Desert Isle Keeper
The Rake and the Reformer
To paraphrase a famous country song, Mary Jo Putney was writing tortured heroes when tortured heroes weren’t cool. When I first came across this gem about seven years ago I was knocked off my chair by its brilliant characterizations.
To call Reggie Davenport a “rake” is almost an understatement. He is a drunken cad who, in a previous Putney regency, almost raped the heroine. Now here he is, the star of his very own romance novel. How could “the Despair of the Davenports” ever become a sympathetic character to the reader?
Mary Jo Putney proves herself a miracle worker as she crafts this extraordinary transformation. At the beginning of The Rake and the Reformer, Reggie is deeded a small estate by his cousin, the Earl of Wargrave. The Earl hopes that if Reggie is given some responsibility, the small shred of goodness in him will have a chance to flourish. The Earl doesn’t realize that he is sending Reggie back to his boyhood home, Strickland, where he spent both a traumatic and joyful childhood before tragedy destroyed his family and he was sent to live with his uncle, the late and unlamented previous Earl.
Reggie wakes up after another night of senseless debauchery, remembering little or nothing of what had happened, and for once listens to the voice in his head that is telling him “this way of life is killing you”. He decides to go to Strickland and see if he can amuse himself there.
Alys Weston is an unusual woman – she is tall, “odd-eyed” and outspoken. She has left her home after a devastating incident and has taken the position of steward at Strickland. Of course, the absentee former owner was unaware that a woman was managing an estate. She has the freedom to run the estate as she wishes, and has implemented some revolutionary yet highly successful reforms. She is understandably concerned to hear that the infamous Reggie Davenport is on his way to take up residence.
Alys is astonished when Reggie does not dismiss her as soon as he arrives and discovers she is a woman. She also learns that, when he is not drinking, Reggie is charming, honest and loyal. He is also attractive, although dissipated from his years of drinking. Reggie surprises himself by realizing that he actually wants to stay at Strickland and make something of his life. He resolves to stop drinking for a while, until he can resume his drinking in moderation.
Of course that doesn’t happen. Reggie is a true alcoholic, and while there is no AA program or 12 steps to follow, Putney very cleverly weaves in much of the AA philosophy within a 19th century context. We learn that alcoholism runs in the family – Reggie’s father was also an alcoholic who quit after he nearly harmed a loved one. Reggie’s problem gets progressively worse, and he starts blacking out more and more While he wants to change, he despairs of his ability to give up drinking forever. Alys very neatly expounds the “one day at a time” concept for him by encouraging him to think in terms of forgoing alcohol for one night, or for five minutes. Finally, when Reggie reaches a crisis, he turns the corner when he gives himself up to a higher power and realizes he is not alone in his struggle.
All of this would be just an interesting exercise in placing modern sensibilities into a Regency novel if the love story didn’t also work so well. Reggie is neither hero nor villain, but you certainly root for his good side to shine through – which it does, increasingly, throughout the novel. He and Alys develop a strong friendship, as he appreciates her accomplishments as steward and she comes to respect his sharp mind and potential for goodness. They share many interesting conversations and grow closer as they run Strickland together. Their attraction is unconsummated because of Alys’ mistaken belief that she is unattractive to men, and because of Reggie’s attempts to protect her from his tortured self. But while the physical love in the novel is minimal, the scene in which Reggie almost falls off the wagon, runs away and is found and comforted by Alys is more romantic than most sexual love scenes.
By the time the reader finds out why Alys fled from her former life, her reasons seem almost foolish, but by that point in the novel we like and respect her so much that it doesn’t matter. The final romantic resolution is a dramatic triumph, and the reader truly believes these two people were meant for each other.
I’ve heard that Mary Jo Putney is “updating” or “enhancing” The Rake and the Reformer, much as she did with several of her other early Regencies. I can’t imagine how she could improve upon the original, and I hope she will have the sense to not tamper with perfection!