A Lady in Disguise
by Lynsay Sands
June 25, 2019 · Avon
If A Lady in Disguise is ever made into a movie, and it does not star Carole Lombard, I’ll be very disappointed. True, Lombard died in 1942, but why must we quibble over such small details? This book is a screwball comedy romance that revolves around a Big Misunderstanding. I’m not fond of Big Misunderstandings but I do believe in the maxim “Go big or go home,” and while I was not crazy about the book I have to admit that it certainly commits to its premise.
The set up is that Lady Maggie Wentworth has to raise some extra money after her brother dies in the Napoleonic Wars. He used to write for The Daily Express under the initials G.W. and no one knew who he really was. Maggie takes over the column, using the initials, and is assigned to interview women at a brothel – the very same establishment in which the famous Lady X works. Who is Lady X, that irresistible courtesan who is highly cultured and always wears a red mask? As one of my aunties likes to say, “All will be revealed in the fullness of time.”
Anyway, due to complicated circumstances, Maggie ends up locked in an armoire and then she has to crawl out a third story window and walk on a tiny ledge to get into a different room where she grabs a mask just in case anyone sees her, which of course they do, and also for reasons that escape my understanding she had to let one of the other workers borrow her dress so Maggie is clad in see-through lingerie.
She is promptly kidnapped by Lord James Ramsey.
Before Maggie’s brother died, he told James to look after Maggie. James does this by kidnapping Maggie from the brothel and carrying her away to his country estate, where they have long conversations. Throughout these conversations, without anyone actually lying at any point, James continues to believe that Maggie is Lady X and that she must be saved from a life of prostitution and Maggie continues to believe that James believes that she is G.W. and that he wants her to stop working as a journalist. Maggie is very huffy about this, not to mention the whole being kidnapped thing.
About halfway through the book the mood changes as Maggie survives a series of assasination attempts. From whom? All will be revealed in the fullness of time. But just because it’s revealed doesn’t mean it makes any sense. I read the ending of this book an hour ago and I have already forgotten who Lady X is and why anyone wanted to kill Maggie, so either the mystery wasn’t that compelling or my fibro fog is worse than I thought.
Here’s the thing: I liked Maggie, who is generous, empathetic, and resourceful, and who stands up for herself. I did NOT like that she is TSTL, although if she weren’t, there would be no plot. She cares about her servants, she misses her brother, she respects sex workers and refuses to accept double standards between men and women, and she’s haunted by the voices of her family saying, “Only you, Maggie. Only you could end up in such a fix.” She doesn’t come across as a very realistic person, but at least she comes across as a person.
James is not a person, he’s a walking temper tantrum. He is sexist, he violates consent, he never discusses sex with Maggie but just gets right to it, and he is the most controlling, patronizing person known to humankind. When Maggie is in peril, James is an asshole to the doctor, an asshole to his friends, and an asshole to his long-suffering servants, who clearly should be paid much more than he probably pays them. He “doesn’t do well with feelings,” in his words. I have truly met more mature six year olds. I say this without exaggeration. I worry about Maggie’s future with such a ridiculously emotionally underdeveloped person at her side. Is he supposed to be funny? His very existence made me depressed.
Here’s a little more detail about the consent issue. TW for Dubious Consent:
During their first sexual encounter, during which James believes that Maggie is Lady X, she enjoys the physical sensations but is also overwhelmed and unsure about what is happening and how far she should let things go. She makes several non-verbal attempts to slow things down that inadvertently send James the opposite signals, but at one point verbally says “No” multiple times and pulls on his hair to get him to back off. This has no effect on him whatsoever. James should have stopped right away despite the fact that she mixes yeses in with the nos. Neither character registers this as a rape scene but I found it to be disturbing and infuriating.
The plot certainly is compelling. I zipped right through this book. No matter how annoying I found it, I never considered putting it down. The writing itself is also good. When Maggie is dirty or wet or bleeding the reader can really feel it (and, in one case, smell it). And parts of the book are very funny – more so if you enjoy Big Misunderstanding Plots.
However, I had no investment in these people. We hear a lot about how most of the time Maggie is shrewd, and most of the time James is honorable, and their out-of-character responses to each other are supposed to prove that they are in love. However, we never see them act shrewd or honorable so this has no weight. And one can’t root for the romance because James is such a dirtbag from start to finish. Still, Maggie is happy, so that’s good, I guess. This is a fun book if you pretend that James isn’t in it.