Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love this book. This came as a bit of a shock to me when I first read it. I had a hard time just getting past the cover which for the uninitiated gives not a hint of the wickedly smart contents enclosed. As someone who had always been skeptical of traditional historical romance novels, especially those involving English noblemen, there was no bigger surprise than how much I enjoyed and admire this book.
I would love it for the complicated and convincing love relationship it builds between the two protagonists alone, but what makes Lord of Scoundrels so memorable for me is that it is also stunningly witty and well-written and surprisingly, strangely, ever so subtly, liberal. Chase's story and prose are melodramatic of course but also surprising and innovative, even poetic at times. She describes love and sex in ways that sound new even if they aren't strictly so. On top of all that, she upends the gender stereotypes that exist in western society and culture then and today while working somewhat within the mores of 19th century society.
At the center of the novel are two strikingly original multidimensional characters. To start, unlike many romances, strictly speaking, there is no confident, dashing hero here, no handsome rake merely in need of reform. Instead, the titular scoundrel is Lord Sebastian Dain, a wealthy aristocrat whose sexual exploits and bad behavior extend far beyond what's typical even for a man of his exalted stature and earn him the nickname Beelzebub. Dain's intellect and taste for culture are undeniably impressive, but his personality is off-putting in the extreme and he can be cruel and destructive. From a modern perspective, he's better characterized as a misanthrope with a chip on his shoulder and a serious Madonna whore complex.
There's also an interesting xenophobic, racial element to his outsider status. His looks, according to English standards, are offensively foreign and swarthy. Dain inherited his title from his ancient English family, but his mother was Italian and Dain's skin so dark that the boys at school call him “Blackamoor," a term that in truth means someone of north African or Arab ancestry, but which they wield here to make him feel inferior. His peers say he's hideous and a mongrel because of his dark skin and prominent nose. It’s unclear how much of his reputation derives from his behavior and how much from prejudice against his appearance and heritage. Regardless of reason, the result is that Dain is both enormously privileged and an outsider tormented by social insecurity and self-hatred. He considers himself hideous and is convinced he'll never be accepted by the society into which he was born and is certainly could never hope to find love within it. The central question is how much of Lord Dain's behavior is nature and how much is rebellion/ self-defense. (there might be a bit of Heathcliff to him?)
In great contrast, the Marquess of Dain's love interest and eventual wife Jessica is an English Rose so fair and pure she that she appears to be his opposite when in truth she is his match in intellect and spirit. She's also kind, incredibly socially adept and has great emotional intelligence. As Marchioness she understands that she as a married woman has no property and no power under the law. The book addresses how social relations are organized shapes relationships organically within the narrative. This is manifest in a myriad of ways, but perhaps most powerfully and subtly in the earliest days of their marriage when Jessica surprises her husband with a birthday present, a small piece of art she acquired as a single woman just before the start of their courtship. It’s the most valuable thing she owns and has sentimental value for them both, but she also recognizes even within the intimacy of the moment that she is giving him a gift that is already his property. As a married woman, under 19th century British law, her property become his the moment they became man and wife.
Nonethless, despite the structural constraints of gender, Jessica wields great influence within the relationship and household due to her character. So many books declare their heroines to be “badass” and independent while saddling them with the most stereotypical and obviously baseless insecurities that defy all evidence around them. That is not the case here. This is the era of Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and the faux feminist girl power of the Spice Girls, and yet Loretta Chase gives Lord of the Scoundrels a heroine who is neither cripplingly insecure nor superhuman but genuinely strong in mind and spirit. Jessica Trent is an intelligent, well-read and beautiful but normal human woman. Her husband, Lord Dain may bristle at her diagnosis that he is the high-strung and emotional one in this relationship, but he does realize that he is not thinking and behaving strictly according to logic in his interactions with her and to some extent with the world as well.
That journey of growth in response to societally ingrained anxieties is too often reserved for female characters, but in this case, Jessica/Lady Dain is emotionally self-aware, empathetic and level-headed. She’s brave in the way that counts the most— she tells the truth about her feelings, motives, and actions while Lord Dain frequently retreats from his. Jessica understands him, she helps, she draws her husband out all the while being cognizant of his limitations/willingness to accept her care both as a 19th century nobleman used to being in charge and as an overgrown, neglected, emotionally stunted little boy. She also, occasionally, loses her patience, but she harnesses her emotions and intellect to do the right thing for both of them. She breaks through, for example, Dain’s initial seemingly inexplicable reluctance to consummate their marriage despite his obvious attraction to her and in getting him to take responsibility in other ways essential to their happiness.
For these and a myriad of other details and moments involving character and language, Lord of Scoundrels stands out. In Fated Mates Podcast parlance, this is this is the book that blooded me-- it tempted, teased and initiated me into the sisterhood of the historical romance readers and left me wanting more.
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