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Book Review: A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes

A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes

by Suzanne Enoch

St. Martin’s, 2011

There are no cars or planes in A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes, the latest beguiling romance novel from industry veteran and sure-fire reader-pleaser Suzanne Enoch. Horse-drawn carriages abound, people pay other people in shillings, not euros, and male characters join clubs like White’s, the Society, and Boodle’s. Someone with an ear for period dialogue (references to ‘the Season’ and ‘the Ton,’ for instance) might be able to take an accurate stab at the book’s setting, but the text itself provides no explicit help – no reference to historical events, no allusion to actual historical personages, and no dates.

The period is of course the Regency, that stretch of time from 1811 to 1820 when King George III was incapacitated but his feckless son was only Regent in his name, not King. It’s a period Enoch has mined repeatedly for her clever and endlessly entertaining books (I first learned of her with Lady Rogue from 1997 and haven’t missed a book since), and she’s had plenty of company: hundreds of romance authors (from Jane Austen on down) have gravitated toward the Regency for its alluring blend of restrictive social rules and peppy, fast-paced dialogue. For decades, Regencies filled the romance market – most, trite and formulaic, some, like Enoch’s, fizzy and funny – as reliable as the sunrise. Then, out of nowhere, the end came.

The birth of the 21st century saw the death of Regency romances as a clearly-identified sub-category, a death brought on by two things that were really one: the new generation of readers was on average considerably dumber than the old one had been (the few of them who’d even recognize well-done witty banter would be bored by it), and that new generation wanted sex, sex, sex – as quick and vivid as possible, preferably before Chapter 1, in the Prologue, in the first sentence, in the title, and certainly on the cover. For these readers, the old pattern of Regency covers depicting fully-clothed lords and ladies conversing in country house libraries might as well be stacks of incomprehensible binary code.

The Regencies that still appear in bookstores are carefully repackaged as general ‘historical’ books. They’re longer, more diffuse in plot, and the publishers dutifully call in Paul Marron to sex up the covers – every attempt is made, in other words, to avoid frightening off potential readers. Something as carefully constructed and historically grounded as the old Regency romances might never be seen again.

Thankfully, we’ve got writers like Enoch around to maintain the aforementioned sharp pacing and clever dialogue, even stripped of opening date and contextualizing details. In her latest, Diane Benchley returns to London intent on establishing a gentlemen’s gambling club on her own terms and run by a staff of women. More than two years before, she was in Vienna with her husband Lord Cameron when that gentleman suddenly died, leaving her broke and alone in the middle of Europe. In Vienna she’d met Oliver Warren, the gorgeous wastrel nephew of the Marquis of Haybury, and although the two had shared a secret, they’d never really expected to see each other again. Now Lady Diane is back in London, and Oliver has become Marquis in his own right and seems an even bigger rake than when she first knew him. And he not only has money to lend her for opening her new establishment, the Tantalus Club, but he’s got the experience at gambling and games of chance that she needs in order to train her largely clueless female staff in running the tables. To put it mildly, it’s an uneasy partnership:

“It occurs to me that I should be present for these interviews.” [Oliver tells her, speaking of the young women applying to work the gaming tables] “After all, being pretty and literate does not make anyone a good faro dealer.”

Diane stood. With him leaning into the sill they were very nearly the same height, and she glared straight at him. “I will hire whomever I choose, for whichever reasons I deem appropriate for my needs. After I’ve hired them, I shall summon you to give instructions. At at point -”

“And if they can’t manage wagering?”

“At that point,” she repeated, ignoring his interruption, “I shall … permit you to voice an opinion as to which of them might be more suited than others for the various positions available at the Tantalus Club.”

Slowly, he straightened, and she found herself craning her neck to keep her gaze on his face. “You may have a damning letter,” he said, “but you’d be better served to keep in mind that I have a great deal of money and influence, Diane. If you turn this into a battle, I will crush you.”

She sniffed. “Color me impressed. I’ve been penniless and friendless already, Haybury. You may grind me into the ground again, but I’ll see that you find yourself in the same patch of mud. Now go away until I send for you.

That anachronistic ‘color me impressed’ is pretty much par for the course in these current quasi-Regencies, even by such practiced hands as Enoch; concessions to a new readership are everywhere around the edges of A Beginner’s Guide to Rakes and books like it. The days when the characters of Georgette Heyer could break into untranslated French are long gone, and I suspect they’re not coming back.