03 February 2012

Eloisa James: the Essex sisters quartet

So, it's February.  And gray.  And blah.  And I have an unoccupied weekend.

So it's time for more Eloisa James novels.  I picked the Essex sisters quartet because I liked the titles.  Shakespeare, anyone?
The Duke of Holbrook - Rafe, who has a bit of a drinking problem - is informed that he is now guardian to the four orphaned daughters of a penniless Scottish viscount.  What's a duke to do except hire four nursemaids and buy nursery items times four...only to find out that his wards are lovely young women who possess a unique dowry - they each have title to a thoroughbred horse, some of the most coveted on the British Isles.  The eldest daughter, Tess, has determined that she must marry well.  And quickly - to help bring Annabel, Imogen, and Josie "out" in a proper manner.  Thus begins the courtship drama in Much Ado About You.  Rafe's friends - Lucius Felton, richest man in England, and Garrett Langham, the Earl of Mayne - decide which of them will get Tess...Mayne is the one to propose to Tess.  Meanwhile, the move from Scotland to England brings Imogen into contact with Lord Maitland whom she has had a crush on for years - only he has a fiancee (who, come to find out, can't stand the horse-mad young man).  When Imogen elopes with Maitland, Lucius (I swear, if this is ever made into a movie he must be played by Jason Isaacs in his Lucius Malfoy wig - it's a perfect description) tries to intercept them; failing that, he makes it possibly for them to marry immediately.  And when Mayne precipitately absconds on the morning of his wedding, it is Lucius who steps in to marry Tess.

This is a romance novel with a lot of "story" and a lot of "plot" - many characters to get through, many backstories to set up for the next three novels.  I felt like the evolution of Tess's and Lucius's relationship from convenience to love once married got a bit lost but provided a great contrast to Imogen and Maitland's marriage.

Annabel, seeing Tess's success, is determined to marry a rich, English, titled man.  No more penny pinching, account magicking, budgeting - no more Scotland.  Enter one Ewan Poley, the Earl of Ardmore.  He's Scottish, handsome as can be, and is staying in a London hotel because he (apparently) doesn't have the scratch to rent a proper London house.  Annabel isn't interested in an impoverished Scottish peer, no matter how handsome, but a quirk of fate caused by Imogen lands Annabel in a carriage with Ardmore on the way to his Scottish castle.  Alone.  Under the assumed guise of husband and wife. 

I laughed a bit with Kiss Me, Annabel.  Annabel's assumption that Ewan was as poor as her feckless father led to a prize comeuppance (and the treacle-and-feathers bit was really funny when you got right down to it, as well as Josie's matchmaking attempt).  I also wanted to strangle Imogen at nearly every point in this book.  To make a long story short, she's having some serious guilt regarding her failure to keep Maitland from breaking his neck (sorry, spoiler alert) and isn't dealing with it well at all.  She needs a spanking.

And, unfortunately for me, her book was up next - The Taming of the Duke.  Even though widowed, Imogen is still under Rafe's guardianship and she has no intention of heeding a drunk.  Rafe is dealing with issues of his own, namely a new-found half-brother who needs to stage a play at Holbrook Court to keep a bargain with the mother of his child.  Imogen, who is still having trouble dealing with Maitland's death, gets it into her head that Gabe would make an excellent lover - divinity scholar or no - but Rafe is having no part of it.  He decides to clean up - alcohol withdrawal is not pretty - and begins to woo Imogen in disguise.

Despite my loathing for Imogen, this is a really fun book to read.  And I like Imogen better for having read it.  Both she and Rafe are on self-destructive paths over guilt - Imogen for her husband, Rafe for his elder brother, Peter, who ought to have been the duke - and they each understand one another on that level.  They also fight like cats throughout most of the series so you know they have to get together by the end of this book.   On a literary level, James includes two fantastic bits of English theatre.  First, Rafe and Imogen go in disguise to a pantomime, something I wasn't familiar with (being an American) and had a fantastic time looking up.  Second, James has her characters present the Restoration comedy, The Man of Mode, which I have read as part of a course in Restoration literature.  It's a fantastic play which essentially skewers the "rake" men aspire to be.

Rafe and Imogen's engagement leads us to the final book in the series, Pleasure for Pleasure, and that is Josie's story.  She comes "out" just as Rafe and Imogen marry and her come-out isn't all it's cracked up to be.  For starters, Josie takes too much to heart the Regency ideal of thinness and straps herself into a hideous corset.  A wounded suitor manages to confer on her the sobriquet of "the Scottish Sausage" (not helped by stuffing herself into the dreaded corset).  The Earl of Mayne, freshly affianced himself, provides Josie with the courage to visit a new modiste - one who works magic with lush figures - and to flirt at a masquerade.  At a horse race Josie is lured behind the stables and assaulted (sort-of, she defends herself well).  To protect Josie, Mayne - recently dumped by his fiancee for a reason you have to read the book to understand - marries her immediately.

Tied in with Josie's story is that of her chaperone's.  Griselda has been with the girls since Much Ado About You, when Mayne suggests his respectable, widowed sister as the girls' chaperone (and to help bring them out properly).  Lady Willoughby is a funny side-character, practical and silly at the same time (it got to the point that I couldn't decide which was the real Griselda and which was the facade put on for benefit of society).  In a bid to get revenge for Josie's nickname, Griselda finds herself drawn into an affair...and a love-story of her own.

As you can see, the plots of all four books are intricately drawn.  They make wonderful reading for cold, dreary days when snuggling under blankets with hot, fragrant tea is the only activity you feel like doing.  It also makes them fiendishly hard to summarize without giving too much away.  Being romance novels, you know where the hero and heroine will end up - with the Essex sisters getting there is all fun.

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