SPOILER ALERT!

Oh, where have you been, Charming Billy?

Scandalous Desires - Elizabeth Hoyt

There's a old song my grandmother and my mom used to sing to me called "Where have you been, Charming Billy?" that ran through my head like background music while I read "Scandalous Desires" by Elizabeth Hoyt. It's a very old song and has an interesting, somewhat questionable, and convoluted history of perhaps originating from North Carolina settlers who fled Scotland after the Jacobite Rebellion as well as a rather unsavory association with an English murder ballad called Lord Randall/Rendal, who was, er poisoned by a lover apparently.  At any rate, it is a really charming bit of nonsense, and I remember laughing at this tale of whimsical courtship involving cherry pies, dimpled chins, ringleted hair, chairs without bottoms, and a "young thing who cannot leave her mother." And the last verse is a bit of a math puzzle. Moms are so sneaky that way. Sheesh.

 

Anyway, you may be wondering what an old traditional folk song has to do with a Georgian romance novel, and I promise I'll get to the review. Just bear with me. Of course, the "Charming Mickey" part of the hero's name was the first thing to trigger this memory, but more than that, Mickey and Billy are both, well, self-serving. My youthful self conjured up a Charming Billy who was handsome (maybe a little too handsome for his own good) with a perpetual twinkle in his eye that could turn any lady's head and who wasn't bothered about manipulating people by using his good looks and charm. I always thought he was on the lookout for someone with whom he could trade his charm and good looks for what "his bride" would do for him. Ah, but in the end Charming Billy may get a little more than he bargained for. The last verse (How old is she now,/Billy Boy, Billy Boy?/How old is she now,Charming Billy?/Three times six and four times seven,/Twenty-eight and eleven,/She's a young thing/And cannot leave her mother.") is either just a bit of a math puzzle or this is huge hint that his intended bride is a lot older than he is. Maybe both. All I can say is that if Billy's hoping she'll shuffle off this mortal coil any time soon, leaving all her cherry pies and feather beds to him, Charming Billy should remember she still lives with her mother. So, his bride's longevity may come back and bite him if he's not careful.

 

Though Mickey isn't pursuing any well-heeled octogenarians who still lives with mother (!) in "Scandalous Desires", he does seem to embody a bad boy persona, rather like Charming Billy, a man of the ilk your mother probably warned you about because they're dangerous, edgy, eager to charm your pants off but entirely capable of remaining singularly unaffected themselves. My youthful self firmly believed Charming Billy just needed to find the right person, and then he would discover that making outstanding cherry pies, possession of a feather bed, and mad skills at milking heifer calfs weren't all that important after all. But, my older more skeptical self really doubts that Billy ever found out that things are just things and that people are more important than things. And things, the accumulation of things, is of utmost importance to Charming Mickey.

 

Mickey has murdered, stolen, blackmailed, manipulated and lied without compunction to get to the top of the heap, the best of the worst in St. Giles. I had no difficulty believing his reputation as the crime boss of St. Giles was well-deserved. As a child, he and his mother lived a horrible existence of poverty and homelessness, prostitution for her and Mickey singing for pennies to find money for food. This left an indelible mark on him and probably explains his insatiable need to accumulate vast amounts of, well, everything. When you have lived with nothing, it's easy to see why someone would hoard those things that were missing and caused such hardship and pain.

 

In contrast Silence is a very principled, honest person even as her name (in fact, all the Makepeace names are revealing: Temperance whose passions are anything but moderate, Concord who is a constant source of disagreeableness and discord, Winter who appears cold and passionless that hides his internal turmoil) reveals something more troubling about her character. She's always been muzzled - by her family and later by her husband William. In Scandalous Desires she stops internalizing her disappointments and distress and becomes less fearful of using her voice to articulate her likes and dislikes, her wants and needs not only with Mickey but with her family. In fact, when Mary Darling is taken from her by Mickey, back to his "palace" in St. Giles for protection and as a lure to get Silence close to him, Silence doesn't even think of asking permission from her family to stay with Mary Darling nor does she seek their approval. It is HER decision for good or ill. Ironically, it is Mickey, of all people, who is the catalyst for her transformation and the only one who really listens to Silence.

 

From the first book in this series, I liked that Silence saw an opportunity to be a helpmate to her husband William and took the initiative to make a devil's bargain with Mickey. William seemed content to roll over and take whatever injustice was doled out to him and weirdly seemed to blame Silence for his troubles. (Why on earth didn't he go to Mickey and plead his case?) William wrongly believed if he hadn't succumbed so eagerly to Silence's siren call after the long sea voyage, he would have ensured the shipment was more carefully guarded. In his mixed up, misguided logic, all of the fault lay with Silence and her womanly wiles that blinded him to good judgment and made him lax in protecting the shipment. Sadly he doesn't realize or know that Silence would walk through fire for those she loves which makes William's rejection of Silence after her deal with Mickey and his implied questioning of her virtue far worse than any manipulation Mickey may have orchestrated.

 

As I've indicated, Mickey is not a good person. He's a thief, an extortionist, and the "King" of the underbelly of St. Giles, the leader of a band of thugs, thieves, and murderers. He's done evil things, and he has no regrets. Mickey really is a bad boy anti-hero, and while I love reading how these rascals are redeemed, there's also a part of me that usually mourns the loss of a dangerous, edgy character. Redemption sometimes turns the bad boy hero into a former shade of himself, a character that sometimes doesn't even remotely resemble the one that I found fascinating or interesting in the beginning. But not Mickey. I'm not even sure he has been redeemed at the end although he does attempt reparation for his part in the destruction of Silence's marriage. He doesn't undergo a hackneyed epiphany, making him realize all the harm he's done in the past, and neither does Silence's love turn this tiger into a tame house cat. It's only a matter of necessity that his Charming Mickey persona "dies" after a showdown with the Vicar of White Chapel. There just was no other option. Charming Mickey, the river pirate, lurks just under the surface of respectable, successful shipbuilder, Mr. Michael Rivers. Mickey is a flawed character from the first page to the last, an opportunist from beginning to the end, and that seems more realistic and in character than having him de-clawed, so to speak.

 

Viscerally I found Mickey's manipulations of Silence and William repugnant and cruel because he did all of that - making her stay the night with him, requiring she muss her clothes and hair to appear debauched and walking home in broad daylight - just because he had the power to do it. It was as cold and clinical as a laboratory experiment. But I found William's rejection of Silence's truth and his willingness to believe she prostituted herself to Mickey equally, if not more, repugnant because William supposedly "loved" Silence. I did find Mickey's backstory of poverty in the extreme, his relationship with his mother and the Vicar of White Chapel compelling credible reasons for his overwhelming cynicism and perhaps why he felt the need to poke and prod Silence's unshakable belief that she and William had "true love". In some twisted way I think he was just as invested in seeing her proved right as she was. After all, he has never experienced anything even remotely close to what she believed she and William shared, and he really wanted proof that such a thing really existed somewhere.

 

Where Scandalous Desires didn't succeed for me revolved around Mickey's equating William's love for Silence with whether or not William believes Silence didn't sleep with Mickey. Their marriage wasn't the idyllic one Silence imagined, but I do believe William loved Silence. There are many ways to love and many degrees of love so I found Mickey's dismissal of William awfully high handed and self-serving. So William failed the test, but Mickey failed also. Silence begs him to give up pirating, to recognize that he's harmed innocent people. But he will not give it up, seeing Silence's pleas to be a father to Mary Darling and a husband to her as an emasculation.

 

"'Ye'll cut me bollocks off, will ye?' he asked softly. 'Make me half a man, bent to your will? Have me sippin' tea with me pinky in the air?'

'No, she said, shaking her head slowly. 'I don't care if you ever drink tea, pinky or not. I want you to do something far simpler. Far easier. Just stop. Please, please stop pirating, Michael. For me. We could live here together. Be married and have a family. Don't you see? Everything is within our grasp. All you have to do is choose. Choose me." (310-311)

 

When given a choice to believe Silence or not, William chose not to. When given a choice between Silence and pirating, Mickey chooses pirating because that was his "strength" and "[n]ot even for this woman would he make himself weak." Even later as he sits in Newgate awaiting his trip to Tyburn, Mickey regrets nothing - not the pirating nor the men's lives he's taken - but he wishes he could've persuaded Silence to stay with him. He thinks he "should've lied, should've told [Silence] he'd give up pirating, give up the palace, give up anything she'd damn well wanted if she'd only stay with him." (336) Additionally, this whole love test thingie smacked a little as being an authorial trick of showcasing how great sex always equals greater, truer love. William viewed sex as permissible within certain boundaries and constraints having to do with propriety and piety, unlike Mickey. Clearly William equated his rather passionate feelings for Silence as a failing but wrongly blamed Silence for that failing.

 

I loved how Silence taught Mickey a well-deserved lesson on just how far he could exert his influence/authority over her. She readily agrees to stay with Mary Darling despite any censure her family or society might rain on her head, but she shows him quickly that she isn't a puppet, that she's a person with thoughts and feelings and isn't timid about voicing them. I really liked the little gifts Mickey sent to Mary Darling at the foundling home - like the raspberries. The romance between Silence and Mickey was nicely done with a gradually rising tension and a period in which Silence is able to forgive Mickey for his part in her marriage falling apart before falling in love with him. If Elizabeth Hoyt has a consistent strength in all her books, it's her ability to create a world that feels real, her fresh treatment of some overused tropes, and the way she makes me fall in love with even the most flawed character. Overall, I liked Scandalous Desires, but I'm not sure I bought Charming Mickey's redemption. I'll blame it all on Charming Billy and call it done.