What Ales the Earl
Sally Mackenzie’s new series – about a group of widows and other fallen women running a brewery out of their home – gets underway with the ridiculously titled What Ales the Earl, a tale of former lovers thrust back together.
Harry Graham, Earl of Darrow, former agent for the Crown, has recently returned to England after years of adventure on the Continent following the death of his brother. Said brother only managed to produce girls before his untimely death, leaving Henry to secure the succession. But he’s not ready to formalize a betrothal with the perfect broodmare selected for him, so he jumps at the chance to leave London in order to sort out an accounting irregularity at a country property owned by his best friend..
The property happens to be The Benevolent Home For the Maintenance and Support of Spinsters, Widows, And Abandoned Women and their Unfortunate Children in the village of Puddleton, and it is the residence of a group of ‘fallen women’ and other sundry types who prefer to make their living as brewers. Said brew is becoming quite famous due to the efforts of one Miss Penelope – Pen – Barnes, who arrived at the manor ten years earlier accompanied by her daughter Harriet. Pen has been lying to everyone at the home and even to her daughter that she’s a widow, and they don’t ask questions – after all, her secret recipe produces the superlative hops used in the brewery and alehouse, which is the Benevolent Home’s main source of income. The respectability of a widow has also helped her maintain the veneer she needs to court the local vicar, and she desperately wants to get married so as to be able to remove Harriet form the home and stop the bullying to which she’s being subjected by a new inmate named Verity, who has come between Harriet and her only friend. When Harriet reveals that both Verity and her mother called her a bastard, Pen has no good explanation.
For years ago, Pen and Harry had a whirlwind teenage affair that resulted in … Harriet. And Pen’s daughter has a distinctive stripe of white hair on her head – which all Grahams seem to have. You don’t get extra points for guessing that Harry’s father the earl and Pen’s father tried to force her to marry another man to save (!!) Harry’s and her reputation; there were class differences (Pen is a commoner and a farmer’s daughter) and Harry was being sent off to war. When Harry rides to the rescue and suggests Pen and Harriet be set up on one of his properties – and Pen act as his mistress (yep, he’s a prince among men) – both must choose between love and propriety.
When I picked up this book, I was hoping for a light romantic comedy. What Ales The Earl is light, alright – Bugs Bunny looks like Shakespeare next to it. There’s a line between fun, light comedy and having your characters act so hopelessly silly their behavior borderlines on alien and this book falls very much to the wrong side of that line. But the book’s fatal flaw is simple; its characters are flat-out terrible.
Harry is an asshole at the start of this book. He’s the kind of hero who shrugged and left Pen behind to face the consequences of their summer gamboling to go have Sooper Daring Adventures on the Continent because eh, she was a common girl and they were Never Going To Marry and it was okay to dip his quill in her inkwell and leave her alone to face her notably abusive father. He treats his potential fiancée with contempt because of her focus on fashion and general chattiness and ignores everything she has to say, which makes him look like he hasn’t learned a lesson in kindness, responsibility or humility since he went away. He comes off most of the time like a little boy who has been told he must come in and have dinner instead of running around chasing the neighborhood girls with a wooden sword for another hour. At least he improves when he meets Pen, but that introduction left me with low opinions of him, and I didn’t buy his insta-emotions for Harriet and his immediate show of fatherly loyalty.
Pen is supposed to be your usual Suffering Heroine, but she has the brains of a blow-up doll. She judges the man she hopes to marry on the basis of his looks and is horrified when he makes drunken passes at her after the revelation of her non-widowhood. Okay, so he turns out to be a rapist creep and tries to assault her in broad daylight in an alley in the village neighboring the church where he preaches to a slew of fallen women, but still. He also doesn’t like her daughter, but I thought Harriet was a whining big-mouthed brat too – she literally calls her mother a whore during their first scene together and later suggests becoming Harry’s mistress would be a swell idea – so I was in agreement with him. This child is supposed to be NINE. Pen is too weak to stop the children bullying her daughter, and too dumb to wait out the conflict between nine-year-olds before uprooting her entire life to save Harriet from momentary loneliness. She wants desperately to marry the next vicar who comes to town and yet bangs Harry and doesn’t insist he pull out. Her daughter figures out in one conversion she’s Harry’s child. This is how dumb Pen is.
The plot makes no logical sense and its characters have to keep making idiotic decisions and lie stupidly to one another so that it is executed. Pen is desperate to hide the fact that her daughter is illegitimate because she doesn’t want to ruin the child’s reputation and her hope of marrying… but is staying at a home for fallen women. And she named her child, with her midnight hair with a white streak in it that’s oh, so like Harry’s – after him. And she wants to enter into a loveless marriage of the exact sort she rejected before. Because Reasons. Former agent of the Crown Harry, meanwhile, is worried that people are going to recognize his black stallion and bootblacks his white streak to hide his identity while trying to spy on the Benevolent Home, but travels under the name Graham. Because Reasons. Pen never told Harry about Harriet because she couldn’t read or write (could her beloved aunt not?). Et cetera. Ad nauseam.
Lampshading these bad choices isn’t clever when the book keeps blowing its plot secrets within pages of their revelation, so the story’s only suspense relies on everyone lying to everyone else, and Pen being painfully stubborn about not wanting to ‘beg’ Harry for anything (but she’s willing to debase herself and marry someone she isn’t attracted to?!). There is a fourth act deception that comes in via outside force that is, again, resolved within four pages and makes the characters seem lunatic.
There’s nothing deadlier than an unfunny comedy, and sadly What Ales The Earl fits that qualification in spades. Beauty is equated with goodness nonstop in this novel which is, I suppose the best thing I can say about Harry and Pen. At least they’re pretty.