In Debt to the Earl
I have really enjoyed Elizabeth Rolls in the past. She can bring an unusual depth to the much-used Regency setting and the short Harlequin Historicals format. Unfortunately, she didn’t do that here. The secondary characters were lovely and strong, but they failed to bail out the generic (and age-wise, creepy) “nobleman falls for ingenue virgin left penniless by gamester father” premise.
James, earl of Cambourne, finds his young nephew beaten by thugs after a card sharp sells the nephew’s debt to an underworld figure named Kilby. He discovers the sharp’s lovely daughter Lucy while trying to hunt down Kilby, and decides to offer the beautiful, innocent charmer a position as his mistress. But then he starts to fall for her. How can he balance lust, revenge, and even – to his shock – affection?
The author kept raising my hopes that she’d do something interesting with James. He was arrogant and unethical (“If you weren’t an innocent, we’d be in bed by now,”) manipulative (pretending that a “courtship” period would somehow make Lucy able to give consent despite her continuing financial distress), and hypocritical about women and sexuality. Plus, he’s one magma-stoked pressure cooker of rage. He is constantly “reining in his anger,” or making a fist, or barely concealing fury in his voice, or mentally cursing, or planning to punch someone’s teeth down their throat or break their nose. Presented with this, and knowing the author’s ability, I kept hoping she’d challenge herself to redeem this real jerk, or to write a morally complicated story about a man who has a lot of power over a woman and knows he shouldn’t be using it, but can’t help himself. Unfortunately, no.
I also didn’t see a healthy relationship between him and Lucy. James is constantly torn between his lust for Lucy and his desire to protect her innocence from everybody but himself. The whole “innocence/lust” thing became disturbing. I think Lucy was supposed to be in her late teens, but to me, she read as a very sheltered sixteen at most, and often seemed younger. Physically, she can pass for a boy (she plays her violin on a street corner in men’s clothes to earn change). She is loyal to and dependent on her daddy. When James takes her on a date at the park, they skip stones and feed ducks. Even the author frequently refers to her as “girl” or “child,” while James is always “man.” As in “A man who offered to take a girl as his mistress was clearly not to be trusted.” Or when a friend asks him, “Is that child your mistress?” Yuck.
On top of the shortcomings of the protagonists, the plot didn’t always work. Why is an earl wandering around bad parts of town by himself hunting down underworld kingpins? Why, when dealing with villains who have beaten a character to death, does James keep returning Lucy alone to an unprotected apartment which often isn’t even locked? Why does a villain who operates through thugs totally change up his M.O. to come after Lucy himself in the finale?
The good supporting elements unfortunately made me even more aware of the shortcomings of the main plot. Lucy’s father becomes more complex when, having neglected her for years, he tries ultimately to do right by her – in a way which James could have done himself and failed to because it would have taken pressure off of Lucy to sleep with him. Lucy’s pickpocket friend Fitch rose above the archetype of “scruffy urchin,” but the fact that Lucy needed a twelve-year-old to protect her against the streets reinforced how childlike she seems. James’s godfather, Mr. Fox, is an interesting older character in a long-term relationship with a former courtesan, Elizabeth. I liked that they were brave enough to try to be together but sadly aware of the limits this has placed on both of their lives – too many authors take on these unconventional relationships and spin them into golden happy-ever-afters. But that just made me more frustrated that James and Lucy would predictably sidestep this with marriage. Lastly, the interesting, vivid use of period street slang made it even more egregious when overwrought writing crept in (at one point, James really does have “fire in his loins.” For real.)
While I’m not giving up on Elizabeth Rolls, this is undoubtedly not a success. I hope very much that she’ll be back to her old writing self soon.