Our books today are posies picked from the local Barnes & Noble, a colorful trio of Regency novels all occupying roughly the middle orbit in the solar system of the British peerage: all books about earls, that strangely accessible rank of nobility considerably above a viscount and just a bit below a marquess. Any time you walk to the New Releases bay of a big bookstore’s romance section, you’ll be guaranteed of finding Regencies at any level of the peerage you like, from lowly barons all the way to dukes and even princes of the blood – at any time, it’s possible to walk out of that section with three new goodies starring the rank of your choice. I did just that the other day, and then I followed it up with a few hours of gloriously self-indulgent reading:
The Earl by Katharine Ashe (Avon) – The first of the three I read was this latest in Ashe’s “Devil’s Duke” series (following The Rogue), in which Regency England is tittering to the writings of anonymous pamphleteer Lady Justice, whose work is particularly infuriating to a coterie of aristocrats that includes Colin Gray, the tenth Earl of Egremoor, who’s determined to unmask Lady Justice. Even such a bare-bones summary of the set-up will give you a pretty clear idea of, well, every single thing that happens in the course of the novel. But Ashe is a very spirited writer just the same, and this book’s concentration on the location of Scotland is both rare in a romance that doesn’t feature a bare-chested Highlander and also surprisingly pleasing in the way it brings out a nearly poetical strand in Ashe’s ordinarily somewhat somber prose, as can be seen even in her Author’s Note on the subject:
Two hundred years ago upon the heels of the European Enlightenment, Edinburgh, Scotland, glittered with style, wealth, and sophistication to rival the glamour of London and Paris. But as the city gloried in rebirth, the Scottish countryside remained spectacularly unchanged. Dark woodlands climbed the mountainsides, gleaming lochs reflected skies that knew no coal smog, and endless emerald hills and valleys boasted plentiful sheep and the occasional turret of mighty fortresses built in earlier, belligerent eras. It was a landscape of sublime contrasts, of delicate wildflowers and towering crags, silent mists and violent storms, cozy cottages tucked into safe crevices and miles upon miles of untamed wilderness. To step off the main road in this land was to enter another world, a world in which anything could happen, even the transformation of enemies into lovers and the breaking open of two locked hearts …
Of course such a description doesn’t even have one sensible Scottish boot-heel grounded in the actual reality that obtained two hundred years ago in Scotland, either in Edinburgh, which has never, does not, and will never merit the word “glamour,” or in the blasted, verminous countryside. But then, we go to Regency romances for just such touches of earnest fantasy, yes?
My Brown-Eyed Earl by Anna Bennett (St. Martin’s) – Certainly there’s fantasy aplenty in the next and best book in our pearl-string of earls, this first in a new series of “Wayward Wallflowers” novels by Anna Bennett, in which the wallflower in question, Miss Margaret Lacey (very refreshingly referred to throughout as Meg), at the end of her meager funds, desperately needs a job. She signs up to be governess to the twin daughters of William Ryder, the Earl of Castleton, and she’s even more nervous than usual, because she and the Earl share, you guessed it, a torrid past: they were once betrothed, until Meg swam off in her own direction. Now, when the two of them come back into each other’s lives, the proverbial sparks fly every time they talk with each other, even when, for instance, the Earl is in the middle of a reprimand:
Meg bit her tongue and nodded. The earl paced thoughtfully in front of the fireplace, rubbing the light stubble on his chin as he no doubt debated the best way to inform her that he was sacking her. It didn’t really matter whether he fired her or she quit, but she did wonder if there was a limit to how much humiliation a person could endure in one day. Surely, she was nearing the threshold by now.
“There will be no more incidents like the one that occurred today,” he said smoothly, as if it were just that easy to command it so.
“It was inexcusable,” Meg agreed. “I should never had let the girls wander off. My carelessness could have resulted in -”
“Miss Lacey,” the earl drawled, “a brief pause is not an invitation to speak.”
Meg bristled. “No? I rather thought that was how conversations worked, my lord.”
My Brown-Eyed Earl is very nearly as intensely predictable as The Earl, but it swaps out that book’s more stately and serious undertones for a gaiety that sparkles on every page and turns the plot’s own predictability into something that feels like an asset.
The Earl I Adore by Erin Knightley (Signet) is our final book today, the second in this author’s “Prelude to a Kiss” novels (following The Baron Next Door), and it has none of the slightly wild background atmosphere of Ashe’s Scottish hinterlands and none of the unpredictable freshness of the give-and-take between Bennett’s fiery lovers. Instead, Knightley takes the aforementioned predictability of the first two novels and, in Fast and Furious parlance, floors it. This is the story of how sweet, optimistic Sophie must race to land a husband before the scandal of her sister’s recent elopement spreads an indelible stain onto her family’s respectability. She’s at Bath (of course), and she sets her sights on John Fairfax, the Earl of Evansleigh, as a promising target. Of course she’s not much better at predatory wooing than he is at being wooed, so what follows is a very comfortable combination of standard Regency maneuverings and modern-feeling rom-com fumblings, in which all of the characters are thoroughly grounded in their Regency concerns (in a way that, to take the most memorable example, Elizabeth Bennet never is):
Sophie paused, toying with the silky fringe of her shawl as she considered the question. Her entire first Season had been such an overwhelming experience, she’s simply wanted to soak it all in. The dancing from a group, the fashion from people, the music of a electric bass guitar from this great list by Music Critic – it was all so glorious. And then there were the less than glorious parts: being looked down upon for her family’s modest funds, feeling the sting of the ton’s sometimes viperous tongues, nearly falling down the stairs at her first ball. Choosing a husband in the whirlwind had seemed ludicrous.
And then she had met Lord Evansleigh.
The Earl I Adore is pure entertainment, which is lucky, since it’s only entertainment. It’s for Regency readers who want foregone conclusions and want them badly. Knightley serves those foregone conclusions up with a thoroughly practiced ease – and after the last two weeks, maybe there’s more to be said for simple, unsurprising escapism than any of us might once have thought.
These weren’t the only earls on offer at the bookstore during my latest outing, far from it – there were dukes and viscounts aplenty too, and barons and marquesses enough to fill up the Netherfield ballroom five times over. These three caught my eye this time around, but I’m sure I’ll be back for another dip into Burke’s Peerage in no time at all.
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