The Madcap Masquerade

The Misguided Matchmaker

A Touch of Magic

The Unlikely Angel

 
The Barbarian Earl by Nadine Miller
(Signet, $4.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19887-5
*
This book should carry a warning label. Caution: Reading this book may be hazardous to your knowledge of English law, forms of address, and conduct during the Regency period.

The Earl of Stratham is dying without a legitimate heir. He chooses Liam Campbell, one of his male bastards, who is a former smuggler and hot stuff with the local wenches, to succeed to his title and his fortune because he is “the only one of my bastards who is literate enough to pass for a member of the nobility,” (One of the illegitimate daughters was the heroine in the author’s A Touch of Magic.) The only condition is that within six months he must marry Lady Alexandra Henning, the daughter of the woman who rejected the old earl’s suit and ruined his standing in society.

Lady Alexandra is horrified to be singled out for attention by the new Lord Stratham whom she characterizes as a “barbarian.” She already has an understanding with a wimpy aspiring poet even though her mother is pushing the suit of an elderly, doddering, licentious marquess because Alexandra would soon be a young widow and free to lead her own life. Through information supplied by servants and Jamie, Alexandra’s young brother, Liam knows her daily schedule and frequently turns up at functions she is attending.

Lady Alexandra’s father, Viscount Hardin, has been improvident in his investing and gambling. As a result, he is close to being sent to debtors’ prison. Liam easily persuades Lord Hardin to grant him Alexandra’s hand in marriage in return for a hefty marriage settlement that will restore the family’s financial status.

Liam is fiercely attracted to the fiery Alexandra and consequently disappears for several weeks prior to the wedding lest his passions overcome him while they are together. Alexandra worries herself into a state of exhaustion for fear that he intends to leave her at the altar. As a result, she falls asleep during the ceremony, but Liam believes that she is deliberately refusing to respond to the wedding vows. On their wedding night, they have a flaming row, and Liam announces he will not claim his marital rights until she begs him on her knees.

Can a marriage that begins with so much animosity and misunderstanding turn into a love match?

The model for the Regency romance was established by the incomparable Georgette Heyer. Although other authors have tweaked the formula, certain rules governing the subgenre remain. Stories must be set during a specific period of English history, and the characters and action will conform to social and legal rules of the time. As readers know, more dukes and earls have populated Regency romances than ever sat in the House of Lords, but they got there the old-fashioned way: they were born to it.

From the opening prologue of The Barbarian Earl, this story is based on an extremely unlikely premise. Illegitimate offspring could not succeed to a title. Furthermore, the daughters of dukes, marquesses, and earls were addressed as “Lady” but not the daughters of viscounts.

Still more questionable elements exist. Liam’s illegitimate origins are of slight interest to the ton, and he seems to slip easily into the highest levels of society. Alexandra is more offended by his “barbaric” appearance (like a Viking with red hair -- oh, horrors!) than the circumstances of his birth. Viscount Hardin asserts that he and his wife have been lousy parents and obviously Liam is a much better fellow and turns over Jamie to Liam’s custody. This in a social milieu where the sons of the upper class were primarily raised by servants, governesses, and tutors and were sent away to school at a young age. Hands-on parenting was not the standard among the elite in Regency England.

All these glaring errors made it difficult to evaluate this book strictly from a story-quality viewpoint, but I tried. I really did. But absolutely nothing in this book worked for me.

Alexandra’s best friend is one of those giggly, empty-headed misses with poor taste in clothing who clutter too many Regency romances. Her sole functions seem to be to provide a convenient ear for Alexandra to criticize Liam and to make Alexandra look good in comparison. But Liam’s getting no prize in Alexandra-she’s one of those irritating I-love-you-I-hate-you-I-love-you heroines whose spiteful tongue is supposed to betoken spirit. Liam himself falls short of the ideal hero. His sole reason for pursuing Alexandra is to get his father’s money.

Alexandra’s mother condones the marquess’s flagrant groping of her daughter at the theater -- an act that is distasteful as well as out-of-character. She’s been portrayed as icy but not uncaring. Alexandra’s falling asleep on her feet at her own wedding stretches credulity to the breaking point. Of course, this is the set-up for the contrived big fight on the wedding night just to keep them from hopping into bed even though they’ve already shared some mighty hot kisses. Then just as things seem to be getting going and a hot time is in their immediate future, Liam receives an emergency message calling him away. If this is an attempt to create some sexual tension, it doesn’t work.

I have several expectations when I pick up a Regency. I expect charming characters in a stylized setting. I expect a depiction of a time of formal structure and behavior. Most of all, I expect a moving love story. The Barbarian Earl fails on every count.

--Lesley Dunlap


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