A Winter's Earl
A Winter’s Earl is a big, loud, crashing melodrama of a book. The romance between our heroes is, to a degree, disappointingly gaslighty – and you’ll have to accept a number of things about their relationship if you want to fully indulge in this story. A few redemptive touches keeps this away from D territory, and even help the book with a tense and well thought-out middle section, but the beginning and ending had me raising my eyebrows in places.
Richard Ashbrook, eldest son of the Earl of Portland, trembles as he reads a missive from Sherborne Clarke, the man who always vowed to call on him again, someday. Richard fled his life in England for the sunnier climes of Italy after Sherborne blew his life apart by exposing his homosexuality to the broadsheets. Sherborne is a notorious poet/scholar – mad, bad and dangerous to know – but what he’s looking for isn’t an affair this time – he needs help getting the baby that’s been dumped on his doorstep to an orphanage, pronto.
Sherborne is charmed by the female infant, whom he irreverently names Parsley, but she is a noisy thing and he knows he’s not the father type – and he understands Richard, knows how good he is with babies. Surely Richard can forgive Sherborne for publicly outing him, his father’s intent to remove him from the line of succession, his subsequent flight from England and his suicide attempt? Well, hate him he might, but Richard has never been able to cut Sherborne out of his life, and he comes running to England when he calls.
Richard is pissed that Sherborne’s emergency isn’t really an emergency, but he soon finds himself stuck – along with with Sherborne, the house’s servants (including two mysteriously close new female arrivals) and Beth, Richard’s cousin, a charitable type who’s cleaned up her past misdeeds by doing good works – at Sherborne’s crumbling estate as a winter storm rolls in. The sight of Richard rocking Parsley makes Sherborne want to rock Richard’s body, and as they wait the snows to melt the possibility of beginning again lingers in the air. But can Richard forgive Sherborne for his previous deeds?
It takes a lot of time and growth, but it happens – and in a tightly-paced way. But A Winter’s Earl is floridly over the top, featuring a pet bear, a near-death incident, and much moody emotional constipation in between. It’s all told with gasping melodrama, and while sometimes this appeals, at others, the tone grates.
You will have to accept – well, at least during the beginning of the story – that Richard thinks Sherborne ruined his life and basically drove him to attempted suicide but is still so in love with him he’s willing to turn a blind eye to all that. He partially proves his mettle but he begins the story as a doormat, so weak for Sherborne that he’s willing to endanger an equilibrium he’s worked hard to regain to help the man. It takes about half the book for Sherborne to stop being smarmy and haughty and start appreciating Richard, and in the meantime, I just couldn’t buy that Richard, even as much as he had loved Sherborne, would take this risk (i.e returning to England) for him. The rest of the story features Greene’s hallmarks – two pining men who won’t communicate their love, both characters being switches (though it was awesome to see Richard gain a little more control over the relationship by topping), amusing servant characters, badass female secondary character with a secret, preposterous third act twist that almost but not quite makes no sense in the Regency-ish era (I’d reveal it here but for it being a huge spoiler. At least this makes more sense than the marriage ceremony in The Vicar and the Rake).
Among the secondary cast in the book, I really liked Beth – at least until another fourth act reveal – and had a soft spot for Richard’s protective valet, Arturo. The rest of the servants are decently drawn, but not all that memorable.
All in all, A Winter’s Earl mixes its good and bad points thoroughly together while producing a pretty decent novel, but there’s a lot of emotional ground to cover if you want to buy into its romance.