It’s Saturday, so longtime readers of Shiny Book Review know what that means — what could be a better time for a romance?
Today’s selection is the three-part novel THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . (yes, complete with an ellipsis) by novelists Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway. The novel starts off with four young women of marriageable age being kidnapped while at a ball by an overeager, drunken Scottish Laird named Taran Ferguson, who wants each of his two heirs — cousins Byron, the Earl of Oakley, and Robert “Robin” Parles, the Comte de Rocheforte — to pick one of these women and marry her. Unfortunately, Ferguson’s men also carry off the Duke of Bretton by the simple expedient of stealing Bretton’s carriage while the Duke himself happened to be sleeping inside it, which means that there will be competition for at least one of the women once they all get to Taran’s deserted Scottish castle.
The four women who’ve been stolen are two Scottish heiresses, Marilla and Fiona Chisholm, an English heiress, Lady Cecily Tarleton (kidnapped at her own ball, no less), and one young lady without any fortune at all, Catriona Burns. Marilla and Fiona are half-sisters who each have a sizable dowry, while Cecily and Catriona are only children. Because each one of these women has either a fortune or very doting father behind her, it is a certainty that Taran’s heirs will only have a very short period of time in which to win their intended brides.
Obviously, the abduction is nothing but an author’s convenience. Taran is a bumbling idiot, while his men mostly go along with him to shut him up so they can go back home and drowse for a few days by the fire as it is nearly Christmas. And, of course, there’s a very convenient snowstorm that’s going to cut off the party from everyone else. Which is why it’s clear from the get-go that this particular novel is a farce — and quite a good one, at that.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Anyway, the first third of THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . is about the Duke of Bretton and Catriona Burns. The Duke is lonely, restless, and really upset about being abducted while inside his own carriage, so he isn’t exactly in the mood for a romance. Yet Catriona can’t help but charm him; she’s down to earth, friendly, a good sport about everything, and genuinely likes the Duke more and more as she gets to know him. Catriona believes she’s the type of woman who no one will ever marry as there are younger and prettier women available — or at least women who have much more money than she does, as she has no dowry worth mentioning — which is why she’s able to form a friendship with the Duke nearly immediately.
Besides, the Duke decides very early on that he wants no truck with the sex-crazed Marilla, and needs to make common cause with someone. Fiona is definitely out — even were she not Marilla’s own half-sister, the Duke would not be inclined to spend time with her because Fiona has a small blemish on her reputation (more on this in a bit). And while the Duke obviously admires Lady Cecily, if the Duke had been interested in her in the first place, why would the Duke have been asleep in his own carriage while at Cecily’s ball? So the romance will be with Catriona, whether Catriona knows it or not, and half the fun is figuring out just when Catriona is going to catch on.
The second part of the story is about Fiona and Byron, Earl of Oakley. Fiona’s reputation took a beating when her then-fiancé fell off a trellis and died while trying to ascend to her bedroom window. Everyone assumed that Fiona must’ve wanted her fiancé to do this rather remarkably stupid thing (perhaps because no one wants to think ill of the dead), which is why even though nothing whatsoever happened, Fiona is believed to be a “fallen woman.” Fiona believes she will never marry because of all the stories being told about her, and tries to console herself with the fact that as she’s a woman of means, no one can turn her out into the street.
The reason she takes to Byron is because they both love books and can’t stand to be around Marilla, whose abiding passion mostly seems to be marrying a man with a title — any man will apparently do. (After the Duke gave Marilla the right-about, Byron as an Earl was the next obvious target.) And because they’re away from society, some things happen that make it clear to the Earl that Fiona’s reputation has been ruined for no reason whatsoever — so all the Earl has to do is convince Fiona that he really does, indeed, want to marry her.
Again, reading along to figure out just when Fiona’s going to realize that the Earl really does intend to marry her is half the fun.
The third romance — and the third part of the book — is about Lady Cecily’s romance with Robin, a gazetted rake who mostly seems to be known for how many women he’s slept with. However, Robin’s reputation seems to be a bit overblown; as he says many times, he’s only slept with bored, married women or bored widows, and does not waste his time with innocent maidens like Cecily. Yet there’s still something about Cecily that intrigues Robin to the point that they have several conversations, which leads them to a further understanding. This despite the fact that Marilla, once again, tries to horn in on another woman’s happiness as Robin still has a title and she’s all about titles.
So you might be wondering — “Hey, Barb. There’s four men, and four women. You’ve told me about everyone save Marilla and Taran. What’s going on with them?”
Well, in some ways, Marilla’s own story — seen only in fits and starts through the other characters’ eyes — is the most interesting of all. The only man left to partner Marilla is the fortysomething Taran, whose only claim to fame is his deserted castle and the fact that his men are loyal enough to him that they’re willing to carry off four women on his say-so even when they all obviously find it completely asinine. And while Taran has a few good points — love of his heirs and loyalty to his men being two — he’s not exactly the man every woman dreams about marrying.
So with the other three, it’s obvious that there’s some mutual regard going on along with sheer lust. But Marilla seems to be all about lust — or at least, all about titles. Taran Ferguson is the equivalent of gentry, sure, but she’s not exactly marrying up — in fact, it’s the reverse.
Because most of Marilla’s story is not told, directly or indirectly, it’s not entirely clear why Marilla doesn’t just wait out the snowstorm, pack her bags and go home to her father rather than marrying Taran alongside the other three couples. While I’m sure that it would look really bad in 19th Century parlance to be abducted and held in a deserted castle for several days, reputation-wise, the fact is that Marilla still has a considerable fortune. She certainly does not have to marry Taran.
Bottom line? THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . is an excellent comic romance with great laughs, charm, wit, and sensuality to spare despite the fact that two of the three main romances are all but chaste.
Grade: A-minus, mostly because I would’ve liked to see more of Marilla’s story.
— reviewed by Barb