A Spy's Devotion is the first novel in Melanie Dickerson's Regency Spies of London series. A Spy's Devotion is set in 1811 in London, England. It is the first party of the Season and Miss Julia Grey and her wealthy cousin, Miss Phoebe Wilhern are in attendance along with Mr. Nicholas Langdon who has recently recovered from wounds he suffered while fighting in the Peninsula against Napoleon. Phoebe is infatuated with Nicholas and determined to flirt with him and make him fall in love with her. Julia plays the pianoforte and sings, entertaining those at the party.
Meanwhile, Nicholas, who notices Julia's attractiveness, is reminded by the coarse Hugh Edgerton that Julia has no dowry and therefore is not a suitable marriage prospect. Edgerton tells Nicholas that Julia is flirting with Mr. Daniel Dinklage because he has an income of fifteen thousand pounds a year. He suggests that instead Nicholas should be considering Phoebe Wilhern. Edgerton asks Nicholas what he will be doing in the week he has remaining before returning to the war and Nicholas indicates that he must do a favour for a man named Richard Beechum who died in battle. He will be returning a diary to someone he doesn't know. At the same dance, Julia overhears her Uncle Wilhern talking to Edgerton and stating that they must retrieve the diary from Nicholas Langdon.
The next day while waiting for his valet to locate Garrison Greenfield, the man he must return the diary to, Nicholas is visited by Edgerton who behaves strangely. When the valet returns from the War Office without any information about Greenfield Nicholas decides to copy the diary which appears to be written in some kind of code and visit the War Office himself. When he sets out, Nicholas is beaten and robbed of the diary. Devastated at losing the diary Nicholas continues to the War Office where he informs Philip McDowell of what has happened. He learns from Colonel Thomas Stockton of the Foreign Office that Garrison Greenfield was a British spy. Stockton asks Nicholas to investigate Hugh Edgerton and Robert Wilhern and to hand over the copy of the diary to his men.
Meanwhile, Sarah Peck who was Phoebe and Julia's governess is being sent
away to a new position. Sarah encourages Julia to secure the affections
of Mr. Daniel Dinklage and marry him rather than end up as a governess. She later writes to Julia about her new position and states that the only person who treats her nicely is the son of her employer. This news causes great worry to Julia who fears Sarah may be in danger and she warns her to act prudently.
Parties and balls continue as the Season progresses. Phoebe continues her desperate attempts to win the affections of Nicholas while Julia unwillingly encourages Dinklage in his pursuit. She has promised Phoebe that she will do everything she can to convince Nicholas to focus on her. Nicholas is careful to dance with each young woman only once so as not to show favour to any particular girl but he continues to find himself drawn to Julia. He introduces Julia to his sister Leorah and the two young women quickly become friends. Julia struggles to ignore her attraction to Nicholas as her cousin Phoebe is so determined to win Nicholas. In fact she attempts to direct Nicholas's attention away from herself and to encourage his interest in Phoebe.
At a dinner party at the Wilhern's, Nicholas attempts to search Robert Wilhern's study to locate the missing diary. He is unsuccessful but is saved from discovery by Julia. Julia could have informed her uncle about him, but remained quiet and Nicholas begins to wonder if she might be of help to him.The next morning Julia's uncle informs her that Hugo Edgerton has approached him with a request to marry her. Julia is horrified however, especially after Edgerton accosted her at the ball at the Wilhern's weeks earlier. She tells her uncle that she must refuse his request. In a desperate attempt to save herself, Julia who is a gifted pianist, visits her old teacher, Monsieur and Madame Bartholdy to ask whether they could take her to the continent to tour and perform, but Monsieur Bartholdy tells her they are now too old for such a venture. At the same time Dinklage's mother refuses to accept her son's interest in Julia and sends him away to Derbyshire.
During her visits to the Bartholdy's Julia discovers that Nicholas Langdon travels in this poor part of town to visit the Children's Aid Mission where he spends time with the children and helps his old friend Mr. Wilson who runs the mission. Nicholas asks Julia to keep his visits a secret. At the next ball, when Julia is accosted by Edgerton, Nicholas rescues her by asking her to dance a second time with him. This sends the Wilherns and especially Phoebe into the depths of despair as a second dance sends the message that Nicholas favours Julia. However Nicholas realizes that as he's investigating Julia's uncle for possible treason she is not a suitable marriage prospect at this time. Also he needs to marry someone with a sizeable income because as the second son he receives little income from his father. Despite this he finds himself increasingly drawn to Julia.
When Julia leaves the ball, Nicholas recognizes the Wilhern's footman as the man who attacked him and stole the diary. At home, Julia's uncle questions her about her relationship with Nicholas and makes certain that she understands that it is Phoebe who will be marrying Nicholas. Julia is forced to tell Phoebe that she is not interested in Nicholas although in her heart she knows this is not true. More and more she is pressured to accept Edgerton's marriage proposal causing Julia great distress. This distress is noticed by Nicholas who one day encourages her to tell him her troubles.This Julia does and Nicholas wonders why it is that her uncle is so keen to have her marry Hugh Edgerton. Nicholas decides to confide in Julia, telling her that her uncle's serious debts place him at risk of losing Wilhern Manor in Warwickshire. He also tells Julia that her uncle is believed to be involved in a plot to assassinate General Wellington and asks for Julia's help. Will Julia be able to discover the truth about her uncle and Edgerton's involvement in the nefarious plot to kill Wellington and at the same time save herself from being forced to marry a man she does not love?
Melanie Dickerson has written another enjoyable romance that involves a touch of adventure for a likeable heroine. Julia Grey is an orphan who has been taken in by her wealthy Uncle Wilhern. Her position is precarious because without a dowry Julia is unlikely to attract a good marriage prospect. Julia is accepting of this and believes that once Phoebe marries she will live with her and her husband. However, this soon seems unlikely because her uncle is determined to force her to marry the unlikeable Hugh Edgerton. Julia does not realize that her uncle, Robert Wilhern is hiding a huge secret - he's financially strapped and is looking to recover his ancestor's estates confiscated during the French Revolution. To accomplish this he has plotted to kill General Wellington who is leading the British in the war against Napoleon. He hopes to help the French towards victory and thus reclaim his property./
Dickerson uses the social conventions common in the early 1800's to create suspense and tension in her novel. For example, a young woman without family or connections had virtually no options other than marriage or becoming a governess. Without a significant income, a woman like Julia could expect few marriage proposals and would often be forced to accept marriage to a man regardless of his character or whether she loved him. Julia's precarious situation as an orphan living in the house of her cruel uncle sets her in exactly that scenario. Her Uncle Wilhern tells her that she has an offer of marriage from Hugh Edgerton, the man who is a drinker and has debts. Julia soon discovers that her uncle will be paying Edgerton money to marry her and that he is determined that she marry Edgerton as quickly as possible. Not only is this a problem for Julia but also for the British government's case against Edgerton and Wilhern whom they believe are involved in an assassination plot against General Wellington. Once married to Edgerton, Julia will be unable to testify in court because British law at this time did not allow for a woman to testify against her husband.
The author also highlights the double standards that existed in 19th century England regarding the behaviour of men and women. When Julia's friend, Sarah Peck is seduced by her employer's son and then abandoned, Julia notes how the upper class considers the matter trivial because of Sarah's class. The fact that Sarah is a lowly governess rather than a gentleman's daughter determines how people react. "Of course, if it had been a gentleman's daughter rather than a governess, it would have been treated in a much more serious manner. There would have been talk of him being made to marry the girl. The papers would have mentioned it discreetly, only giving the first letter of their names. But a governess...no gentlemen would be expected to marry a governess, and the papers wouldn't even deem it worthy of mentioning."
The point is further made when Phoebe's mother receives a letter from Mrs. Brumley about what has happened to Sarah. The Smitherman's whose son William seduced and impregnated Sarah are more concerned with the loss of a governess than what their son has done. The governess, Sarah Peck is assigned all the blame and the worry that Phoebe and Julia might possibly be tainted by virtue of having contact with Sarah.While Sarah is considered "ruined" Julia notes that the man she was involved with shares no similar fate. "The gentleman goes on his way as if nothing ever happened. He is full able to make a suitable match. But the governess's reputation is forever ruined."
Indeed, we later learn that William is sent back to Eton to continue his studies as if nothing untoward has ever happened.
Sarah's predicament only serves to emphasize to Julia just how serious things might become for herself. Worried that she may now be abandoned she acts in a way that she later considers wrong. As Phoebe pursues the man Julia secretly loves and it becomes evident
that she will not be able to remain with her cousin, Julia goes against
her conscience and her better judgement and flirts with Mr. Dinklage.
However once she is refused by his mother, Julia comes to realize the
motives behind her actions. "It was because she was afraid. She wanted security, respectability, and safety from poverty."
But unlike Sarah, Julia discovers that following all the rules for a woman as set out by 19th century society do not necessarily offer protection for someone of her class. Julia realizes that "She had tried to be so prudent, to conform to
society's every rule for young ladies." and that even so she is still at
the mercy of the inequality that exists in society for women and for those of her class. Forced to flee from her uncle and then harassed as a governess by Mr. Atherton, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands and writes a letter to Nicholas telling him how she truly feels, breaking social norms by actually going to his room and leaving the letter there.
Julia easily recognizes that God has been looking out for Sarah - through Julia's actions a place is found for Sarah to move to, she finds work and she ends up marrying Mr. Wilson. "Sweet Sarah Peck. God was taking care of her, giving her something useful to do. What a blessing." When she prepares to leave her position as governess at the Atherton's she tells little Timothy that she will continue to pray for them so "that you will be kind and good adults who care about other people, just the way God cares for you." However, Julia doesn't so readily recognize God's actions in her own life. It isn't until the very end that she comes to understand God has been in charge all along.
At times A Spy's Devotion feels like a cross between Jane Austen and a Harlequin romance. However Dickerson's characters are interesting and while her story line is not original, readers will nevertheless be hooked to read to the predictable happy ending. This is a good solid effort that highlights some past social inequalities that thankfully no longer exist.
A Spy's Devotion by Melanie Dickerson
Grand Haven, MI: Waterfall Press 2016