Stages of Desire by Julia Tagan
Overview by Amazon:
To be or not to be—in love…
As a ward of the Duchess of Dorset, Harriet can hardly expect more from a match than the ringing endorsement of “from what I’ve heard, the man is financially secure and his teeth are quite regular.” After all, she’s only the lowly daughter of traveling actors, not the actual daughter of the duchess.
William Talbot, Earl of Abingdon is set to marry the duchess’s daughter. After his elder brother’s scandalous death, his family’s reputation is paramount, and he’ll allow nothing to damage it again. But when Harriet disappears to save her father from debtor’s prison, the scandal threatens William and his intended’s family. The simple task of fetching the duchess’s runaway ward turns complicated when Harriet insists on traveling with her father’s acting company. William’s forced to tag along, and finds himself entranced. The stage transforms Harriet into a free-spirited, captivating beauty. But, someone’s been sabotaging the theater company, and instead of facing scandal, William and Harriet discover a threat not only to their growing passion, but to their lives…
I have had this book on my to read list for a while. I wasn’t resistant to reading it, but pressing publication dates for other books kept me from reading it. I’m not the biggest fan of stories of acting in historical novels, but this book changed my perspective. This was a really well developed book with strong characters, challenging situations and passion. I am kicking myself for not reading this book weeks ago, as it was a great read that pulled me in and kept me on the edge of my seat to find out what happens next.
We meet Harriet as she is facing her future. As the ward of the Duchess of Dorset, she has been treated well and cared for, but she has never forgotten that she is not a member of the ton. She is to be matched with an older man who deflates the excitement of the future. He would make a financially secure future, but Harriet would be bored within days. We learn how Harriet came to be with the Duchess and her daughter, Marianne. She used to live with her father and his travelling acting production when Marianne found Harriet and wanted her as a companion.
Harriet’s father gave her over to the Duchess to raise and has never talked to her again in six years. Harriet has a child’s memories of her young childhood, a lively and fun time filled with interesting people and time with her father and brother. She also remembers being cold, hungry and trooping from place to place in horrible weather. She knows how lucky she is to be raised in comfort, yet there is the niggling feeling that something is missing in her life.
Her companion, Marianne, is about to become engaged to the staid Earl of Abingdon. He’s a handsome man who recently came into the title after his brother’s death. He is the typical ton snob – sobriety, propriety and responsibility are the hallmarks of his existence. He never intended to be the Earl, studying to be a physician at Oxford, but those ambitions are put on hold as he must manage the Earldom. Marianne seems the perfect society wife and he knows of the financial restraints the Duchess is experiencing and the marriage will solve all these problems.
Essentially he is a man who shows no passion or excitement for life beyond his duties. The only glimmer that we have of the man he really is comes when he is searching for a cure for malaria for his sick sister.
Harriet is approached by a former member of her father’s players company. Adam shares that her father is sick with drink and about to go to debtor’s prison. Harriet is horrified. She wants to help, but her position in society will not allow her to do anything to help him. The more she thinks about this, she longs for her real family and runs off to help the rest of the players support her father in Birmingham. Her London family is horrified, as her actions reflect on them. Actors and actresses are enjoyed by the ton, but are considered some of the lowest of character.
William sees that Harriet’s rash actions will affect his match. He leaves London in a huff to bring her back and mitigate the damage to reputations. He finds her at Adam’s house and finds himself unable to deny her the opportunity to see her father and try to help him.
The journey to Birmingham is dangerous and fraught with problems. Harriet is convinced there is a curse on them because William said “Macbeth” out loud. They deal with a devastating fire, an impromptu performance, a highway robbery and reluctant players. I have to say, the journey was so much fun to read, even with the peril. There were some laugh out loud moments and I totally enjoyed the incredulous experiences that William faces. Once outside of London, he is eminently more enjoyable. He also agrees to let Harriet go to Birmingham because an acquaintance of his is working on the cure to Malaria and he wants to compare notes.
The time travelling and spent in Birmingham gives William time to get to know Harriet. He surprises himself by realizing how much he likes her. He finds her strength attractive and he acts rashly towards her. Passion erupts between the two, but they know that he will marry Marianne and do his duty to his family and society. However, that doesn’t mean that the reader and the characters don’t enjoy the growing intimacy between the two.
Harriet finds Birmingham a disappointment when she gets there. Her father is a drunk and she realizes that she remembered her childhood with rose coloured glasses. However, since she is there, she will help him and put on the performance that will save him from debt and get the Farley Player’s up and running. Calamity continues to plague them and the lead for Shakespeare’s play is found dead right before the performance. Harriet must go on and take her place. William can’t believe he is allowing this, but seeing Harriet on stage is amazing to him. She takes his breath away and he realizes how much he wants her. After the performance, the one in her dressing room is just as thrilling. William and Harriet have great chemistry and imagine that there is no other obligation in life other than each other.
However, you know that this is not the final curtain on the story. The mysterious events that have plagued the troupe seem more like conspiracy than coincidence. William puts the clues together and realizes that someone has been deliberately sabotaging Farley’s Players and Harriet’s efforts. It’s shocking who the culprit is, but more shocking is that the sojourn from reality comes crashing down. William clears his head from the haze of the theatre and Harriet and the two part on terrible terms, just when they were on the cusp of love.
It seems like all is lost. The Farley Player’s will be fine, so Harriet returns to her life in London and the punishment she must endure for her actions. She is demoted to house maid at the Duchess’ residence, Marianne has turned on her for being away with her intended and Mr. Hopplehill is back in the picture as a future husband. Harriet has no reason to expect anything from William, but it is devastating when he gets on with his life and plans.
The events that occur once Harriet returns to London are astounding. To share the events would be giving away the best parts of the story. Just when everything seems hopeless and depressing, the most miraculous events occur. As a reader, I couldn’t even dream up an ending like this that is so impressive and shocking. As if the fun journey to Birmingham wasn’t enough, the final chapters in London make this book complete.
I used to avoid books with stage actors and actresses, as they are usually portrayed as mistresses or scoundrels, but this book erased my preconceived notions. I enjoyed the passion Harriet had for Shakespeare and the theatre scenes were exciting and interesting. The love story between William and Harriet was fresh and original. It was very different from any other historical romance novels I have ever read. This is a book made for a reader that likes to laugh, fret, worry and feel immensely satisfied at the end of the story.