The Best Intentions

The Bride Sale

Miss Lacey's Last Fling

Once a Dreamer

Once a Scoundrel
by Candice Hern
(Avon, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-06-050563-X
One of the most interesting challenges to authors of historical romance is to create a historically accurate setting without overwhelming the love story. Some authors simply don’t bother; the history is simply wallpaper to the story and the characters are modern folk in fancy clothes. Candice Hern is not one of these authors. Herself a close student of early 19th century England, she writes books that ring true historically and she uses her knowledge of the past to make her stories more entertaining. Once a Scoundrel is a textbook example of how this can be done.

One problem that authors face is to provide a plausible scenario for the now de rigueur consummation scene. I have read too many romances where the love scenes seem improbable. Yes, gently bred young women undoubtedly were carried away by passion in the past. But the penalties for illicit sex were so potentially great in the early 19th century that the willingness of proper young ladies to throw discretion to the winds in so many romances leaves me shaking my head. Moreover, seduction of an innocent was not the behavior of a gentleman and often appears less than heroic. Hern creates a scenario where this is not a problem.

The year is 1801, a difficult time in England’s history. The country has been at war with France for seven years and the war has not gone well. Harvests are bad; taxes are high; and there is unrest in many quarters. Any suggestion that there is a need to ameliorate the situation or to change and improve the unreformed political system is viewed as Jacobinism by the paranoid ruling class. Yet there are many English men and women who believe that reform is necessary. Our heroine, Edwina Parrish, is one such reformer.

Eight years earlier, Edwina had accompanied her brother and other like-minded friends to Paris to observe the then hopeful changes occurring in France. She had been caught up in the optimism of the early days of the revolution, but had also witnessed and suffered through its descent into terror. Her experience had left her wary of revolutionary change but still convinced of the necessity of reform. Her chief goal is to improve the status of women and her vehicle is The Ladies’ Fashionable Cabinet, a women’s magazine owned by her uncle which she edits. Edwina’s purpose is to subtlety challenge the conservative message of other women’s magazines which insist that women must be nothing more than empty-headed adornments.

Edwina’s project is threatened when her uncle loses the magazine in a card game. The man who wins The Cabinet is Anthony Morehouse, the “scoundrel” of the title. Anthony is really not a complete scoundrel by any means; he is merely a typical upper class man who lives a typical upper class lifestyle. Yes, he’s a disappointment to his father; yes, he’s a gambler, albeit a very successful one; yes, he’s a womanizer. But he’s really not a bad man.

Moreover, he and Edwina have a history. They knew each other as children when Edwina visited her grandparents who were neighbors of the Morehouses. Anthony does not have totally fond memories of Edwina. After all, she consistently beat him at all the games they engaged in. But when he walks into the offices of his new possession and sees the beautiful grown-up Edwina, his intentions of selling off The Cabinet as soon as he can go out the window. Instead, Anthony wagers Edwina that if she can double the number of subscriptions in four months, he will turn over the magazine to her. He then proceeds to do all in his power to lose the wager.

Edwina and Anthony are well matched. Neither can resist a challenge and their relationship continues the competition begun all those years ago. But underneath the banter and the contest is a growing attraction, rooted both in their past and in their current relationship. Certainly Anthony is attracted to Edwina’s beauty, but he is also attracted to her passion for her cause, to her commitment, something that is lacking in his own life. Edwina gradually comes to see that beneath Anthony’s fashionable veneer there lurks a good brain and a kind heart. But is she willing to once again risk her heart?

As I noted above, Hern’s scenario creates a plausible path to the consummation of the sexual tension that sparks between the two. Edwina is no innocent, nor is she a conventional miss. She understands the game that she and Anthony are playing and she plays it well.

Hern uses the publication of The Cabinet effectively to add humor to her story. Particularly amusing is Anthony’s insistence on adding more fashion coverage to the magazine and the way he achieves it. Likewise, Edwina’s own lack of fashion sense and his instruction of her on how to describe what women are wearing is most entertaining.

Hern has created an unconventional heroine and a charming hero. She has integrated into her tale a fascinating look at the early days of women’s magazines and depiction of society, both high and low, in the difficult times of 1801. She has provided an interesting cast of secondary characters. In short, Hern has written a very good historical romance.

--Jean Mason

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