The Earl of Marcham has decided to put the excesses of his colorful youth firmly behind him so that he may find a wife and beget himself an heir. But a straitlaced spinster may stand in his way after she releases a morality pamphlet exposing some of his most private misdemeanors. Determined to have his revenge and teach her a much-needed lesson, the earl decides that his best course of action is to seduce her…
Miss Georgiana Blakelow has long given up the hope of marriage. Instead, she’s resigned to serving as governess to her siblings and saving the family estate from ruin. She might succeed, if only the wretch of an earl who won the estate at the gaming table would be reasonable.
As the sparks fly, and as Lord Marcham finds himself unexpectedly attracted to Miss Blakelow, she becomes even more determined to keep him at a safe distance. The closer he gets, the more likely he is to discover that his bluestocking isn’t all that she seems.
Rating: A for narration; B for content
Norma Darcy appears to be a newly published author – I can find three books to her name on Amazon – so I was very pleasantly surprised to find that The Bluestocking and the Rake is an accomplished piece of work, and certainly one of the most enjoyable books I’ve come across by a new author for quite some time. It’s written very much in the style of the traditional Regency, and concentrates principally on the developing relationship between the two principals, which is characterized by witty banter, a gradually dawning affection and respect, and is possessed of a satisfying degree of emotional depth.
Georgiana Blakelow is a twenty-nine-year-old spinster who, resigned to her single state, is focused on looking after her siblings and trying to find a way for them to remain in their family home, which their eldest brother has gambled away in a desperate attempt to win enough money to pay off their late father’s debts to their neighbor, the Earl of Marcham.
Robert Holkham, fourth Earl of Marcham is, at the ripe old age of thirty-six, fed-up to the back teeth with his previous dissolute lifestyle and wants to find himself a wife and settle down. His friends and family scoff, finding it hard to believe that he really wants to eschew his rakish ways but he’s adamant. Nights out on the tiles bore him silly and he’d much rather stay home with a good book. Deep down, he wants companionship – a woman he can talk with and laugh with, someone to belong to and who belongs to him.
He knows little of his nearest neighbors, until he learns of a pamphlet penned by Miss Blakelow in which, while not mentioning him by name, she condemns his morals, revealing some past indiscretions he had worked hard to keep private in pursuit of her goal of “exposing the corrupt attitude of the nobility and their belief that any woman is fair game.” Furious, the earl determines to let the fuss die down and then take his revenge upon the woman, but when she unexpectedly turns up on his doorstep demanding an interview, he instead finds himself reluctantly intrigued by her bravado and her refusal to be cowed by him.
When she was younger, Georgiana had the same dreams and hopes as every young woman, but these were cruelly crushed and she has lived quietly ever since, deliberately hiding behind drab, ill-fitting clothes, horrible caps, and thick-lensed glasses. There are numerous references to an event in her past which has rendered her unfit for marriage (and anyone who reads historicals regularly will be able to put two-and-two together and work it out) but as the story unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that there is rather more to it than that, and that Georgiana is not at all what she seems.
There is a strongly written cast of secondary characters, and I enjoyed Ms Darcy’s writing style. The interplay between Marcham and Georgiana is a real delight:
“Why are you here, my lord? Shouldn’t you be fleecing some poor man at the card table or something equally noble?”
“That was yesterday, ma’am,” he replied glibly. “I always fleece men of their property on a Wednesday. Thursdays are for flirting outrageously with one’s neighbors.”
“And Fridays?” she asked, shaking off the other blanket.
“Oh, drinking oneself into a stupor,” he said, smiling, “but not all day—one does need to eat, you know.”
The trope of the jaded rake and the prim young woman who captivates him is a well-used one, but Ms Darcy manages to freshen it up a bit. Marcham isn’t one of those heroes who needs to be dragged kicking and screaming to the altar; he’s ready and willing to enter the next phase of his life once he’s found the right woman. His wit and dryly humorous pronouncements often sail right over the heads of those around him, apart from Georgiana, who is one of the few able to appreciate and understand his sense of humour. When he falls, he falls hard but Georgiana believes her past is an insurmountable barrier and heartbreak looms for them both.
If I have a criticism, it’s with this aspect of the story. There are frequent mentions of an event (or events) in Georgiana’s past that makes her ineligible, but the author drags out the mystery too long. Even in those parts of the story when we’re in Georgie’s head, we never hear a first-hand explanation of her situation, which makes her continued rejection of Marcham incredibly irritating because the listener is never made fully aware of the reasons behind it. And when all is revealed, the truth is a little too improbable and overly convoluted with too many plot-points.
Anyone familiar with my audiobook reviews will know I’m someone who invariably looks at the narrator’s name before looking at who the author is or what the story is about. So it’s not going to come as a surprise when I say that Michael Page’s name was my principal reason for requesting a review copy. He’s someone I enjoy listening to (and wish would record more historical romance) and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here, delivering a thoroughly engaging and multi-faceted performance. Mr Page makes the most of the developing relationship between the two protagonists, performing their quick-fire dialogue incredibly well and with a great deal of subtlety and humor. He portrays female characters competently without resorting to falsetto; his interpretations of the older ladies – mothers and dowagers alike – always remind me of Edith Evans and makes me smile. His crisp, cultured baritone suits Marcham down to the ground, sounding suitably aristocratic but with a hint of a smile lying behind his words; in the later stages of the story, his confusion and heartbreak are palpable. There’s a wonderful moment that has stayed with me, where he accuses Georgiana of believing him devoid of feeling because he’s “just a rake” that is delivered with the perfect mixture of anger and anguish.
All the secondary characters – from a drunken lord at one of Marcham’s parties to Georgiana’s young brothers and sisters – are very well characterized and differentiated and the narration is expressive and well-paced, making this a highly skilled and enjoyable performance overall.
The Bluestocking and the Rake is an engaging listen, although the story isn’t without its weaknesses. In fact, I suspect that these may be rather more evident in print than in the audio, as the latter has the benefit of Mr Page’s excellent performance to help the listener get past the faults in the storytelling. But even taking that into account, if you’re looking to try a new romance author in audiobook format, this is definitely one to consider adding to your wish list.