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.