Maneuvering for a Good Cause: The Gentleman’s Gambit by Evie Dunmore
BY SHAUNA MCINTYRE
The Gentleman’s Gambit (Berkley, 2023) is the fourth and final book in Evie Dunmore’s historical romance series, A League of Extraordinary Women. Each book features one of four women at the heart of the Oxford suffragist movement in the late 19th century. In The Gentleman’s Gambit, it is Catriona Campbell’s turn to find love.
While Dunmore’s books certainly fall into the category of swoony romance, they are also packed full of an astounding amount of history. She pulls this off by grounding her characters in the setting, making it “feel lived in rather than showcased.” This is evident when seemingly unimportant details have outsized impacts on the character’s lives.
Her use of tiny historical details illuminates much more than the themes of romance and friendship. In one scene, Catriona is pressed by her friends into helping with a fire drill and Dunmore uses it to highlight the plight of women in that time.
“…it’s such a great embodiment of the absurdity of women’s situation back then: that female college students had to train to be firefighters to save themselves in case of a fire because women’s colleges were built so far from town centers for the sake of preserving their reputation. Questionable priorities.”
The friendship between the four women is nearly as important to the story as the romantic relationship and is intricately tied to their joint efforts to improve the lives of women. It was never a conscious decision for Dunmore to include such strong bonds of friendship throughout her books, but she sees it as “just a wonderful, life-sustaining thing. Also, found family can be more supportive than blood relations, especially when you diverge from the norm.”
Despite their divergent interests and backgrounds, they came together over the suffrage cause and formed lasting bonds. Dunmore explains, “During the time when my books are set, men were often the only access to a decent life for a woman… Your lot rose and fell with that of your husband or male relative. I imagine it was tempting to regard other women as competitors for that crucial man resource, but in the long run you had to dismantle the structures that made men so important to survival just because they were men. The suffragists understood that. They had their differences, but they also had great camaraderie and it was one of the aspects that kept the movement alive.”
Catriona is the bookish and introverted one of the four women and very determined to focus on her own academic dreams instead of always supporting those around her. Something that was not easy for her considering her work for the suffragist cause. Her plans are further interrupted when Elias Khoury shows up on her father’s doorstep ostensibly to classify a storeroom full of artefacts but in reality, he is there to steal back the items he has come to study. Catriona is tasked with helping him with the classification and things get complicated quickly.
Capturing the romance between Catriona and Elias could have proved a challenge considering her introverted nature. Dunmore found ways to make the most of this. “I gave Elias and Catriona a head-start by having him see her naked during their meet-cute. A man wouldn’t usually see a Victorian lady in the nude unless he was her husband, so that encounter ripped up protocol so completely, they could interact outside of convention right away. It was rewarding to feel their banter flow quite naturally from the start because Elias just accepts Catriona’s unconventional directness – for him it’s not necessarily distinguishable from her culture’s more direct way of speaking (compared to his), so he is gracious about it instead of judging her.”
While having different cultural backgrounds may have made it easier for them to develop a relationship, that he is perhaps not the conventional choice for someone in her position can also make it difficult. Dunmore says, “By the 1880s, more dukes and earls had married commoners than ladies had married noblemen of colour. For example, the first Indian nobleman to marry a lady apparently didn’t happen until 1898 and he required special permission even though he was Queen Victoria’s godson; the first lady to marry an Arab sheikh was recorded in the 1850s and they spent their entire married life outside of Britain.”
While artefact theft and the rights of women may not appear to have much in common, Dunmore points out that the roots of both issues are in fact the same. “The Englishman’s sense of entitlement and supremacy that fueled women’s oppression in England showed parallels to the entitlement and supremacy that drove the matter-of-course looting of Eastern artefacts and the subjugation of local people. It’s not a coincidence that European women achieved the vote only after the old imperial order finally combusted after World War 1. The artefact story line was a vehicle to explore those connections.”
In bringing these two issues together, Dunmore marries more than just artefact looting and the suffragist movement. Most of the women in the Extraordinary League books end up in slightly unconventional relationships. Perhaps their interest in women’s suffrage, a radical concept for some at the time, made them more willing to follow their hearts outside of convention.
About the contributor: Shauna McIntyre is a writer and editor of historical fiction, currently working on a series focused on female prairie homesteaders. She reviews books and writes online feature articles for the HNS. Visit her website.