I’d never read a Maxwell romance and embarked on A Match Made In Bed with curiosity and enthusiasm. Because I’m a naïve, gullible reader who’s too easily pleased, I lauded Maxwell to a Twitter friend and smiled smugly to myself on having “discovered” a great, new-to-me historical romance author. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up where I began. A Match Made In Bed showed initial promise. The hero and heroine intrigued me and the narrative promised compelling themes about money, women’s place in society, class, and family dynamics.
Soren York, Lord Dewsberry, and Miss Cassandra Holwell meet at a house party held outside of London. It’s not their first encounter. They share an interesting history: their Cornish-origined families have long feuded over past deception. Soren, aware of Cassandra’s dislike, yet woos her … because he needs an heiress’s money to bolster his soon-to-be-lost estate, Pentreath Castle. The novel opens with great banter and a wonderful antagonistic attraction between Cassandra and Soren. Even though Soren is mercenary, Maxwell manages to show us how he’s also kind and honourable. Cassandra is bookish and intelligent and has a lot of our sympathy, nursing a childhood hurt inflicted, unknowingly mind you, by Soren.
Miss Bates was conflicted reading Duran’s latest, A Lady’s Code Of Misconduct, her responses a roller-coaster of dips and climbs of disappointment or enthusiasm. Misconduct contains Duran’s signature themes: trust, conscience, identity, wealth, class, ambition, power, and how they mesh, shift, and change as two people who start out one way make their way to their better selves because they discover they love the other.
To start, Duran’s narrative takes a convoluted route, opening with a compelling scene and then flashback to bring us the sequence of events leading to it. A man in his prime, a Victorian MP, Crispin Burke, lies dying of a head wound in his parents’ London house. Charlotte, his sister, brings a young woman to his death-bed, a woman who is familiar, yet he’s ignorant of their relationship. Jane Burke, née Mason, announces she is his wife.
Duran then takes us three months prior: filling in Crispin and Jane’s unholy alliance, bred of coercion, manipulation, and expediency. Duran’s plot starts and remains tangled. Crispin and Jane have been long-acquainted: Crispin, a frequent visitor to Jane’s uncle’s, her guardian’s, estate. Allied by ambition, Crispin and Uncle Philip shared a politics of personal gain. They’re not friends, nor loyal, content to use each other for political gain. Duran sets up the villainy: by pointing to how people, without love, see the other as an object, used for personal advancement. Continue reading
Kate Noble writes romance of complexity and thought. And her most recent The Dare and the Doctor is wrought in this vein: thoughtful, with nuanced characters caught in believable dilemmas, and with growing feelings of love for the wrong person. Miss Bates admits that, while she enjoyed the novel in its entirety, prose and characterization and plot, her favourite part was the opening section for its epistolary nature. Miss Margaret Babcock of Lincolnshire, horticulturist extraordinare, she of rose cross-breeding fame, found a friend and kindred spirit in Dr. Rhys Gray, former army surgeon and now Greenwich-based, when he attended her father at their estate and relieved him of his gout. Since, and serving in a marvelous series of exchanged letters, Margaret and Rhys have enjoyed a close, warm, and witty correspondence, deepening and growing their friendship. Knowing that Margaret’s dream is to present her prize roses to the Horticultural Society, Rhys arranges for her to meet with them in London. Margaret travels to London to stay with their mutual friends, Lord Ashby, Ned; wife, Phoebe; and cherubically fun six-month-old, Edward. Rhys, in turn, travels from his Greenwich laboratory to London to reconnect with old and dear friends Ned and Phoebe and see Margaret.
In Secrets Of A Scandalous Heiress,” the final volume in her Regency-set Matchmakers trilogy, Theresa Romain offers a romance as much about identity as finding and keeping love. Miss Bates read and loved the second in the trilogy, To Charm A Naughty Countess. The former follows the latter in theme and concern, though reading Scandalous Heiress as a stand-alone doesn’t require any previous knowledge. Romain loves to create characters who are on the fringe of a rigid and judgemental ton: they may have a whiff of scandal, or peculiarity about them. Their romance narratives see the working-out of how they accept, relish, and come to enjoy happiness despite their marginalized positions. Romain’s romances are not cross-class, but are concerned with class no less.
The eponymous scandalous, secretive heiress is Augusta Meredith. She and hero Josiah “Joss” Everett meet in Bath’s Pump Room. They share a previous, vague acquaintance and have been aware of each other as living on the fringes of the ton: Josiah, by virtue of his blood (his mother was half-Indian); Augusta, by virtue of class (her parents made oodles of money with a built-from-humble-origins cosmetics company). Their arrival in Bath comes from dissatisfaction and dilemma. Augusta recently lost her parents and was lied to and abandoned by a worthless lover. She poses as the widowed Mrs. Flowers to find a lover, hoping that an affair will assuage her grief and heart-ache. Josiah, who works as his cousin’s, Baron Sutcliffe’s, man of business is trying to uncover the baron’s blackmailer. They encounter, recognize, and agree to help each other achieve their goals. The opening chapter is filled with wit and banter, note Josiah’s consideration of Augusta’s figure, “a young woman with more curves than subtlety.” Augusta, on her part, notes Joss’ sandalwood scent, hinting of his heritage and, as she later observes, “a man of kind hands and unexpected honour.” They are attracted to each other; while class doesn’t separate them, money does. Augusta is “heiress to a cosmetics fortune” and Joss wants to scrape together a hundred pounds to leave his dissipated, immoral cousin’s employ. When she proposes that he become her lover, he refuses, citing his integrity and self-possession. He wants her, though. Continue reading
Rose Lerner’s True Pretenses is permeated with its protagonists’ sadness and loneliness. Romance readers take it on faith that heroine and hero may be torn by angst and trauma; cataclysmic life-events may alter a person’s consciousness. Yet, we’re often told this about romance heroes and heroines while reading about two people who flail around with pseudo-pain, but seem to have a good time otherwise. Most telling are the love scenes, where angst is forgotten, where traumatic events stop at the bedroom door: all is redeemed in a flurry of physical ecstasy. But people bring their sadness and loneliness, their traumas if they’ve experienced any, into every aspect of their lives. It’s hard to write that into a romance novel: it takes psychological acumen and risk to emerge out of the genre’s conventions to write about two people who are unhappy, who aren’t sure even when they seem to have found someone they’re attracted to and like that they can recover from their sadness. Rose Lerner has done this very thing in True Pretenses, the saddest romance novel Miss Bates has ever read. It’s slow and meandering, and it near broke her heart. As Lerner reached the climax of her story, it intensified; it brought all that disparate uncertainty, ennui, and melancholy into focus: pointed to all the ways we lie and make ourselves unhappy, all the rigid rules and self-regulations that lead to stultified lives. Continue reading