Mad About the Earlby Christina BrookeSt. Martin's, 2012Christina Brooke's puckishly titled new novel Mad About the Earl is the second of her "Ministry of Marriage" series in which Regency London is ruled behind the scenes by a conniving cabal of noble families intent on bartering their sons, daughters, nephews, and nieces in vast and complicated game of arranged marriages beneficial to all (except the actual participants, that is, about whom the Ministry professes to care not very much, although the reader may be forgiven for wondering if they protest a bit too much). The poor love-lorn young people in Regency romances have always had custodial interference to contend with, but Brooke has brought it to a whole new level. It's a delightful conceit, and she plays it for all its worth.The mastermind behind the Ministry is the wily Duke of Montford, and in 1812 he sends his beautiful young ward Lady Rosamund Westruther out to the wilds of Cornwall to betroth Griffin deVere, the grandson of the bitter old Earl of Tregarth. Lady Rosamund (like a certain Bennet girl readers may recall) is awestruck by the Tregarth estate of Pendon Place, and as her carriage draws near, she can't help but day-dream about being mistress of the place. She's not inside its walls five minutes before she overhears enough conversation to realize the unthinkable: Griffin doesn't want to marry her.Three years pass, and still Griffin - now earl - hasn't come to London to claim his betrothed (even though Brooke makes it charmingly clear he's as enamoured of her as she is of him). It's only a Machiavellian piece of family plotting that sets him off to town to find her, much to the chagrin of her refined relatives - for time has done nothing to polish Griffin, an enormous bear of a young man with no social graces and a predilection for muddy boots. The scene where he confronts Lady Rosamund's brothers is typical of the culture-clash ringing through the book:
Horror made Lydgate's jaw drop. "You can't call on the marchioness looking like that! My dear fellow, it simply isn't done!""I'm not paying a social call," snapped Griffin. "I'm going to claim my bride."With a nod in farewell, he swung around on his heel and left the room.
Fireworks ensue, and Brooke's lively prose will keep readers smiling as the pages turn. Unlike some romance authors, who allow themselves to get caught up on the drama and heartbreak of their stories (even in the Regency sub-genre, the sunniest of them all), Brooke never loses sight of the essential underlying absurdity of her proceedings, and no matter how headlong her plot, she never resists an opportunity to swerve into pure comedy, as when the Westruther men commence the seemingly hopeless task of civilizing Griffin - only to meet with an unforeseen obstacle:
"Tregarth, meet your new valet."Griffin gave the servant a cursory inspection. The man's height was average, his figure lean. His features were regular, and his manner might best be described as unassuming. He wore a dark coat and a plain waistcoat and blindingly white linen. Altogether, he was as neat as a pin and as bland as cream."His name is Dearlove," said Lydgate."Dearlove?" Griffin stared. "As in 'Dearlove, where did you put my smalls?' Or 'Dearlove, I'll need a bath drawn in an hour.' Or - ""Yes, yes, I take your point," said Lydgate testily. He turned to the valet. "What is your given name, my good man?"The valet gave a self-deprecating cough. "If you don't mind, my lord, I'd prefer you didn't -""Damned if I'll go around calling him Dearlove," said Griffin. "Not that I need a valet, mind. But if I did, I'd find something else to call him."Lydgate studied the valet with a gleam of curiosity in his blue eyes. "Your name, Dearlove. Out with it."It might have been Griffin's imagination, but he thought the corners of the valet's dark eyes compressed in an infinitesimal wince. "It's ... Ahem. Sweet William, my lord.""Sweet - ?" Griffin's mouth dropped open. He glanced at Lydgate, whose shoulders shook with suppressed mirth. "Hmm. Interesting.""My mother's choice, my lord. God rest her soul..."
Brooke's playfulness unfolds right alongside her skill at working extra layers into characters who might very well have been flat caricatures in another author's hands. Some of her dandies are dangerous boxers, and her brutish Griffin is tormented by self-doubts deep enough to do Mr. Darcy proud, and even in the heart of the spider web, the Ministry itself, things aren't always business as usual. Every one of the minor characters in this novel is given just enough dimension to warrant a book of their own, and by the time readers reach the end of this frothy romp, they'll be hoping each of those possible books happens in due time.