It’s rare that Miss B. reacts to a romance (maybe because her choices tend to the tried and true these days) as she did to Amy Sandas’s The Untouchable Earl. About half way through, she wanted to DNF. But there was a sense of purpose and theme to it that said, “No, no, keep reading.” So, she did. And now that it’s done, she doesn’t quite know what to say about it. At its heart is a sexual healing theme that Miss B. despises, akin to her curled-lip reaction to Lisa Valdez’s Passion, possibly rivaling Old Skool romance to be the worst romance novel ever written. And yet, she also can’t dismiss The Untouchable Earl the way she can Passion. Its premise is the stuff of high eye-rolling melodrama. Melodramatic circumstances conspire to bring Plain-Jane husband-seeking ton debutante Lily Chadwick, kidnapped and drugged, up for auction at Madame Pendragon’s, a brothel. It’s all pretty sordid and awful until the eponymous Earl, a hero with possibly the most ridiculous name in romance, Avenell Harte (with, yes, the obvious pun there) purchases Lily and her intact maidenhead. As far as maidenheads go, hers isn’t half as impressive as Passion’s, but still. It doesn’t look like her maidenhead’s in any danger when we find out that Avenell (she’s strictly forbidden from saying his name and when you consider how lame it is, you can understand the guy’s reluctance) … well, he’s functional and all, but he can’t bear to be touched.
Miss Bates is a Tessa Dare fan. She read the first three Spindle Cove novels and adored them, especially the third, A Week To Be Wicked, with its bespectacled paleontologist-heroine and dissolute rake-hero. Also, it’s a road romance and Miss B. loves a road romance almost as much as she does a closed-cabin one.
Do You Want To Start A Scandal, Spindle Cove #5, doesn’t take place in Spindle Cove, but at the Nottinghamshire estate of Sir Vernon Parkhurst and, as such, is more a closed-estate romance, with a dash of closed-room mystery thrown in. Heroine Charlotte Highwood and hero Piers Brandon, Marquess of Granville, are Sir Vernon’s guests. When the novel opens, neither is in a good place. Charlotte’s marriage-machinating mum, reminiscent of Austen’s Mrs. Bennett, has landed her in the humiliating position of being a gossip-rag’s ridiculed gull, the Prattler‘s. Charlotte is the source of the eponymous “scandal” and the moniker plagues her throughout. Piers, on the other hand, is everything proper, controlled, and aristocratic. His presence at the Parkhurst estate, however, is not in the convention of the languid gentleman enjoying a few weeks in the country. He’s on official crown business, spying on Sir Vernon, who may be asked, by the government, to take a sensitive overseas position. Piers is there to find out if scandal, tryst, blackmail, or any politically-lethal weakness, may put the crown at risk of humiliation. So, Charlotte, prodded by her mother, is on a husband-finding mission while Piers is on a fact-finding one.
Theresa Romain writes despondent romances. Her characters are noble and good; her prose is elegant. Her hero and heroine are in a bad place when we meet them. Miss Bates likes that Romain doesn’t lay the angst on thick, however. Her characters’ sadness is perniciously persistent, like a low-grade fever. Things are wrong somewhere, but the appearance of things seems all right. Every time Miss Bates reads one of Romain’s romances, she frequently doubts she’ll finish it. And yet, each time, she does and is quite satisfied and rewarded by Romain’s HEA.
Romain’s latest, Fortune Favors the Wicked is typical of the author. In 1817, retired, blind Royal Navy Lieutenant Benedict Frost arrives in London, from on board “The Argent,” to sell his sailing memoir to publisher George Pitman. His minimal pension means he can’t offer Georgette, his sister, anything but a pittance. He hopes his soon-to-be-best-selling memoir will save the day when Georgette leaves their cousins’ home upon reaching her majority. He also learns that 50 000 pounds-worth of the king’s gold was stolen. When his manuscript is rejected, Benedict realizes the reward money may serve to help Georgette. He sets off for Derbyshire to recover the gold and win the reward money. Meanwhile in Strawfield, Derbyshire, we meet heroine Miss Charlotte Perry, vicar’s daughter. She too aims to ensure a young relation’s welfare: her ten-year-old niece, Maggie, named after Charlotte’s deceased sister, Margaret. Charlotte is also in search of the gold. Benedict and Charlotte’s meet-cute is inevitable.
Jo Beverley’s 1991 Emily and the Dark Angel restores your faith in the genre. That was Miss Bates’s thought as she turned the last page with a satisfied reader’s affection-sigh. Miss Bates is glad she read Emily Grantwich and Piers Verderan’s wooing on paper: a traditional format for a traditional Regency, which never loses its freshness, elegance, or emotional power. What brings about that lift, the reader’s spirit-rise, the recognition of “I’m in the presence of one of the genre’s greats”? It’s difficult to pinpoint, as elusive as catching a sunbeam. It’s trope-manipulation, or gentle tinkering; it’s psychological acumen. It’s the bringing-to-life of time and place; it’s secondary characters who breathe. It’s turn of phrase the reader recalls long after the last page is turned. It’s banter and confession and the fulfilled promises of desire and being understood.
Emily and the Dark Angel contains one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance pairings, opposites-attract: Emily is sensible to Ver’s imprudence, countryside respectability to Ver’s citified worldliness, propriety to his flouting of social conventions, innocent to his debauchery, staid to his temperament, plain to his gorgeousness, and Miss Bates’s absolute favourite, her diminutive stature to his gargantuan. When this yin-yang romance combination is handled as cleverly and sensitively as Beverley’s, the HEA is about the couple’s integrating the best of each other in themselves. Core identity is preserved for tension and interest, but tempered to show us how they will live in harmony.
Miss Bates loves the opposites-attract romance trope, especially when the hero’s and heroine’s surface characteristics mask their opposites. Opposites-attract “squared” describes Sabrina Jeffries’s second Sinful Suitors 1830-set romance, The Study Of Seduction. “Grumpy Edwin” Barlow, Earl of Blakeborough, pits himself against “frivolous beauty” Lady Clarissa Lindsey, his sister’s best friend. In time, Edwin reveals a wicked wit and Clarissa, a gravitas borne of pain.
Edwin is a member of the St. George’s Club, a gentleman’s circle dedicated to protecting their families’ and friends’ women from scoundrels, socalled “sinful suitors.” Edwin’s friend, Warren Corry, Marquess of Knightford, Clarissa’s cousin, has watched out for her and her widowed mother, Lady Margrave. Knightford is called away to the continent to help Clarissa’s brother, Niall. Edwin and Clarissa, long-acquainted, have sparred and jabbed at each other since Clarissa and Yvette, Edwin’s sister, tittered, gossiped, and shopped together. Edwin’s steadfast, stodgy, introverted propriety rubs Clarissa’s social butterfly effervescence and flirtatious energy to poke and prod at his restrained demeanor. Nevertheless, Edwin insists he take Knightford’s place, protecting Clarissa from a stalker. Count Geraud Durand, France’s chargé d’affaires, follows, goads, importunes, and forces his unwanted, oily attentions on Clarissa and infuriates Edwin.
Miss Bates read the complex, thematically-rich work of Katharine Ashe for the first time in Ashe’s Regency-set The Rogue. If a comparison is useful, she was reminded of elements in Elizabeth Hoyt’s historical romances: a double-narrative, one of which remains mysterious and elliptical, an earthy-rawness to the love scenes, a cross-class theme, an independent-minded heroine, and a protective, but not overbearing hero. Miss Bates loves Hoyt and responded to Ashe’s Rogue likewise. Though The Rogue is first in the “Devil’s Duke” series, it is connected to Ashe’s four-book “Falcon Club” one. Ashe discussses connections in character and plot in The Rogue‘s afterword. Miss Bates admits to some difficulty following the complicated narrative threads and connections “during reading,” but no trouble loving the MCs, Lady Constance Read and the eponymous Frederick Evan Chevalier de Saint-André Sterling. Constance and “Saint” (he is pretty sublime) met six years before the novel’s action proper, at a house-party. Saint thought the lurking-in-shadows beauty was a maid. They met secretly for two weeks, falling in love, before they were discovered and Constance’s aristocratic-wealthy-heiress future was evident to Saint. Their classless Eden sundered and they were thrown into classist exile. Saint was left heart-broken and betrayed, yet ignorant of Constance’s heart-break over losing him. Continue reading
Miss Bates’s heart went pitter-patter when Kelly Bowen’s hero in Duke Of My Heart first appeared. The heroine is ignorant of his duca-city and has “the vague impression of a worn greatcoat, battered boots, and a hulking bearing.” This is no ordinary ducal presence, suave, roguish, rakey, or even beta; this duke is PIRATICAL. And piratical is good: we don’t have enough ship-board romance and we need more! Alas, Maximus Harcourt, Duke of Alderidge is no more piratical than a Regency spinster. He is, however, a “hulking” presence and Miss Bates settled into Bowen’s Regency romance with smug satisfaction.
Maximus unexpectedly returns from India to an in-an-uproar household and Ivory Moore’s presence, a stranger in his rarely-occupied home. He is one irritated, confused duke. Max’s beloved eighteen-year-old sister, Lady Beatrice is missing; his Aunt Helen, beside herself; and, one naked, dead Earl of Debarry, aka the “Earl of Debauchery,” is tethered to his sister’s bed with red, satin ribbons. The scandal, she is HUGE! What was a spinster aunt to do but call on the ton’s detective-fixer, Ivory Moore, to hold back scandal and locate Beatrice.
Lily Maxton’s The Improper Bride is the fifth Regency romance in the Sisters of Scandal series. The scandal informing it is one of Miss Bates’s least favourite tropes, the cross-class historical romance. Least favourite because, at least in Regency or Victorian Britain where most of these romances are set, was as unlikely as it was scandalous. And yet, the fairy-tale-like mood of Maxton’s version makes it more palatable.
The Improper Bride possesses Eyre-like tendencies, as any cross-class romance owes its raison d’être to the near-bigamous fraught relationship between a dissipated aristocrat and mousy governess. Like Brontë’s Eyre, the hero’s near-death by fire changes him. Henry Eldridge, Marquess of Riverton suffers burns to his face and arm when one wing of his Buckinghamshire estate, Blakewood Hall, is set aflame. In his pain and delirium, Henry feels the soothing touch of an angel. Cassandra Davis, Henry’s housekeeper, seeing to his comfort, is seized by a compulsion to touch him; she’s always wanted to touch the “coldly perfect marquess”. When Henry recovers sufficiently to grow restless and jeopardize the use of his arm, Mr. Faulkner, his doctor, advises Mrs. Davies to keep him occupied. A poor but cultivated daughter of a country teacher who loves to learn, Cassandra asks Lord Riverton to spend some time each day teaching her German. Continue reading
Now that Miss Bates has read Bliss Bennet’s second romance novel, she can place her in histrom-world with Rose Lerner, Cecilia Grant, and recent discovery Blythe Gifford. They all have the rare, and becoming rarer, ability to create main characters who reflect their times and are in turn uniquely, likably themselves. Their main characters’ constraints are not solely those of personality or circumstance, but political, economic, social, and/or gender strictures. Bennet creates creatures of their time and yet uniquely themselves, approachable and sympathetic to the reader. In her second Pennington romance, Bennet tells the story of Sibilla Pennington, sister to Rebel Without A Rogue‘s Kit Pennington. Like Lerner’s Lydia in True Pretenses, Bennet’s heroine is a young woman grieving her beloved father’s recent loss. Neither Lydia nor Sibilla were daddy’s-girls-spoiled-princesses. Their fathers’ love and acknowledgement allowed them the unique opportunity for women of their time, to lead lives of social and political purpose. Without their paternal lodestones, they’re adrift. Their only recourse is to place their political championing onto their reluctant brothers and make marriages of convenience to further their charitable causes. Continue reading
“No, no, Papa. I won’t. You cannot make me.”
Anne Gracie’s 1999 Gallant Waif opens with Julia Davenport’s rejection of hero Jack Carstairs as she pleads with her father to release her from their engagement. Jack returned from the Peninsular War scarred and disabled. Julia could live with his disfigurement and inability to trip the light fantastic, but his poverty is unforgivable. And so, disowned by his father, barred from war’s arena, and spurned by his fiancée, months later Jack still broods and drinks in his neglected estate like a big, handsome male version of Miss Havisham. Until Lady Cahill, his irascible, adorably officious grandmother, befriends Kate Farleigh, her deceased god-daughter’s daughter, and deposits her in his household, ostensibly as his housekeeper. Jack and Kate were wounded by the war. She followed the drum to care for her pastor-father and soldier-brothers until they died and, to her shame, was then captured and became a French officer’s mistress. Jack and Kate share a deep shame for their war experiences and cannot separate what happened to them from what they perceive their failures and shortcomings. Continue reading