Harlot by Victoria Dahl explores challenges to love in the context of 19th Century America’s social etiquette and gender roles.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[For Mature Audiences; Some Spoilers]
Right now, I’m so loving late 19th Century America historical romance! I’ve been enjoying stories from the Civil War and Reconstruction, as well as those taking place in that era, but in wild, wild West. There’s something about watching folks attempting to build their lives in the (pseudo) untamed territory. Because, in several circumstances, people have the ability to take the law into their own hands, the Old West isn’t necessarily governed by rigid social mores of their East Coast counterparts. Harlot by Victoria Dahl is a romance novella that explores the social etiquette of the time surrounding gender roles, female sexual agency, and male hypocrisy of the time.
Caleb Hightower has just returned home to Colorado (1875) after spending two years in California. As a teenager, he falls in love with Jessica Willoughby, daughter of the town doctor. Yet, Caleb never believes he’s good enough for her. He doesn’t see himself as a man of great intellect or ambition. Even though he spends his formative years raised by his mother and stepfather, president of a local bank, Caleb has always been someone who works with his hands (as a rancher and miner). He barely knows how to read and write, so how could he be a match for the lovely and intelligent Jessica. But when Caleb learns that Jessica cares for him too, he’s determined to strike out and make his fortune. In his mind, he’ll go to California, make his money and return to Colorado to marry Jessica and offer provide her the means to live as a lady. Caleb never intends to be gone for two years, and when he learns that Jessica’s father has passed away, he ties up loose ends so he can return home. However, when Caleb arrives in town, he’s met with a massive shock. Jessica has now the proprietress of a whore house. Caleb is confused, hurt, and enraged. What could have happened to Jessica to bring her so low? How could she lose faith in him and turn to whoring? Why didn’t she wait for him?
For Jessica, when her father dies, the rug is ripped right out from under her. The two people in the world she counts on (father and Caleb) are gone and she’s saddled with debt that seems insurmountable. Jessica hasn’t trained for a profession, she has no skills for work, even as a governess. So when someone she trusts approaches her with an indecent proposal, Jessica has no alternative. In exchange for her virginity and a brief sexual relationship, Jessica can have her debts paid and access to her own home. The experience is horrid, but Jessica endeavors to tolerate it. Yet, despite promises of secrecy, the whole town learns of what she’s done. Jessica is labeled a whore, belittled and, ostracized. What’s even scarier is that men she’s grown up knowing, father-figures, aggressively
Jessica is on her own and feeling severe guilt. So when Caleb arrives, she accepts his hate and name-calling. In attempt to make amends, Jessica offers Caleb a proposal for her own. For $20 (enough to pay her property taxes and live off for a year), Jessica will make herself available for Caleb’s every sexual whim. It isn’t love; they aren’t husband and wife sharing a marriage bed. Their encounters get rude and raw… but there’s also pleasure like neither have known. Caleb and Jessica probably still even love each other, but can they overcome their resentment and start anew?
Jessica’s self-loathing breaks my heart. She has been totally taken advantage of and when you learn the whole of it, it’s devastating, enraging, and so sad. But Jessica persists, she gets up every day and keeps trying to do her best, despite the constraints placed on her by her community.
And I know my resentment of Caleb is couched in my very modern interpretation of the situation, but I can’t help it. The fact that Caleb views Jessica’s predicament as a reflection of him, that she sold something that belonged to him to another person (her virginity), that he’s entitled to be angry and betrayed and therefore treat Jessica as his personal whore… it makes me so angry. But Jess takes it… until a certain point:
“I’m not the first whore you’ve fucked, am I?”
He didn’t want to answer. His silence made that clear. He didn’t want to admit his hypocrisy, but he couldn’t stay quiet forever. He finally spoke. “No.”
“No,” she repeated, just to be sure they both heard it again.
“I went to a place in California. Mostly I…I mean, I only did the whole thing once.”
“So you let other whores suck your cock?” she spat out.
“It meant nothing. It was just…”
“Just what?” she asked, turning to face him as her mouth stretched in a tight grin that had nothing to do with joy. “Just nothing for you, but somehow everything for me…”
…“Men have needs,” she sneered. “The need for pleasure and debauchery. Do you know what a woman’s needs are? Food and shelter and a bed. You want me to be ashamed? Me? I did it for money, but you’ll soil yourself for the sheer sin of it, and you say you can’t forgive me?” Frowning, he stood, hands raised as if to calm her.
“You know it’s different for men,” he tried, but she pushed her finger into his naked chest.
“Yes, it’s different. I did it in order to live. You should be ashamed. How dare you look down on me? How dare you?”
He grabbed her wrist, but she jerked it back.
“You’ll fuck a whore and then you just fasten your trousers and walk away, back to your life with no consequences, and we are marked forever!”
HELL YES JESSICA!
With that said, Caleb’s character is redeemed. He realizes the complexity of Jess’ situation (one he eventually realizes is actually rape) and his role in backing Jess into a corner. Caleb sees that he’s been selfish and that, no matter what, Jess still the woman he’s been in love with. And he endeavors to make it up to her:
“I didn’t know if you’d let me stay,” he said into the deepening dark.
“If it’s the last time I see you…” She didn’t finish the thought.
Caleb rose above her, sliding his hand along her neck, her jaw.
“I don’t want it to be the last anything. I want it to be the first.”
“It’s far too late for that, Caleb.”
“It’s not. You never had a first time. Not really. All you’ve ever had were transactions.”
Her hand covered his and pressed his palm tight to her cheek.
“There’s no taking any of that back.”
“No, but we can make something new. A real first time. No one hurting you, not even me.”
“Caleb…” she murmured. She shook her head in denial. He saw the glint of moisture on her cheek before he felt wet on his fingers.
“Shh,” he whispered, “I won’t hurt you, Jess, I promise.”
His mouth met hers, and she opened for him immediately, her tongue brushing sweetly against his. He kissed her slowly, carefully, learning the feel of her and what rhythm made her sigh into his mouth…
…“I’ll stop if you want.”
“No.” Her legs curled around his thighs and pulled him closer. Caleb winced as he sank an inch deeper.
“Slow,” he hissed.
“No,” she said again, the word a little jagged.
“I’d rather die than hurt you. I want to make this feel good. For once, I want it to be right for you.”
He hated the sob she gave as she arched to take more of him. He pulled back a little, then pressed in…He fucked her slowly, sliding in and out as if he had all the time in the world, as if her body were his forever. Her legs kept him close. Her arms pulled him tighter to her.
“I love you, Jess,” he said one last time as he pushed as deep as he could.
Jessica and Caleb get their HEA and some vengeance. But even more importantly, they get a new start together, one that puts them on a more even footing. Jessica and Caleb are partners.
Harlot is a poignant story of how love can survive loss, even if that love changes a little. I recommend this for fans of historical romance, especially those set in the Old West. Even if you’re more of a contemporary romance fan, I think you’ll find a lot here that rhymes with our modern sensibilities.
Many thanks to the author for a review copy.