The Beast of Beswick
Amalie Howard’s The Beast of Beswick was a first for me. Never before have I reviewed a book in which the first fifty pages convinced me it was going to be getting at least a B+, and which then plummeted down, down, down, before leveling off in D territory, leaving seething due to its completely hypocritical double standard about sexual harassment that implies such harassment is okay, as long as the perpetrator is female.
Orphaned Astrid Everleigh, is, as she puts it, in need of “a different kind of beast.” Years earlier, Astrid refused to sleep with her then-betrothed, Edmund Cain, who, when Astrid broke their engagement, retaliated by circulating lies among the ton that she was no virgin. She’s been on the shelf since, but now Cain – now the Earl of Beaumont – is back, and he wants her sixteen-year-old sister as his bride. Astrid, lacking legal guardianship over her sister (that belongs to their uncle) resolves to get herself a husband who can take over guardianship and stop the marriage. She goes to Nathaniel – Thane – Harte, Duke of Beswick, and our beast du jour. He is a scarred war hero who submerges his troubles like a hippo in his custom-built Turkish bath. He turns down Astrid’s proposal, but when she returns with her sister in tow, on the run from her uncle and Cain, he takes her in and gives her a position which lacks a clear label – Archivist, maybe? – which involves taking inventory of all his deceased father’s china for auction.
I was sold for the first section of this book. When it comes to fairytales, I’m partial to Beauty and the Beast in any form. The book is well written; the descriptions and the dialogue are all natural, and if they made me pause, it was because I’d stopped to admire a turn of phrase I liked, such as how Thane is “a scarred, fractious, broken duke who had the emotional proficiency of a flea.” Ha! Unfortunately, after the first third, the story becomes impossibly heavy-handed and then unforgivably hypocritical.
At one point, Thane tells Astrid that she “decided to employ a woman-shaped hammer” to his life. From then on, I thought of Astrid as The Hammer Heroine. She is a relentless woman who represents a specific and modern interpretation of feminism. She has the vocabulary of someone you might find at any women’s march and is more than happy to discuss “the patriarchy”. She reads Shakespeare, Homer, and John Locke (no cheap romances for this intellectual!) and she’s so obsessed with ensuring her own equality that even with Thane literally about to penetrate her, she stops to have a conversation with him about the matter.
“Why do men have to hold all the power? Is it so hard to want equal footing? To be judged on the same merits and by the same standards?”
Even she recognizes that there’s something off about this.
Here she was, half naked in the arms of a very virile man. . . copulating in a deserted garden in the most magical setting possible, and all she could talk about was women’s rights.
Thane himself is an unoriginal beast. Ms. Howard clings to the stereotype like a life raft, and his motivations and thoughts are devoid of invention or originality. He is a beast therefore he believes himself an unlovable burden, therefore he must avoid love at all costs.
But all this alone wouldn’t have sent the story to the bottom of the grade barrel. Instead, that is the doing of Thane’s Aunt Mabel, Duchess of Verne. This woman, painted as a loving and supportive relative, portrayed in a manner that suggests she is a Delightfully Amusing Character (shock value is her forte), and described by Astrid as “truly a shining beacon of our underestimated sex”, is a bona fide sexual harasser. Throughout the story, much is made of her pursuit and conquest of footmen. Her last maid, she said “left because of the footmen.” She sleeps with the employees of her oldest friends. And no one, least of all Astrid, Queen of Rightness and Equality, is bothered. Now, if you heard of a man who pursued women (or men) 1) over whom he had substantial financial, social, and professional influence due to his much higher rank and highly-ranked associates in society and 2) who so horrified others in his employ that they left; willing to be unemployed and risk serious consequences to themselves rather than tolerate witnessing this behavior further, would you say that is anything other than sexual harassment? I think not. But Amalie Howard and The Beast of Beswick argue that sexual harassment is only sexual harassment if the perpetrator is a man. ‘Women will be women’, this story says.
There’s little else to say about this story, other than that I fervently wished Astrid had been an only child because her sister is awful too, as is her marital storyline. Bottom line: stay away from this book. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.