The Devil You Know
The “historical” prompt in the TBR Challenge always used to be something of a busman’s holiday for yours truly, because in the past, I read historical romance almost exclusively. But the scarcity of really good HR on offer over the past couple of years has seen a bit of a change in my reading habits, and I’ve turned more and more often to other sub-genres to find what I crave from romance novels. Still, HR remains my first love and when looking through my Kindle for likely prospects, I decided on a relatively new release, Sophia Holloway’s The Devil You Know from 2017, which, while having a few flaws and treading a well-worn path, was nonetheless an enjoyable read from an author with a distinctive voice and a deft touch.
Kitty Elford, half-sister of Lord Bidford, is furious when her brother announces he’s basically sold her hand in marriage to a notorious rake because his – Bidford’s – betrothed refuses to set foot in the house until Kitty leaves it. Kitty is given no choice in the matter, and reasons that marriage to George Anstruther, Earl of Ledbury, is preferable to remaining under her obnoxious, penny-pinching brother’s roof, so when the prospective groom arrives to make his offer, Kitty makes no bones about accepting.
“I do not consider myself a romantic, my lord. I do not think that rakes reform, so I am unlikely to be shocked by your behaviour, however disappointing.”
Ledbury isn’t completely sure how he ended up conversing with Bidford and agreeing to offer for the man’s half-sister – having been a little foxed at the time – but he needs an heir and the lady’s generous dowry is certainly not something to be sneezed at. He has to marry someone, so why not the Honourable Catherine Elford? Being married won’t change anything much; he can continue to cut a swathe through the beds of the married ladies of the ton and “a sensible woman who would let him continue in his way of life without fuss” will be just the thing.
The bulk of the story deals with how these two complete strangers set about navigating the waters of their marriage, and it’s charming for the most part, watching Kitty and Ledbury forge the beginnings of a relationship. After a disastrous wedding night (which is simply referred to – this is a ‘closed door’ romance) – for which Ledbury is brought to see he should take most of the blame, seeing as his bride is (or was) a complete innocent – Ledbury determines to try to do better, determining that if he’s to have that ‘comfortable’ marriage he’s envisaged, he should perhaps try to be friends with his new wife. In order to do that, however, he’ll need to approach Kitty in a completely different manner to all the other women who have fallen under his spell and into his bed.
Kitty is indeed a sensible young woman, but is also well aware of how easy it would be to fall in love with for her handsome, charming husband, and of what a disaster it would be were she to let that happen. She could only ever be a temporary diversion for him before he returns to his philandering ways, and she’s determined not to let him break her heart. She’s quick-witted, poised, competent and possessed of considerable insight; she says what she thinks, often with comical results, but sometimes goes a little too far, especially when her instinct for self-protection kicks in, and steers her towards making the wrong assumptions.
The author does a terrific job of showing Kitty and Ledbury gradually falling for each other – even if, on his part, Ledbury has no idea that’s what’s going on. They talk, they take long rides together and they’re both refreshingly honest with each other; Ledbury knows he can’t erase his past and Kitty knows it would be unfair of her to hold it against him, but he understands how society works and is at pains to ensure that Kitty is able to hold her head up as she takes her place as his countess. Sometimes in stories like this one, the heroine can be too good to be true, but that’s not the case here, because while Ledbury can be self-centred and ill-tempered (and is very well aware of both those traits), Kitty has her faults, too. Sometimes, her witticisms are barbed and too waspish and, in the later part of the book especially, she can be somewhat ‘holier-than-thou’. But these faults just make both of them that bit more human and endearing.
The tone of the book is fairly light and breezy – dare I say that there’s an almost Heyeresque quality to it overall? The dialogue sparkles, the characters are engaging and the author imbues the novel with a strong sense of time and place, but I found myself knocking grade-points off for a late-book plot-point that felt overly contrived and really out of place. There’s also a scorned former mistress out to make trouble – she made quite a juicy villain, actually – and her machinations, together with Ledbury’s tendency to over-react at times would have been enough on their own to create the tension needed to keep moving the story forward.
The fact that there are no sex scenes in the book may be off-putting for some, but I honestly didn’t miss them, because Kitty and Ledbury have great chemistry and the heated moments they share (while fully clothed!) are nicely done and provide just the right sort of frisson to fit the story. In short, The Devil You Know was an entertaining read in the vein of the Traditional Regency and I’d certainly recommend it.