Del is Celia’s mind and heart–her beauty is relevant but not essential. This version of A Sense of Sin is a DIK (an A) for me. (A/BN/iB/K)

My next favorite would be The Danger of Desire. When I read the book five years ago, I had some niggling doubts about Hugh’s past–to say what they were would be to spoil the book so you’ll just have to take it on faith. This go round, I had no such worries. I loved Hugh and found his poorly done courtship of Meggs to be a joy to read. I’m still not enamored of the suspense scene that occurs near the end of the book but it now seems more natural to me. In this reading, I fell hard for Ms. Essex’s use of the jargon of London in the late 1700s. This is a book full of unfamiliar terms that transform the book from interesting to mesmerizing. There are so many interesting terms that I have asked Ms. Essex for a glossary which she has promised to devise. In the meantime, she tells me most of the terms can be found in Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue which is currently free on Amazon. She also says “I’ve tried to put all the definitions in context within the story but sometimes the words just have to stand there for flavor.” I’d give The Danger of Desire an A-. (A/BN/iB/K)

I liked The Pursuit of Pleasure more this go round than I did in 2011. Ms. Essex has done a good job of making the terrible choices Jamie makes more understandable. But, they are still so devastating to Lizzie that I have a hard time forgiving the man. Lizzie is more generous in moving past his behavior–she is still bedazzled by sex with him which, hey, I get–but his actions still grate. The book is a lovely, interesting story but is still a B read for me. (A/BN/iB/K)

If you’re looking for historical romance with a strong sense of place, gorgeous prose, and deeply sensual love stories, I (continue to) recommend the Dartmouth Brides series.


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Sonya Heaney
Sonya Heaney
04/09/2017 12:10 am

I’m reading an ARC of (the “improved”) A Sense of Sin at the moment, and enjoying it so far – I haven’t read any of these before. It has some mixed reviews, but I get the impression that’s because Essex pushed some boundaries with what readers think a romance hero is a “allowed” to do.

Also: Georgian era!