Can the Regency romance be saved? This is a question that exercises the dwindling but devoted fans of this subgenre. A decade ago, there were seven publishers issuing Regencies on a regular basis; today there are two. Advances are minuscule; print runs are small; distribution is dreadful. Most of the wonderful authors who learned their craft writing Regencies have turned to writing Regency historicals. They have to make
a living, after all.
There are a few promising developments. Zebra continues to publish four Regencies a month and adds an extra month to the calendar every year to give us four more. Harlequin is experimenting with a return to Regency publishing, offering four Mills and Boon romances in October and planning more in April and August. And faithful Signet, under the legendary editor Hillary Ross, continues to publish new and established
Regency authors. There is still hope for us die hard Regency fanatics.
Now, in an effort to win new fans to the joys of the Regency romance, Signet is experimenting with a new approach: reprinting some of the best Regencies in a two book format at a very reasonable price. The first, two of Edith Layton’s best stories, must have been a success, because this month, Signet has published two classic Regency novels, Joan Wolf’s His Lordship’s Mistress and Melinda McRae’s Married by Mistake.
Let me begin by explaining the five-heart rating. It is a necessity. After all, both these books - in their previous incarnations - reside on my keeper shelf. (Well, actually the Wolf is in my keeper drawer; I ran out of space on the shelves when I got to the W’s.) Since both are already keepers for me, what else could I do but rate the dual book as a keeper?
His Lordship’s Mistress pioneered the “fallen heroine.” Jessica Ardmore has a problem. Her stepfather wasted her estate, leaving her and her two half-brothers with nothing but a pile of debts. She sells most of the land to pay what he owed, planning to use what is left to start a stud farm. To get herself free and clear and to get started,
she asks a friend and neighbor to lend her the money but insists that he take a mortgage on Winchcombe. All is well until he dies. His heir threatens to foreclose unless Jessica agrees to marry him.
Jessica will not agree; she will find the money some other way. Aware of the huge sums that her stepfather had spent on his mistresses, she decides to become someone’s temporary mistress to raise the money. She applies to Covent Garden theater for a small role as an actress and, by a series of fortuitous but believable events, becomes the theater’s star attraction. This obviously raises her value. Then she meets the handsome and charismatic Viscount Linton and agrees to accept his “protection.”
Linton soon realizes that Jessica is not an experienced courtesan, but he cannot resist her charm and beauty. Soon the two fall in love; Linton wants to marry Jessica, but she realizes that marriage to his mistress may well ruin his reputation and estrange him from his family. How these two star-crossed lovers find happiness is a poignant and moving tale.
Melinda McRae’s Married by Mistake is a very different but equally entertaining story. Viscount Alford lives the life of a typical upper class man; as the eldest son of a marquess, he has nothing to do but enjoy himself. His brother, Kit, has a different life. He is currently in the Peninsula as a staff officer, but his real ambition is
to become a diplomat. In pursuit of this goal, he has agreed to marry Florence Washburn, the daughter of one of the Foreign Office’s leading lights. While Florrie and Kit were childhood friends, this is not a love match, but rather a marriage of two people whose ambitions and abilities match. With her experience as her father’s hostess, Florrie will be an asset to Kit; with his career plans, Kit can give her the life she wants.
Unfortunately, Kit is unable to get leave so the marriage must take place by proxy. Alford is to stand in for his brother, but when he signs the papers, he makes a mistake and Alford finds himself wed to Florrie. Neither is at all happy about the development. However lovely Florrie may be, she is much too strong-willed for Alford. And in
Florrie’s opinion, Alford is nothing but a rich wastrel; she wants a man with ambition.
An annulment is the logical course, but the fathers have different ideas. Florrie’s father can’t help but think that the heir to a marquess is a much better match than a younger son, especially since he knows that Florrie is not in love with Kit. Alford’s father, who has
long wanted his eldest son to marry and settle down, is not averse to a bit of manipulation. Before they know it, Alford and Florrie find themselves together in an isolated house on the coast.
Forced into each other’s company, both discover that first impressions are not always correct. As the two deal with ghosts and smugglers and danger, they discover that being Married by Mistake is not such a bad thing.
Both of these stories exemplify the Regency romance at its best: strong characters, well-drawn recreations of the time period, interesting plots, and great romances. I hope that Signet’s experiment works and that lots of new readers discover the special joys of Regency romances. They are my comfort reads and I want them to keep on coming.