I have called this book delightful, charming, and smart. It is all of these and more. I apologize in advance for how long this review is, but I feel very strongly about this book. Here (at last) is my full review of Willa Ramsey’s debut novel Everything But the Earl.*
The story kicks off with a bet between two typical Regency era ne’er-do-wells, rich, lazy losers with nothing better to do. The bet is vicious: the scoundrels bet that one of them will seduce and ruin our heroine, Miss Caroline Crispin, by the end of the season. Caro, a decidedly unconventional young woman, overhears their plan and decides she’ll get her revenge on them first. To do so, Caro enlists the help of her friend’s brother Adam, Earl Ryland, whose fame as a brawler is overstated; all he really wants to do is live quietly in the country and tend his garden. He agrees to help her in her plot to protect her reputation and prevent the losers from ever harming any other young ladies, and in the process… well, hijinks and love ensue.
Sounds like fun, right? It is, and that’s the first thing you’ll notice about this wonderful book: how much fun it is. If you are a fan of smart, witty romance — books by authors like Lisa Kleypas, Julia Quinn, Tessa Dare, Sarah Maclean — you will love this book.
Caroline is smart, and not shy about letting you know it. She is more interested in science and industry than in parties and dresses, and when she does host a party, she makes the guests bring gifts — books, food, candles — that she can donate to charity. She had an unconventional education at Mrs. Helkirk’s, “where strange notions were taught and where it was expected that, one day, the lives of women would be different.” Undoubtedly she was exposed to such revolutionary texts as Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Though the concept and word “feminism” had not been coined yet, Caro is clearly a budding feminist.
When readers or reviewers criticize a historical novel (as one of Ms. Ramsey’s reviewers did) by saying her heroine is anachronistic or too modern, such a position troubles me. Such criticism suggests a belief that “modern” ideas and behaviors — such as outspokenness, or sexual activity outside of marriage, or a woman having ambitions beyond marriage and children — did not exist prior to the modern feminist movement. But that’s simply not true.
One only has to look at the historical record to find outspoken, rebellious women and, also, the mechanisms that were set in place to curb “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” behavior. A woman like Kate in my novel Finding Kate is labeled a shrew, scorned by the people of her village and deemed unmarriageable. In other times and places, nonconforming women have been subjected to tortures such as the “scold’s bridle” or even burned as witches. But the fact remains that if women in earlier eras were not unconventional, there would be no need for punishment for unconventional women.
Do most people conform to the social mores of their time? Yes. Do we want to read novels about those people? Not typically, no. We prefer stories about outliers, rule-breakers, interesting and fascinating people, not people who do everything the way they’re supposed to.
And that reader’s discomfort, I believe, betrays the double-standard of our admiration of rule-breakers. We want our boys to break rules and question authority, but we want our girls to obey.
Caro is not a rule-follower, as good girls should be. Therefore, she is an easy target for the two idiots out to destroy her reputation. Because she’s already on shaky ground socially. Because she’s different.
A trope of historical romance is “the rake”: the hero who breaks the rules and defies convention. He’s wicked, he’s devilish, he’s desirable and sexy. It’s daring to be near him, and it sets the heroine’s heart racing wondering what he’ll do or say next. Everyone loves a bad boy. Just check out the titles of many romance novels and series, and see how many include words like rake, wicked, daring (or dare), sinful, danger, seduce, or even (god help us) cocky… Lord Byron may have been famously “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” but that didn’t destroy his reputation; it enhanced it.
But an unconventional woman? Society has a few choice words for her, and they’re not good ones (you can think of them with no help from me). She’s not desirable or fun to be with; she’s a scandal, a social nightmare. Spend time with her and her stain spreads to you, therefore, she must be avoided. In the Regency period, she would receive the “cut direct” if she dared to show her face at a social event, meaning no one would speak to her; in fact, they’d deliberately turn their backs.
In Ms. Ramsey’s story, people would believe that Caro could be seduced because she was already dancing on the edge of propriety. Never mind the fact that her seducer would also be having sex outside of marriage — who the hell cares? He’s a man. The double standard will make you seethe, and Caro’s taking of her reputation — and her very self-worth — into her own hands will make you root for her.
But it’s still the Regency, and she can’t do it alone. She needs the help of a man. A very good man.
One of the most important things, for me at least, in a romance, is an engaging, believable hero. I am not a fan of the rock-hard, giant hero who is (somehow) also an arrogant, sneering, entitled lord who has never done a day’s work in his life (whence then the muscles, one might inquire?). Every sentence is spoken in a lazy drawl because he is just. so. superior.
Why would I admire this guy?
Thankfully, the great thing about romance — and perhaps its best kept secret — is that it offers a million options. There are heroes of every type, and Adam, the hero of Everything But the Earl, is no rock-hard sneering jerk. In his youth, he trained in boxing (hence, muscles; he comes by them honestly), but he never liked fighting. He did it to please his father. Oh yes, our man has daddy issues that he is endeavoring fervently to work out. His reputation in society is as a brawler, but he doesn’t want that to be who he is — but if that’s not who he is, who is he? Is his manhood tied up in his fists? Or can he be a man if he stays at home cultivating his gardens? The issues for Adam are as complex and as rooted in gender expectations as the issues Caro struggles with.
I have gone on for far too long, but the story earned that passion from me. This nuanced and layered novel examines social constructs while also succeeding as a love story with some wonderful sexy scenes. Minor characters have their intrigues that I look forward to reading more about in future novels: What’s the story behind the dashing and mysterious Lord Quillen? What secret lies in the past of the “lady scientist” Lady Mariah? This story, and these characters, will stay with you long after you are finished reading.
Everything But the Earl is available now from City Owl Press, and the Kindle version is 99 cents for a short time during its debut: amzn.to/2MaYGrj
*Everything But the Earl was published by City Owl Press, the same publisher that published Finding Kate.