A gentler romance, shows Ms Kleypas' growth as an author
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on 15 October 2022
Reader beware: there’s quite a bit of sex on the page, a little bit of graphic language, neglectful parents, a dead abusive husband, and one past incident of attempted rape (mentioned, not described). There’s also a bit of slut shaming of a dead character, and an insinuation that this was a result of mental illness. Victorian railroad accident and the resulting deaths.
This novel is the first in the Ravenels series, and it marks the return of Ms Kleypas to historical romance, with the books set a few decades after the Wallflowers and Hathaway series (so, moving from the early 1840s to the early-to-mid 1870s, from late UK Regency to Victorian eras)
Kathleen’s marriage lasted three days, but the trauma and the guilt are as fresh three months later as they were on the day of her husband’s death. When her introduction to the new earl is hearing him callously state that he’ll kick her three innocent, sheltered sisters-in-law to the street, then sell the state and raze the only home they’ve ever known…well, her reaction to the situation, and him, is predictably angry.
Our hero, Devon Ravenel, is described as a rake, but mostly, he’s just a single man without occupation or obligations, and just enough money (and sense) to keep himself going. Up till now, his only loyalty has been to is younger brother West. Suddenly, he’s responsible for over 200 tenant families, never mind the three penniless young sisters of the man whose title he inherited–or the widow.
These two aren’t so much inherently grumpy as having a really bad life when they meet.
There are two main interconnected plot threads in the book: saving the Trenear estate from ruin, and the development of Devon’s and Kathleen’s relationship.
The Trenear estate has been in decline for decades; partly because most of the earls die fairly young, which has meant lack of continuity and frequent death taxes, but also because Britain is going through the industrial revolution, with all the economic and social disruption it brought to everyone.
For Devon, a distant twig in a minor branch of the Ravenel family tree, the task of figuring out how to preserve the estate is beyond Herculean–not only does he know nothing about farming, land management and the like, just saving the house would cost a fortune he does not have. In fact, trying to save the house and the estate is likely to result in irreversible financial ruin in pretty short order.
The sensible alternative is to sell the land and properties for whatever he can get, and move on.
The novel makes the argument that saving the estate equals protecting the tenants’ livelihoods, as well as the prosperity of the nearby town, along with providing security for the estate’s servants, and that thus, the ethical stance is to try and find the funds to rebuild the house and make improvements to the land.
And so, Devon’s decision not to sell the land is presented as essentially altruistic: he is rising to the occasion, showing his mettle and his essential goodness; being the Earl of Trenear in full means a life of obligation, working for the benefit of ‘his people’ (i.e., the tenants who pay the earl for the use of the land).
The novel takes place over a period of several months (three? maybe four?) first in Eversby Priory and later in London, as Devon works to first figure out what needs to be done to bring the estate back from ruin, and later to raise the large amount of money needed to even start to do it.
During this time, Devon and Kathleen start very much as declared antagonists who become allies for the greater good: the welfare of the three Ravenel sisters, and the prosperity of Eversby Priory and the Trenear lands. There is a lot about Victorian mourning practices, and the (frankly ridiculous) mores of ‘polite society’, which inform the development of their relationship.
There’s a trust separate from the land (and we never learn where that money is coming from). There is all that industry, changing the literal face of the country. And then, there’s the three young Ravenel ladies, sisters of the previous earl, who are unlikely to catch an aristocrat, since they have no dowry, but who are also lovely enough to conceivably be married off to some wealthy man wanting to climb society’s ladder.
Then there’s the letters.
Okay, it’s more like a flurry of angry notes, but still, they’re funny and lovely. (Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for epistolary stories; I blame reading Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs at an entirely-too-early age)
I liked both main characters, even though was irritated more than once by Kathleen’s assumption that she had a right to make decisions regarding her sisters-in-law’s lives, especially Helen’s, and most especially because what Helen wants is quite clear to the reader.
Some of this is explained by Kathleen’s childhood: her parents sent her to live with some friends as a young child, because they basically couldn’t be bothered to give the first damn about her. While she lucked out and landed with a family who cares for her, this callous abandonment affects her sense of self deeply, in ways that influence her decisions as an adult: she wants love and a family. After her husband’s death, Kathleen’s attachment to his sisters only strengthens. They are now her family and her responsibility, and woe betide anyone who even thinks of causing them harm or pain.
On the other side of the relationship, much is made of the infamous Ravenel temper, which has led the males of the family to generally die young, either through violence, or recklessness leading to lethal accidents. They also seem to contract ill-fated, if passionate, marriages, selecting beautiful but equally temperamental women.
Devon’s and West’s parents were both self-entered and irresponsible; after losing their father at an early age, their mother abandoned them to the tender mercies of distant relatives as she pursued a life of short-lived romantic relationships all over Europe until her death a few years later. As far as Devon is concerned, the best thing he can do is never sire a child, lest he damn it to the same fate of neglect and lovelessness.
Of course, when immovable object Devon meets unstoppable force Kathleen, inevitably, the object moves.
I enjoy Ms Kleypas’ writing voice, and I like how her writing has evolved over time. The sex is, as usual, very well written, and every sex scene informs the developing feelings between the characters.
Generally, this is a gentler story than even the Wallflowers or the Hathaways, not only because Devon is a different kind of hero (well-born but not previously noble or wealthy, among other things), but also because there is no villain to this story; the tension is two-fold: the pressure Devon is under to find ways to save the estate without accruing ruinous debt, which brings him into conflict with Kathleen’s ideals, hopes, and needs, and internal from childhood trauma on both sides.
This book is clearly the first in a series in the sense that the setup for the immediate sequel is pretty clear, but it’s also very much an ensemble book in a good way: all of the characters have a reason to be there that moves the main plotline along, even if they don’t always contribute directly to the progress of Devon’s and Kathleen’s relationship.
Also, most of the secondary characters have personalities and lives and relationships outside of the two main characters’ relationship. It’s a well constructed world, with many moving and interconnected parts.
I read this one in one sitting, and went looking for the rest of the series.
Cold-Hearted Rake gets a 9.00 out of 10.
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