Bedding Lord Ned
Sally MacKenzie’s Bedding Lord Ned is a sweet, prosaic sort of love story with a single sour note running insidiously throughout. Though I enjoyed the slow-burning friends-to-lovers romance between the hero and heroine, as the hero comes to notice his old friend in a new light, I ultimately found myself spending too much time thinking about that sour note.
Ellie Bowman has been in love with her friend and neighbor Ned since they were children. Ned is the second son of the local lord, the Duke of Greycliffe, while Ellie is the daughter of the vicar. As children, Ellie played with Ned and his brothers, along with some of the other local youngsters. One of these extra playmates was a girl named Cicely, and when they all grew up, Ellie stood by and watched as Ned and Cicely fell in love and married. Within a year, Cicely died giving birth to a stillborn son.
As Bedding Lord Ned opens, it has been four years since Cicely’s death. Ellie mourned her friend, but not as much as Ned did his wife. He has spent the past few years unable to cope with the thought of moving on, but as the novel opens, Ned’s memories of Cicely are fading, and he decides that he will need to remarry and get himself an heir. At the same time, Ellie makes the decision to put aside her useless dreams of Ned and settle for some other acceptable man who will be able to give her children.
Into this mire of resignation and frustrated longing steps Ned’s mother, Venus, Duchess of Greycliffe. Blessed with a fortuitous firstname, the married surname Valentine, the coincidence of a husband and three sons born on Valentine’s Day, and a strong penchant for matchmaking (to say nothing of a loving marriage herself), Lady Greycliffe is ready to take these emotional troubles well in hand. Nicknamed the Duchess of Love by society, Lady Greycliffe hosts an annual house party each February, in which single people enter and happy couples leave. Naturally, Lady Greycliffe is glad to provide eligible potential partners for both Ellie and Ned.
MacKenzie’s strong suit is creating, with a sort of Dickensian glee, unique supporting characters – especially unpleasant ones. Of particular note is Ellie’s aspiring suitor, Mr. Humphrey, who may just be a clone of Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice crossbred with a mole. Lady Juliet, the beautiful Cicely-lookalike being courted by Ned, and Mr. Cox, the younger son with hopes for a career in trade who courts Ellie, almost steal the show with their romance. At times, I wished I were reading their more tempestuous story instead. Also worth mentioning is Reggie, a plot-point-stealing cat.
But what of that sour note? Was it the character who wears a pair of silk drawers that have been dragged around a mansion and chewed by a cat, without first washing them? Was it the inexplicable number of young ladies who attended a house party without their mothers or chaperones? Was it even the insistence that twenty-six was impossibly ancient and on-the-shelf in the Regency era? Actually, it was something far worse, and yet more subtle.
There was, in the Old School romances of yore, a fashion for homosexual and bisexual villains, who wore their sexual orientation, like a swirling black cloak or a twirlable mustache, as just another visible sign of evil. It was a sort of signpost for moral depravity in other realms, as well as a quick way to leave your heroine a virgin when her wicked first husband died. It was one of those things, like rape-is-love, that I’d really hoped we’d left behind us now. However, in the characterization of Bedding Lord Ned‘s villian-slash-resident-douchbag Percy I found myself noticing many of the Old School signs – like Percy’s partner in gossip and crime, Ophelia, who is ostensibly his lover but whom other characters notice treats Percy more like an old friend. Percy was Cicely’s brother, and he holds some understandable resentment against Ned, the man who knocked his sister up with the baby whose birth killed her. However, Percy is seen as nothing more than a slimy snake by the other characters; even when they played with him as children, none of the other kids liked him. Percy, who disappears from the narrative, along with Ophelia, before the end, is obviously being set up for bigger things in the next two books of the trilogy – particularly considering his unexplained hatred of Ned’s elder brother, Ash, whose marriage ended on its wedding night in unknown but somehow Percy-related circumstances.
At the same time, I can’t say for sure that I wasn’t overreacting. I really hope that I’m wrong about this. I enjoyed Ned’s youngest brother, Jack, as a supporting character a great deal. His book will be next in the trilogy, followed by that of Ash. I will be reading these books, when they come out, and I just hope that my fears about Percy’s characterization are proven wrong. Homosexual and bisexual characters are great; the trouble comes when the only non-heterosexual characters in a canon are all evil. And Bedding Lord Ned is an otherwise charming, quiet romance that deserves far better than to devolve into bigoted cliché.