Suzanne Enoch’s A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RAKES is a Regency romance about Diane Benchley, the Dowager Countess of Cameron (who’s in her late twenties), and the Marquis of Haybury, Oliver Warren, a gambler and rake who’s about the same age. Two years prior to the story’s opening, when Diane was newly widowed, Oliver and Diane had a torrid affair overseas, which ended only when Oliver ran off. This is important to know, as otherwise, the later romance between the two will not make much sense.
The reason these two are brought back together is quite unusual for the Regency genre; it seems that Diane wants to open a legal gambling house. (This is something that wasn’t likely to happen in Regency-era England. Gambling was known, but it was strictly illegal.) She’s decided to open it in Adam House, the residence she inherited from her late husband, Frederick, and needs Oliver to help her set it up. Diane intends to open up her casino with as many female employees as she possibly can, but few if any women at that time would admit to knowing how to gamble, much less have enough knowledge to become a dealer. This is why Diane needs Oliver (and his gambling expertise) to help her train as many women as possible in the time allotted (five weeks) before her in-home casino opens.
Of course, Oliver wants nothing to do with this plan, but Diane has a way around Oliver’s objections: blackmail. The more she gets Oliver to help her, the more enmeshed she becomes in his life, and he in hers. Ultimately, both find out they’d rather be with each other, as obnoxious as they can often be, than with anyone else.
This plotline is “played straight” for the most part, which is a real problem because it has way too many elements that are out of character for the Regency era. Here’s just a few of my objections regarding the lack of historical accuracy in Ms. Enoch’s novel:
First, while I can believe in Diane as a woman wronged who wants revenge (whether on her late, unlamented gamester husband, Frederick, or on Oliver for running off), I can’t really understand why she thinks she’d be able to run a legal gambling establishment out of her house. That no one — not Oliver, not anyone else — tries to point out that a casino wasn’t legal at that time and place and thus couldn’t be set up the way Diane wishes is a major plot hole.
Second, while there are many strong women in history — and while at least a few of them liked having more strong women around them as trustworthy servants and employees — it stretches credulity way too much to have so many female employees at this gambling den. Ms. Enoch sets it up that the only men who have regular employment at the Adam House casino are bouncers, but that just doesn’t work for the time and place under discussion. At most, there were a few women who worked as illegal casino employees as dealers and the like. But there certainly weren’t very many of them.
Third, Diane’s behavior is much too modern for the era. She wants to rescue all of the women who work in her casino, and has a female confidante who is well-versed in knives and guns — a woman who is, more or less, Diane’s bodyguard. None of this makes sense for the Regency period. Not one bit of it.
Fourth, the naming conventions are wrong with regards to Diane’s name. She should be referred to as the Dowager Countess of Cameron rather than “Lady Diane Benchley.” (Benchley is her late husband’s family name.) This is never rectified, and considering this is something Ms. Enoch should know in her sleep due to her many previous Regency romances, it makes no sense.
These major inconsistencies and anachronisms can’t help but mar the plot for anyone who has any historical knowledge of the Regency era whatsoever. That’s why no matter how much fun the romance between Oliver and Diane is — and it really is fun — A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RAKES can’t help but be a frustrating reading experience.
That said, I enjoyed the book immensely (as a type of alternate history, mind you) because the romance between Oliver and Diane was good, believable, sensual, and well-told. But everything else about it — literally, every other single thing — doesn’t make sense in an English historical romance set in the early 19th century, much less in the Regency period. (While the story doesn’t explicitly mention the Regency of King George III, Napoleon’s recent defeat at Waterloo is referenced, which means it’s a Regency.)
That’s why I’ve split the grades. One is for pure enjoyment; the other is for historical accuracy (or the lack thereof), as follows:
Historical Accuracy: F.
The overall grade, therefore, is a C.
— reviewed by Barb