Last Night With the Earl
Kelly Bowen’s first historical romance was published back at the end of 2014, and she very quickly made her way onto my list of must-read authors. I’ve read nearly all of her books, and have been impressed with her storytelling and ability to create strong, determined and unusual heroines while at the same time having them operate largely within the conventions of the time so they don’t just seem like twenty-first century women in period dress. The first Devils of Dover book, A Duke in the Night, introduced readers to the Haverhall School for Young Ladies, an exclusive academy which operates a summer school at which a small number of exceptionally gifted pupils are afforded the chance to pursue studies in fields not usually open to them. This is held at Avondale House in Dover, which Clara Hayward, the school’s headmistress (and now Duchess of Holloway) has rented for a number of years from the Earl of Rivers. Or rather, from his estate; the old earl died six years earlier and his only son is presumed killed at Waterloo, although as no body has been found, the title has been held in abeyance until such time as Eli Dawes can be legally declared dead.
But now, having chosen to remain in hiding on the continent since the battle at Waterloo, the new earl has decided to return home and assume his rightful place and title. He plans to live quietly at Avondale and hide the injuries and disfigurement he sustained during the battle; he’s not exactly a vain man, but he knows how much of his former popularity and social standing was due to his exceptional good-looks, and cannot bear the idea of being pitied, shunned or vilified because his appearance is so changed.
The last person he expects to see on his return to Avondale is the woman he’d fallen in love with six years earlier – Rose Hayward, daughter of the (then) dizzyingly wealthy Baron Strathmore. Rose was known to be a bluestocking who didn’t appear much in society, but Eli was smitten anyway, impressed by her cutting wit and brilliant mind – but was too late to win her. His best friend Anthony Gibson was courting her and Rose was so obviously in love that Eli had to step back, and instead, flung himself into an endless whirl of debauchery in an unsuccessful attempt to forget her. Now, after six long years have passed, he feels wary and ashamed when he meets her again, not just because of his ruined face, but because of the way Gibson treated Rose when he broke things off with her, lampooning her and several other society ladies in a book of cruel caricatures which shattered reputations and destroyed lives.
Believing Eli to have been complicit in the book’s publication, Rose hardened her heart against him as well as Gibson, cursing herself for an idiot for being so trusting. His unexpected reappearance paves the way for a rapprochement between them, especially after Rose admits the reason for her hostility – and also offers the possibility of something more, of something Eli’s wanted ever since first laying eyes upon Rose years earlier. But he’s changed so much – and not necessarily for the better, he thinks; while Rose challenges, encourages – sometimes outright bullies! – him to stop feeling sorry for himself and to realise that he has much to offer, that his name and status give him the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of others.
Last Night With the Earl is a story about acceptance, forgiveness, redemption and most of all, the importance of looking beyond the surface to find the truth, to the heart and soul of another person. Rose is a very forthright young woman and an extremely talented artist whose fierce championship of beauty in all its many forms makes her an original, insightful heroine. For Rose, beauty is something other than what is usually dictated by convention, something that is continually evolving, changing over time and circumstance to become something new and different:
“… we are all perfectly and inevitably flawed, and one’s beauty is because of it, not in spite of it.”
Ms. Bowen skilfully enables the reader to see many things through Rose’s eyes, and makes some very powerful observations through her PoV. I applauded Rose’s refusal to allow Eli to wallow in misery or guilt; she is blunt, sometimes brutally so, but she has to be in order to force Eli to see himself as the man she sees: “A man who is strong. Noble. And imperfectly perfect.”
Rose’s ability to see beyond the external and cut through to what’s most important is refreshing, but it’s also partly what eventually dinged the book, because when Rose then shows herself to be a proponent of ‘do as I say, not do as I do’, I felt terribly – incredibly – let down and disappointed. I can’t say too much without spoilers, but her experiences after the publication of the book of caricatures was worse than she admits to Eli and after all the taunting and nastiness that followed she began to suffer debilitating panic attacks. I’m not saying that panic attacks aren’t serious, horrible things – I’ve suffered them myself so I know they are – but after all Rose’s cajoling of Eli, of the demand she made of him that he needed to stop worrying about all the things he isn’t and show the world the truth of the man he is now, for her to turn around and refuse to do the same felt like a cop-out. Rose and Eli are so obviously in love and right for each other there’s no other bar to their HEA, and this comes across as a last-minute contrivance that is thrown in for the sake of creating some conflict in the romance.
The story is well written, Eli and Rose are likeable and fully-rounded and their relationship is tender and sensual, but that contrived, eleventh-hour conflict really soured my view of Rose and has affected my final grade quite a lot. A less than excellent book by Kelly Bowen is still head-and-shoulders above many of the other current historical romance offerings out there, and I’m still giving it a cautious recommendation; it’s just a shame the final few chapters were such a let-down.