Sweet Rocket

Romance Reviews, Author Profiles and More…


Wish List Wednesday: The Phantom Lover




Fiery young “Nell” Belden went to Thorndene Castle to escape a lover, not to find one. She was bound by the strict conventions of England’s Regency to a man she could never love, then bound by the ties of passion to a man she could never marry! For at Thorndene, she discovered a new and startling love, a love that was as intense as it was doomed…

“You must leave Thorndene!” said the ghost. Then he added, more gently, “I come to warn you, not to harm you. I may never touch you, any more than a shadow may..”

“What does that signify?” Nell asked. “Since you are dead, you can have no need or inclination to touch me anyway.”

“You can’t know much about men-or ghosts-or how delightful you look in that nightdress, if you believe that,” he said with disturbing sincerity.

Nell blushed and pulled the bedclothes over her. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the ghostly figure was gone…


You know what’s like Christmas coming early? Finding an out-of-print book that I’ve been searching for for years has come out in e-book! Celebrate with me the reprinting of Elizabeth Mansfield’s 1979 Regency The Phantom Lover.

I’m imagining a sort of Ghost and Mrs. Muir situation, only I’m sure Nell’s ghost will end up being a little more substantial than Mrs. Muir’s.

The Phantom Lover by Elizabeth Mansfield, Open Road Romance, 2015.


Classic Review: The Cockermouth Mail by Dinah Dean

In which Sir Richard and Dorcas appear to be escaping a 1980s music video via the Cockermouth Mail…

Was she a fool to believe in miracles?

Miss Dorcas Minster was penniless and without prospects. She had no choice but to accept a position as governess in Cockermouth, a remote town in the English Lake District.

Resolved to make the best of her bleak future, Dorcas was not surprised when the stage-coach she was travelling in was waylaid by an accident. She and her fellow passengers were forced to seek refuge in a nearby inn. So much did she enjoy the assorted company that she found herself wishing to be stranded forever.

One passenger in particular, the dashing Colonel, Sir Richard Severall, was of special interest to Dorcas. And it seemed as if she was of special interest to him. Fate had delivered her into the hands of love. If only she could be certain Sir Richard returned her affection.

A distinct “is this all there is?” is usually the result when I read a romance that reviewers gush about.

With that in mind, I was understandably loath to pick up The Cockermouth Mail. Dinah Dean’s Regency romance, first published in 1982, is touted as one of the best of the classic Traditional Regencies by Regency lovers on message boards and blogs throughout Romancelandia.

I prepared myself for disappointment. Penniless governess, returning soldier, a convenient stranding in an inn, a mystery involving a highwayman who’s robbing mail coaches — there’s nothing in The Cockermouth Mail I hadn’t seen a hundred times before.

But darlings, The Cockermouth Mail is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It more than lives up to its reputation.

The mail coach is a common Regency trope for creating meet-cute and convenient stranding for the hero and heroine, but I’ve never seen a mail coach employed quite the way Dean does in The Cockermouth Mail. She uses the peculiar etiquette, the protocol and the actual operation of the mail coach as a hub, with the characters and plot as the spokes on the wheel. No character in the book, and very few of the plot points do not, in some way, come back to the mail coach.

The mail coach signals how far Dorcas has fallen in the world; she’s forced to find and pay for her own transportation to her new position, which leaves her purse light and her virtue in question. Other travelers on her journey notice, and occasionally judge her by her unchaperoned appearance on such a questionable conveyance.

The mail coach brings her together with Richard, a landed and wealthy soldier who’s been invalided out of service following the Peninsular Campaign. The continual delays in the journey, due to weather, allow Richard to realize that Dorcas is unable to pay for a meal and thus learn the reasons for her destitution.

The mail coach strands them at an inn where the travelers, forced to spend Christmas in a strange town, celebrate as best they can, a particularly bittersweet happenstance for Dorcas, who knows she’s enjoying a last bit of freedom for the duration. The roads to Cockermouth are impassable for most of the winter, see, it will be spring before another mail coach returns.

You’d be forgiven if you reach this point of The Cockermouth Mail and think,  “Yes, the mail coach is cute, but this surely this leads to nothing more than the usual shotgun wedding following an unavoidable indiscretion.”

Well, yes and no. There were several stages in the book (see what I did there?) where I fully expected Richard to act accordingly and offer for Dorcas’ hand. You even see him on the verge a time or two, but there are a few other tropes to get out of the way first.

All the most gifted authors in a genre as convention-bound as the Traditional Regency find a way to use familiar constructions as building blocks. Dean does that brilliantly, and the best example is Richard’s hidebound hero-with-a-limp-or-other-imperfection inferiority complex. You keep waiting for it, but it never appears until the mail coach overturns during a sudden snow storm. Richard cannot travel on foot with the rest of the group. Dorcas, who is already beginning to recognize her feelings for Richard, stays behind with him to await help. The storm intensifies, Richard’s disability renders him helpless, and the consequences are nearly fatal for both he and Dorcas. It makes for reading that’s harrowing and touching by turns, and afterward, one can easily understand Richard’s resistance to his growing affection for Dorcas.

But as with all the best romances,  the resistance is the sweetest part. Richard and Dorcas are both lovely, and each encounter between them is imbued with burgeoning awareness and real affinity. All the while, Dean is deftly building toward a baited-breath climax and an HEA — including one of the few epilogues I can say truly adds to the story — that these two characters deserve.

The Cockermouth Mail could have easily become Dorcas and Richard’s Tale of Woe but it never does. The darker themes of the book are leavened by humor at almost every turn, much of it surrounding that infamous mail coach. It’s the best Traditional Regency I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I give The Cockermouth Mail – book and coach route – five horses that do not bite or kick at the traces. (Richard and Dorcas get five hot brandy toddies and five snuggly blankets!)


Bizarre Romance Novel Covers: The Golden Thistle by Janet Louise Roberts

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This week’s award for least-heroic-looking hero goes to Lord Douglas Kinnair, late of this 1973 Dell Candlelight edition of Janet Louise Roberts’ The Golden Thistle. Not that our heroine, Lady Pamela, is any great shakes, herself — she looks sort of like a twelve year-old dressed up in her mother’s clothes. The cover is even funnier when you read the blurb:

When lovely young Lady Pamela left Regency England for Rome, she was filled with misgivings. For she was to marry a man she had adored as a child, but now barely recognized, Lord Douglas Kinnair, as arrogant and unyielding as he was handsome.

From the moment they met, the sparks flew. Not only were they clearly born enemies, but Lord Douglas was captivated by a sultry Roman beauty, while Pamela’s head was turned by a dashing Italian revolutionary. Even when the dictates of society forced the wedding to take place, Pamela swore to be a wife in name only. It took a plunge into danger and dark intrigue to teach this independent young woman that passion was more precious than pride, and that she had to do battle or else lose the man she loved.

This Lord Douglas is about as arrogant and unyielding as an overcooked spaghetti noodle, and if he’s relying on this Lady Pamela to do battle, it’s not looking good for Lord Douglas…

Bizarre Romance Novel Covers: The Irresolute Rivals by Jane Ashford

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What is with these ginger heroes? First we have the one who molests ladies in cemeteries, now we have one who is brazenly ogling the heroine’s cleavage right in front of a peacock. It’s no wonder we have so few ginger heroes in romance. They clearly can’t behave themselves.

Now that I’m done shaming my brethren, here’s the blurb for Jane Ashford’s The Irresolute Rivals:


The first sight that Miss Susan Wyndham and Miss Marianne MacClain had of each other was enough to make their eyes blaze. For both were arriving at the first grand ball of the season at the same time—in identical gowns.

But even this flurry of fury paled beside the emotion that each young lady felt when she saw the gentleman who stepped in to make peace between them.

He was Randal Kenyon, Baron Ellerton, the most supremely handsome, charming, elegant, and eligible lord in London. And far from making peace, he sparked a battle between a pair of dazzling young beauties who had always had everything they wanted, and who now wanted only him….

Hmm. No word on whether Randal is a real redhead, or if this is just a trick of the light, er printing.

The Irresolute Rivals

Jane Ashford

Signet, 1985

Lovely Romance Novel Covers: The Ruthless Lord Rule by Michelle Kasey

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Maybe it’s the font. Maybe it’s the beautiful jewel-tones. Maybe it’s the Ruthless Lord Rule’s rakish forelock. Likely it’s the ginger heroine. Whatever the reason may be, I’m a little smitten with this Signet Regency cover for Michelle Kasey’s 1987 The Ruthless Lord Rule. Let’s see if the story sounds as good as the cover looks:

His reputation was notorious. Lord Tristan Rule had been a courageous officer, a spy against Napoleon. Now any young lady of the ton could be his for the taking, though one in particular had him on edge. Miss Mary Lawrence had suddenly become society’s darling, but what did anyone know about this unique beauty? Hot on the trail to uncover her secrets, the ruthless Rule soon discovered that Mary had the power to forge his hard-as-steel heart into something much more malleable. But Tristan knew he dared not bend to Mary’s will until he discovered what his mysterious miss was hiding, lest their future forever be in question….

Hmm. Doesn’t sound too bad. And better still, it’s available in ebook, too, though I myself still have a tendre for this paperback copy….

The Ruthless Lord Rule

Michelle Kasey

Signet, 1997/Harlequin 2010


On Regency Tropes (Plus a Review of Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt)


This book’s so obscure, this is the best image I could find of the original cover.

One of the top ten lines people use when dismissing romance novels is inevitably if you’ve read one you’ve read them all. Well guess what? The same can be said of sitcoms, Sci-Fi books/movies/TV shows and even reality TV shows. Hell, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made careers of making the same Westerns over and over.

And yet…

I do most of my romance reading in the Traditional Regency and Regency historical genres, and there are times when I just want to read something… different. No rakes, no Almack’s, no obligatory meeting in the library in the dead of night. But Carla Kelly and Elisabeth Fairchild can only write so many books, bless their hearts, which means I spend a lot of time reading synopses and gnashing my teeth, because they all sound so much the same.

Take for instance Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt.

Here’s the book’s synopsis, courtesy of Goodreads:

Jocelyn Burnwell lived in the everyday world of housekeeping and looking after her rather mischievous cousins. But one day she helped save a dashing, mysterious gentleman’s life. And her world changed forever.
Who was this elusive Mr. Hammond, this master of disguise and man of a thousand unanswered questions? Jocelyn knew only that he carried with him a letter from Napoleon; she didn’t know that the fate of England depended upon Hammond–or that she was about to embark on a grand and treacherous adventure! As she left her docile life behind and set forth with this intriguing hero, she also felt a stirring in her heart–of a love without rhyme or reason….

That is the synopsis for the original 1991 Jove edition of Gentleman’s Folly. When the book was reprinted in e-book form by Regency Reads, it got a slightly different synopsis:

Jocelyn Burnwell was caring for her mischievous cousins in her domestic world when she saved a stranger’s life. Mr. Hammond turned out to be a master of disguise who had a letter from Napoleon—which could determine England’s fate. So Jocelyn set out on an adventure with this dashing, mysterious gentleman—an adventure that would change their lives.

These are the kinds of synposes that make me want to cry, composed of strings of the pernicious cliches that bedevil Traditional Regencies and Regency-set historical romances. These two examples are particularly egregious, so much so that one could be excused for assuming that Bailey-Pratt is funning us. That she’s written the ultimate farce on the Regency genre. After all, almost every Regency trope is present and accounted for, including:

Mischievous Cousins — when I see “mischievous cousin,” my mind reads irritating plot moppet. Plot moppets are the locusts of the Regency, and usually appear either  to serve as a plot device to draw H/h together or to make “kids say the darnedest things” remarks revealing wisdom beyond their years. The good news is, plot moppets most often conveniently disappear altogether for pages and pages at a time, then pop up when the plot needs them. Hate ’em.

Master of Disguise — all I despise more than a mischievous cousin is a master of disguise. Unfortunately, they’re thick on the ground in Regency romances. Cue the: A. heiress posing as a governess; B. the gently-bred lady passing as a boy for nothing more than a pair of nankeens and a bit of binding; or C. the spy posing as a fop, complete with thirty watch fobs and quizzing glass. Heiresses posing as governesses and spies as fops are one thing, but the woman-dressed-as-a-man trope takes the prize for my least favorite disguise, simply because it’s so rarely done well or believably. 

Letter From Napoleon (indicative of spy status) — if there had been as many spies at work during the Napoleonic Wars as show up in Regencies, there would be a lot fewer Regency romances, because the war would have been dispatched with posthaste.

Unless, of course, they were Regency romance spies, who are often fooled by women dressed as boys and all too willing to drop whatever intrigue they’re pursuing when they meet the heroine. Suddenly there is absolutely no urgency about their errands, and they almost always trust the heroine (almost always a stranger) implicitly from first glance. Somehow, however, they’ll manage to remember the intrigue in time to wrap it up in the last quarter of the book.

Fate of England Depends Upon (Insert Hero’s Name Here) — as common as the spy in Regency romance is the military hero or the duke-who-simply-cannot-abandon-his-responsibilities-at-home-but-contributes-to-the-war-effort-by-doling-out-Very-Important-Advice who manages to have the fate of the nation upon his broad, manly shoulders.

If he’s a military hero, you can bet that he’s Wellington’s right-hand man, or that Wellington would be nothing without him. If he’s a spy, he’s the best in the business and has the one bit of intelligence that will change the course of the whole war. If he’s a peer, then Lord Castlereagh doesn’t make a move without consulting him first.

As if having the fate of the nation on those manly shoulders were not impressive enough, these heroes are almost always to the manor born, so to speak. We’re inevitably told that military heroes bought commissions just to join in the war effort, which of course means they had no training or practical experience prior to the war. They’re just natural born leaders, understand. Likewise spies often need no more than a good French accent to glean all the information they need to save the nation — everything else is managed by sheer force of will and personality.

The Lords SuchandSuch are clearly savants one and all.  Little else can explain how they gain all this wisdom they impart to Castlereagh, considering their relative youth (they’re rarely more than a shade over 30, if that) and all that time spent dodging matchmaking mamas at Almack’s or Vauxhall Gardens. It’s a good thing they are always so humble about everything, and never but ever want anyone to know just how much Castlereagh relies on them. Otherwise they’d just be insufferable.

A Grand and Treacherous Adventure! — otherwise known as a semi-valid workaround for the constricting mores of the day.  There were few legitimate opportunities for unmarried females to be in the company of men of no familial relation during the Regency period. Young, unmarried ladies required constant supervision, you know, or else they’d forever be haring off on some Grand and Treacherous Adventure! just to have an excuse to be alone with a suitable hero.

Said Grand and Treacherous Adventure! will usually involve some combination of these elements:

1. some dire family emergency/attempt to thwart a Gretna Green marriage/on-the-lam run from an evil guardian;

2. a road trip in an overstuffed mail coach with fellow riders who assume the H/h are married and coo appropriately;

3. only one room at the inn, which means automatic compromise to the heroine’s reputation (as though disappearing off the face of the earth with a real or would-be rake wasn’t the outside of enough);

4. the inevitable shotgun wedding when the heroine’s family, oddly absent/generally uncaring during this whole Grand and Treacherous Adventure!, finds out she’s been compromised and demands she be wedded.

Points are awarded if the heroine (or a plot moppet) also does something(s) adorable but stupid which blows their cover, endangers their lives and results in them losing every last sou.

So far, it’s not looking good for Gentleman’s Folly, but something compelled me, and I pressed on.

Little in the first chapter impressed me. Before we’re five pages in, Jocelyn, our heroine, has dressed as a boy to divert the authorities from catching that mischievous cousin of hers, Arnold, who is the world’s most precocious poacher, hit a constable over the head with a gourd and generally behaved like featherbrained girl. Hammond, despite being injured in the line of spy duty, has to rescue her from a soldier who claims she pickpocketed him. Although she must needs divest herself of her cousin’s coat to rinse Hammond’s blood out before it stains (yes, you read that right) and to bandage him up (though she neglects this duty until he all but begs her to), he still never notices she’s a girl. Granted, he is busy stuffing that all-important letter from Napoleon into the lining of her coat, for reasons I’ve still yet to understand.

As Bailey-Pratt is a veritable encyclopedia of Regency cliches, throughout the course of the book, we are treated to, in no certain order:

  •  a huge cast of family members and neighbors that are sometimes hard to keep straight;
  • the snobbish, interfering local Grand Lady who is just waiting for Jocelyn to prove unseemly;
  • kindly, wonderful servants who aid and abet most of the schemes, including the housekeeper who shapes up everyone on the place;
  • a village of less than 4000 people (yes, it’s enumerated) full of spies and ne’er-do-wells;
  • a secondary romance between a beautiful but slightly dense friend and a devoted swain;
  • rank strangers who are more than glad to help this odd lot as they go about their Grand and Treacherous Adventure!;
  • more coincidences than Prinny has mistresses.

But despite all this, it works.

Yes, it works. It works beautifully. Bailey-Pratt manages to employ almost every stock element known to exist in Traditional Regency romance, and in doing so proves how some of these familiar Regency tropes became popular.

The unworldly country-bred heroine is one of the Traditional Regency’s most frequent flyers, right up there with the poor downtrodden heroine forced to live off the charity of her relations, and at first blush, Jocelyn seems no different than a hundred other similar heroines.

Then she surprised me by refusing to fall head over heels for Hammond within the first three chapters. More surprising still, when she does begin to feel a distinct stirring of feelings for the rogue, she shrugs it off as nothing more than an exciting change from the usual humdrum. Her feelings for him develop in intriguing fits and starts as he reveals himself as kind, funny and honorable.

Jocelyn is so refreshingly normal. Sometimes she’s stubborn and silly, but mostly she’s just a harried young woman left in charge of her relatives’ ramshackle household. Not only is she not Mary Poppins-esque in her complete mastery of all domestic tasks, she’s often the opposite — she lets her cousins’ rooms go to dust and moths and allows the youngest to accumulate a nice coating of dirt that she cheerfully tells him needs drowning to remove. The only fault I found with Jocelyn is that she’s often no more than a linchpin, the still point of the action that’s going on around her.

Then there’s Hammond. I almost cringed when he quickly identified himself to Jocelyn as a spy, and not only because I thought of course he trusts her implicitly, despite barely knowing her. I waited for him to prove out to be a sorry excuse for a spy, but wonder of nine days’ wonders, Hammond is indeed an actual working spy. With results both comic and exciting, he spends (or wastes, depending upon his mood) days trying to flush out the villains at work in Jocelyn’s village and get back the famous coat and the letter inside.

It soon becomes obvious that he revealed himself to Jocelyn just to play upon her youth and trusting nature, something he’s not above doing several times in the book. He’s also not above letting someone else come to her rescue if he’s got bigger fish to fry. He’s got a job to do, and if he just so happens to encounter Jocelyn as he does it, great. If not, she’ll just have to wait. And he really is a master of disguise — Bailey-Pratt’s descriptions of the subtle ways he changes his appearance are delightful.

If it sounds like Hammond’s a first-rate cur, trust me, he’s not. He never gets anywhere near compromising Jocelyn, but neither does he always try to exclude her from the action Because She’s a Female and Must Be Kept Safe. By the end of the book, even I was believing him as the Spy That All Other Spies Admire and Wish to Be.

Which brings us to the plot moppet, Arnold. He’s the most wonderful awful boy, sort of a cross between Opie Taylor and Dennis the Menace, always up to no good. But it’s no wonder — poor kid’s being raised by wolves who routinely leave him with Jocelyn and a rotating cast of housekeepers who leave within hours or days. He lies, he carouses, he wants candy. Jocelyn no longer dreams of having children of her own for fear they will be like Arnold, and Hammond sums him up best by saying that while he can appreciate Arnold, he’d rather not have one just like him, since he likes sleeping at night.

Even the lesser cliches are employed with the utmost care. The Grand Lady really isn’t that bad — she’s nursing a surprising tendre is all. Not all the coincidences are quite so coincidental, after all, when it’s all wrapped up at the end. And if everyone this ragtag bunch meets on their Grand and Treacherous Adventure! is shockingly helpful, then it’s likely because they, like us as readers, just seem to be enjoying these characters so much.

So why does a book, built as it is like a house of Regency pattern cards, work so well? Bailey-Pratt uses these tropes as touchstones, rather than let them do the work of creating characters and plot.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the cliches that Bailey-Pratt and so many others use in Regency romance. They are no more cliched, in fact, than any other romance novel cliches. If we automatically roll our eyes when we see these stock elements in a Regency novel, then it’s because we’ve so often seen them abused.

Well-worn tropes are the lazy author’s best friend, the writing equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit. By using stock characters like the rake, the country-bred ingenue, the foppish dandy and the matchmaking mama, the author bypasses the difficult job of character development. We all recognize these characters, and have a mental picture of them ready to slot in to the author’s space. Framing the story around familiar plot points and situations achieves the same goal. 

Trust that I am not damning Cynthia Bailey-Pratt and Gentleman’s Folly with faint praise, because this is a book I have returned to time and again, though I still don’t know why. I give Gentleman’s Folly 5 stolen kisses, Hammond 5 hats to employ in various guises, and Arnold 5 pieces of lint-and-dust-free candy. 

One last thing about Gentleman’s Folly:

I have absolutely no idea how I came to have this book on my old Aluratek e-reader, but it’s been there three years or more. It wasn’t recommended to me. I didn’t find out about it from a review, because the only review I could find when I wrote this was one I posted at Amazon.  I didn’t buy it from Amazon, either, or it would be on my Kindle. It’s a mystery to me.

Also — no apparent reason for this book to be titled Gentleman’s Folly, and can someone please help me understand why so many books I love have awful covers? The only element in the original cover for this book that has anything at all to do with the story is the cane the erstwhile Hammond is holding.

Gentleman’s Folly

Cynthia Bailey-Pratt

199 pages

Jove (1991); Belgrave House/Regency Reads (October 12, 2010)

Like Traditional Regencies, sweeting? Try these:

Marriage of Mercy by Carla Kelly

The Country Gentleman by Fiona Hill

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Review: The Bath Eccentric’s Son by Amanda Scott

Book Synopsis:

Beautiful Nell Bradbourne lost her family estate to her distant cousin Jarvis. Now that pernicious and persistent gentleman sought to possess her as well, and to escape this unwanted wedlock, Nell fled to Bath.

But instead of safety Nell found herself in the embrace of scandal, as the handsome and rakish Brandon Manningford decided that only she could save him from ruin by giving him her hand and everything else she owned.

Nell was caught between a ruthless scoundrel and a shameless libertine–one who had stolen her birthright, while the other was shockingly stealing her heart…

A Traditional Regency in the Georgette Heyer vein, The Bath Eccentric’s Son never slows down — it’s one thing right after the other, from attempted kidnapping to a visit from Prinny to a daring showdown at a gentleman’s club.

It’s fascinating just to see how perfectly Scott hews to the Heyer pattern card — from the spot-on use of Regency-era slang to the historical detail about the city of Bath, if Scott’s name wasn’t on the cover, you’d think you were reading one of Heyer’s lesser novels.

Nothing’s as it seems in Bath, from the titular Bath Eccentric to the authorship of popular gothic romances to the city itself.  The Bath Eccentric’s Son is as much about the city of Bath as about the characters, and Scott explodes long-forgotten details about the city in a way that underscores the book’s action, using the feathers and sticks used to paint walls to mimic marble, the false-fronted buildings backing up filthy alleys, and the streets hardly wide enough for the carriages as a mirror for her characters’ deceptions and desperation.

Readers expecting red-hot romance should be forewarned — The Bath Eccentric’s Son is a true Traditional Regency, which means the love scenes between leads Nell and Brandon are more slow-burn than fireworks. But if the book’s more interesting for its descriptions of Bath and Gothic romances of the Regency era than for the romance, it’s still a fun read.

I give The Bath Eccentric’s Son 4 out of 5 poke bonnets. Give it a try!

The Bath Eccentric’s Son

Amanda Scott

Paperback, 224 pages

Published February 1st 1992 by Signet/2013 Ebook


Good Idea Wasted: Secondary Romances That Steal the Spotlight


I’m a list-keeper by nature, but one list I hate to have to add things to is the one called “Great Ideas, Terrible Execution.”

Nothing frustrates me more than a romance novel with a fascinating premise that just falls flat, unless it’s one with characters that have been sorely wasted on the story they’ve been given.

I’ve recently had reason to add a sub-list to this list: “Secondary Characters Who Deserved Better.” Or, in the case of two back-to-back reads, “Secondary Romances More Interesting Than the Primary Love Interests.”

Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of secondary romances, especially in Traditional Regencies, where page counts are stingy enough without depriving the romantic leads of more time together. But the secondary romance is tricky in any genre — it’s got to somehow further the plot of the book as a whole and be compelling enough that readers are not tempted to skip those pages just to get back to the primary couple.

The secondary romance should not, surely, make you wish you could do away with the two leads altogether, but I’ve just read two Traditional Regencies that featured secondary romances that were the only reasons I finished the books.

In the first, A Change of Heart by Candice Hern, the primary romance is between fortune hunter Jack Raeburn, Marquess of Pemerton, and Lady Mary Haviland, a wealthy heiress who’s decided on a life of spinsterhood after a terrible childhood at the hands of her father. It’s a fine story, but nothing to write home about.

I found the secondary romance between Lady Mary’s paid companion, Olivia, and Jack’s uncle Edward, a middle-aged rake, to be far more intriguing than Mary and Jack’s romance. Olivia is a widow who still thinks often — and fondly — about her husband, while Edward is the mold Jack cast himself in when embarking upon a life of whoring, gambling and gallivanting.

Unfortunately Olivia and Edward are given far too little page time for theirs to develop into an unforgettable story, but I found myself thinking about these two when I should have been paying more attention to Mary and Jack. Paid companions and rakes are both thick on the ground in Traditional Regencies, but rarely do we get a paid companion who’s not downtrodden nobility and/or quite new to the profession (i.e., she’s not forced to work long before she’s rescued by the hero). Nor do you often see a rake who hasn’t been reformed before or shortly after the age of thirty.

Now imagine the possibilities: a rake who is past his prime, perhaps tiring of his libertine existence, falling for an attractive lady’s companion of a certain age. This eliminates so many of the tropes we’ve come to associate with the reformed rake — needs to marry to secure the succession, is forced into marriage because he’s compromised some young debutante, or, my favorite (and one that appears with alarming frequency in Traditional Regencies), the Daddy Long-Legs scenario where the rake just this side of thirty ends up as guardian to a girl in her first season, and that somehow ends in marriage. And now we have a much more interesting character and scenario: a rake who chooses to reform to be worthy of someone of lower social status than he.

And what about our paid companion? Think of all the alternate histories she could have, when she no longer has to be either nobility or married off to the hero before she turns 25 or so. Maybe she’s the illegitimate child of a family member of the lady who employs her. Maybe she, like Olivia, is a widow, but followed the drum and lost her husband in the war. Or maybe she’s secretly writing witty observations about the activities of the ton from an outsider’s perspective that are selling like hotcakes — especially the things she writes about our hero, the rake — but has to keep her newfound fortune hidden if she wants to continue as a lady’s companion and therefore maintain access to the ton.

I had hardly recovered from all the adventures I was imagining for Olivia and Edward when I started Polly and the Prince by Carola Dunn. In this book, the primary romance is between the titular Polly, an absent-minded artist of gentle-though-not-noble birth and Kolya, a Russian prince who’s been exiled by the tsar.

All that’s worse than a book that leaves you thinking about “could haves” and “should haves” for two secondary characters is a book that totally destroys whatever goodwill you might have felt toward the two main characters by showing them so poorly next to the secondary characters. Thus is the case with Polly and the Prince. 

Polly and the Prince comes off as a comedy of errors — not for the plot, but for all the chances to make a great book that Dunn let pass her by. This might be the first book I’ve ever read that would mishandle a dozen plot lines that would have made much better stories. Dunn introduces wonderful ideas, like Kolya’s father risking the tsar’s wrath to get money to him, Kolya’s finding a place in the Prince’s household at Brighton and a plot to bomb Prinny’s pavilion in Brighton, but dismisses them in a few sentences or lets them fizzle. Instead we get Kolya bumming around the country speaking broken English and basically mooching off his friends, while Polly is doing well to walk and chew gum at the same time.

Kolya and Polly’s shortcomings only become that much more obvious when Dunn introduces the secondary romance between Polly’s brother, Will, a steward to a duke, and Lady Sylvia, a widow who commissions Polly to paint portraits of her daughters.

Reading Will and Sylvia’s story is almost like reading another book entirely. You expect the primary romance to be all angst and gravitas, while the secondary romance serves as a lighthearted diversion, but not so here — Will establishes himself early on as the long-suffering older brother who’s tasked with providing for his mother, sister and brother, while Sylvia has secluded herself and her two daughters far from her disapproving family. There are also hints that Sylvia’s husband was abusive.

The more you see of Will and Sylvia, the less you want to see of Kolya and Polly, and the worst part is, you begin to suspect that Dunn felt the same way. The scenes between Will and Sylvia — and even Sylvia’s almost plot-moppety daughters — are far more touching and believable than those between Polly and Kolya. Most of their page time comes toward the end of the book, where things should be heading toward a climax for Polly and Kolya. Instead, the action swings back to Will and Sylvia, breaking whatever (little) tension there was for Polly and Kolya.

As though it were not enough that the stakes somehow seem higher for Will and Sylvia already, Dunn lets both Kolya and Will save the day in key scenes, but Will’s scene — and its resolution — totally steals the thunder from Kolya’s, by virtue of being, again, more touching and believable.

But it gets worse! Turns out that Polly and the Prince is one of a series of books, which makes Dunn’s decision to tie up Will and Sylvia’s romance by the end of the book completely mystifying. As it stands, their romance was so rushed that without a few key scenes, it could have picked up seamlessly in the next book.

When I think of the opportunities Dunn missed to expand on all the themes that made Will and Sylvia’s relationship so intriguing, I want to throw my Kindle across the room. Dedicated family man meets woman estranged from family, noble, wealthy lady falls for land steward, Sylvia learning to trust again after her disastrous marriage, Will becoming a stepfather… I could go on and on.

All that considered, my opinion of secondary romances has not changed. If anything I’m more frustrated than before, but at least I have a page full of additions to my “great ideas that need to be addressed” list.

It may be time to write that Traditional Regency already.

A Change of Heart

by: Candice Hern

Traditional Regency

224 pages

Signet 1995/Self-Published Ebook/Paperback 2012

Polly and the Prince

by Carola Dunn

Traditional Regency

331 pages

Thorndike Press 2005/ Belgrave House-Regency Reads 2010

Want to read more Regency, less secondary romance drama? Check out:

Susanna and the Spy by Anna Elliott

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Tiny Little Goodreads Review: Susanna and the Spy by Anna Elliott

Susanna and the SpySusanna and the Spy by Anna Elliott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Susanna and the Spy melds two of the romance’s best subgenres — the gothic and the traditional regency. While the book has the Napoleonic War setting and slow-burn sensuality of the Traditional Regency, it also features many of the conventions of the Gothic: woman in peril (in this case almost-governess, penniless Susanna), a family estate complete with unexplained deaths and a mixture of kind and not-so-kind family members, a dark, dangerous, very evocative hero and a mystery to tie it all together. It’s Victoria Holt crossed with Elisabeth Fairchild, what with Ms. Elliot’s fluid, lovely prose and the excellent story. You’ll love getting to know Susanna, and fall in love with James, the book’s hero, right along with her.

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