Sophia Monmouth is a student at the Clifford Charity School for Wayward Girls, having been brought there by her benefactor, Lady Clifford, herself, when she was only six years old, following the death of her mother. The school is an unconventional educational institution, with Lady Clifford teaching her girls not just the fundamentals but also how to bring justice to corrupt aristocrats. When one of their own, a mentally challenged young man who'd been a kitchen servant at the school, is accused of murder, Sophia and everyone else at the school knows he isn't capable of such violence. Determined to prove his innocence, she scales a wall and hides on the roof of an aristocrat with ties to the man who is the only witness to the crime. But she didn't count on being seen and followed when she tails the man after he leaves the house. Just as she is about to uncover what the man is actually up to, she's accosted by a mysterious earl who raises her ire, while also stirring her passions.
Tristan Stratford, Lord Gray, is a former Bow Street Runner who had to give up that life when his older brother unexpectedly died, leaving him the heir to the earldom. Bored with the indolent life of an aristocrat, he finds himself gazing out his window one night, only to spot a boy on his neighbor's roof. He follows the lad to a churchyard, where he grabs him, intending to get to the bottom of what he was up to, only to discover that "he" is actually a "she." Sophia deftly slips out of his grasp, though, and when Tristan trails her again, this time, she leads him to the Clifford School. When he learns that she's trying to clear the name of the man he believes murdered his friend and fellow Bow Street Runner, he's not inclined to trust her claims of her friend, Jeremy's innocence. But when Sophia enlists his help to get her into Newgate Prison to visit Jeremy one more time and Tristan sees the man for himself, he knows she speaks the truth. Together, they set out to prove it before Jeremy hangs, and as they investigate, Tristan finds himself deeply admiring and falling for Sophia. But Sophia's knowledge of the case makes her a threat, and with the real killer still on the loose, it may only be a matter of time before she becomes his next victim.
The Virgin Who Ruined Lord Gray is the first book in Anna Bradley's The Swooning Virgins Society series about a group of young women who were taken in as children by Lady Clifford, an unconventional woman who runs a school for girls where she not only teaches them to read and write but also how to take care of themselves in a man's world. Now that the girls are grown, they engage in activities intended to take down corrupt aristocrats. Our first heroine is Sophia who is tasked with figuring out who actually killed Henry Gerrard, a Bow Street Runner whose death is being blamed on Jeremy Ives, one of the school's servants and a friend of Sophia's. While tailing a suspect, she hides on the roof of Lord Everly, where she's spotted and assumed to be a thief by his neighbor, Lord Gray. A former Bow Street Runner himself, Tristan, Lord Gray, tracks Sophia to a church graveyard, where he accosts her. She skillfully escapes, but he follows her back to the Clifford School where he tries to get to the bottom of what's actually going on. Tristan wants to see justice done for his dead friend, Gerrard, and believes the authorities have the right man in custody, but through Sophia's persistence, he eventually sees the light and realizes Jeremy is innocent. Together, he and Sophia investigate, and along the way, they fall in love with one another. But Sophia isn't certain that an earl could ever truly love an adventurous commoner like herself. Not to mention, the real killer is still on the loose and just waiting to strike again, and given her knowledge of the case, Sophia has become one of his targets.
Sophia's mother was a mistress to a wealthy man, but when the man tired of her, she ended up selling herself on the streets to feed her child. Eventually she was murdered by one of her customers while Sophia hid in a cabinet. The little girl was later found by Lady Clifford and became her first pupil. Sophia has had a good life and has grown into an adventurous risk-taker who loves her job uncovering corruption among the wealthy and well-connected. But now her good friend, Jeremy, stands accused of murder and everyone believes there's no question that he'll be convicted and hanged. However, Jeremy is just a sweet, mentally-challenged, young man who wouldn't hurt a fly, so Sophia and everyone else at the school knows that he's innocent. To prove it and to save his life, she's been tracking Peter Sharpe, the only supposed witness to the crime, and has uncovered some suspicious evidence that may link him to Lord Everly. But she's unexpectedly interrupted in her investigation by Tristan who wants answers about what she's doing. At first, Sophia is anything but forthcoming, but eventually she and Lady Clifford realize that with his connections, Tristan may make a good ally. Sophia persuades Tristan to help her get into Newgate Prison to see Jeremy, and after their visit, Tristan finally believes in his innocence. She and Tristan start working together to find the real killer, and the more time she spends with him, the more she realizes she's fallen for the handsome earl. But the road ahead will be anything but smooth sailing. I enjoyed the concept of an unconventional young woman who's investigating corruption, and in this way, Sophia definitely breaks the mold of the typical historical heroine. She's adventurous and spirited, while still being very likable.
As a second son, Tristan chose to become a Bow Street Runner and enjoyed the mental and physical stimulation the job provided. But then his older brother died without an heir, leaving him the new earl. He quit his job as a Runner, but finds himself not enjoying the indolent life of an aristocrat at all. He's bored and wants to be doing something, which is why, when he spots Sophia on the roof of his neighbor's house, his interest is piqued. He thinks she's a boy who is casing the house for a potential theft, but when she doesn't break in or take anything and instead follows Sharpe, Tristan is further intrigued. He tails the boy to the churchyard, where he grabs him, only to find out she's actually a girl. She evades him, but when he once again tracks her to the Clifford School, it all starts to make more sense. However, it's not until he speaks with Sophia and Lady Clifford that he understands they're trying to clear their friend's name. From what he's heard of the case, Tristan believes they have the right man, so he isn't inclined to believe their claims of Jeremy's innocence. But after visiting Jeremy in Newgate, seeing his condition, and hearing his side of the story, Tristan realizes they're right. Jeremy couldn't have committed the crime of which he's accused. Wanting to see his friend, Henry's killer brought to justice, he agrees to help with the investigation. Spending time with Sophia gives him an appreciation for her boldness, while also bringing out his protective instincts. Soon he realizes he's fallen in love with her, but he'll have his work cut out for him convincing her she's the right woman for him, while also keeping her safe from the real killer. Tristan is almost as unconventional as Sophia. I enjoyed that he's not the typical aristocrat, and that although a bit more serious than Sophia, he, too, has a rather daring side.
Overall, The Virgin Who Ruined Lord Gray was a good story, though not a perfect one for me. I liked that Tristan and Sophia are different than the usual historical romance hero and heroine, and that their story doesn't contain any of the usual trappings of balls and parties either. However, I thought the story focused a little too much on the mystery aspect, when I would have preferred a little more romance. The actual romantic interludes are few, and although it is steamy, there's only one love scene. Also, while the mystery is wrapped up, some of the villains are not brought to justice. I'm not sure if the author is saving this for the other books or if it's just the reality of powerful people often not being held to account. If it's the latter, then I didn't entirely find it satisfying, so I'm hoping for the former. Another thing is that I found myself extremely curious about Lady Clifford and wanting to know what prompted her to start her school and to send her girls out investigating the way she does. I feel like she has a very intriguing story to tell, but the reader certainly isn't let in on it in this book. I don't know if the author plans to reveal more in the remaining books of the series or perhaps even plans to write a book for Lady Clifford herself, but a few tidbits in this book definitely wouldn't have gone amiss. Additionally, with respect to the writing itself, I felt like there were a few little bits and pieces missing from the action parts of the prose, which occasionally made it hard to envision what was happening, and on the flip side, while I typically like rich introspection, sometimes it was a wee bit too long-winded, leaving my mind wandering. My last small critique is that until now, I don't believe I've ever read a genuinely mistitled book, but Sophia is not a virgin as the title states. I really couldn't care less whether a heroine is a virgin or not, but I do expect truth in advertising in my book titles. Otherwise, The Virgin Who Ruined Lord Gray was an enjoyable book. The pacing is good, the mystery is well done, and based on the author's note at the end, she clearly did her homework. Sophia's three friends, the other residents of the Clifford School, each get their own books in the series and I look forward to exploring their stories soon.
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