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Okay, I finally understand my feelings about illustrated covers!! Sophie Irwin’s The Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting was a very illuminating case study for me. First off, I really enjoyed this book, which was a bit surprising for me, because there wasn’t even a hint of steam. Unlike Martha Waters’s To Have and to Hoax, which was a regency rom-com but also had a very strong central relationship thread with some steam, this book was more on the comedic side than the romantic side. That is not to say that there isn’t a romance—there is, between Kitty and Radcliffe—but it is secondary to Kitty’s story and her desire to secure her sisters’ futures without consigning herself to a truly miserable marriage. It is also, without officially being so, a Pride and Prejudice retelling—or, perhaps put more accurately, a Pride and Prejudice fan fiction.
Before I get into the details, though, let me state my main takeaways, both in terms of my reading experience of this book overall and what I learned about illustrated covers in reading it. First, this book was completely delightful, and I loved every second of reading it. I definitely recommend it to readers who love Jane Austen and/or the Netflix Bridgerton. Second, to me, this illustrated, restrained cover seemed completely appropriate and fitting to the book---it effectively telegraphed the difference between this book and, say, a historical romance in the Lisa Kleypas vein (i.e. the type I usually read). Third, The Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting is so different from what I would conventionally call a “romance novel” that I would argue it forms a different genre altogether. The illustrated cover made sense, in my mind, because it indicated a different genre than the books that we would usually see now under clinch covers. (And granted, even as illustrated covers go, this one is very restrained, leaning almost literary).
Before I say any more about covers, though, I want to dig into the details of The Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting. As I said, it is a remix of the premise of Pride and Prejudice. Instead of the Bennett parents being alive, Kitty’s parents have recently died, and she and her four sisters are in danger of losing their house to debt collectors (due to their fathers’ gambling). Kitty is the oldest and she decides that she has to go to London to find a rich husband to bail the sisters out of their financial problems. At times, the book felt like Pride and Prejudice if Lizzy and a version of Mary (Kitty takes her middle sister, Celeste, with her to London, because she is both the prettiest and the most educated) were unleashed on the high-society Season with one mercenary goal. In many ways, The Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting is exploring terrain that Pride and Prejudice evokes but leaves unexplored—it dramatizes the full ramifications of a world in which marrying for financial motivation is normal and expected; the nuances of a relationship like the one between Lizzy and Mary; and what would happen if the Bennet sisters truly had to fend for themselves. In addition to Pride and Prejudice, the novel also seemed inspired by earlier eighteenth-century novels like Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda and Fanny Burney’s Evelina. I also know that Irwin wrote a thesis on Georgette Heyer and so I am assuming that she is also a big inspiration here, even though I myself haven't read any of her books.
I also really appreciated the vision of history and the Regency period in The Lady's Guide to Fortune-Hunting---the book is obviously focused on high society and the glamour of the period, but Irwin has a nuanced view of how nineteenth-century society worked and the different subtleties of rank, wealth, etc. I thought that Kitty's struggles within the high society world were pretty realistic and Irwin really shows how important money was to this social world--she captures how people were willing (as they are now) to do almost anything for money. Irwin also didn't shy away from the war and violence of the Regency era.
Of course, many novels could be said to write in this same vein, but what makes The Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting stand out is Irwin’s voice and how she captures the entertaining verve of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narrators. It is hard to capture that voice and she does so in a truly delightful way—much like the London ton, the reader is charmed and drawn in by Kitty’s unscrupulous scheming. Kitty’s warm relationship with her faux-Aunt Dorothy, her affectionate rivalry with Celeste, and her indefatigable approach to marrying money: it all proves irresistible.
The cover of this book captures the sparkling clarity of the narration and the low-steam, high-charm of the novel. But, as I said above, while I really enjoyed this book, it is not in the same genre—in my opinion—as a typical historical romance. To say that there was no steam, for instance, isn’t even quite accurate, because the central romance was ultimately on the same level of importance as so many other aspects of the book. It was really Kitty’s story, as opposed to the story of a single couple. Scenes full of deep POV sensuality between the main characters would have felt out of step with the ensemble cast (many of whom receive quick focalizations of their perspectives) and the sprightly pacing.
In this way, The Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting confirmed my feelings about illustrated covers because I felt so strongly that this cover fit the subject matter. I think that my issue with illustrated covers is when they are being used to distance a book aesthetically from the “typical” historical romance…despite the book largely fitting within the genre. I understand why publishers might be tempted to make this move (because they are hoping to draw in new readers who are interested in romance but not in its stereotypical trappings), and I know that a lot of readers have mixed-feelings about clinch covers, but nevertheless illustrated covers can feel disingenuous. Some illustrated covers feel like they are positioning a book as introducing something brand new…when it really fits within the very well-established historical romance genre that already has a broad readership. The Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting crystallized these feelings for me because I felt that the cover signifies its differences from genre contemporary historical romance in a productive way. Irwin’s novel is a literary-leaning regency rom-com…and its cover reflects that.
Renee Ann Miller’s Never Marry a Scandalous Duke
I very much enjoyed this marriage-of-convenience historical! Lady Sara Elsmere is an entomologist who just wants to be left alone to study her butterflies, especially after she fails as a debutante on the marriage market by laughing hysterically when any gentleman asks her to dance. Her brother and sister treat her very poorly and see her as odd, unfashionable, and graceless. Enter Ian McAllister, the Duke of Dorchester, who has no interest in a wallflower like her…until he mistakes her for his mistress and drags her into a closet to kiss her. After they are caught in this lip lock, the Duke realizes that he and Lady Sara can help each other. He can give her control over her inheritance so that she can pursue her studies (and free herself from her unfeeling siblings); she can make him seem respectable to his business associates and, most of all, tame his two young, mischievous wards.
Like many historical readers, I love a marriage of convenience and Never Marry a Scandalous Duke really hits the spot on this score. If you are writing a marriage of convenience, you really have to invest in the 19th century world that would make such an alliance appealing and Miller delivers here. You feel that Lady Sara and her Duke are truly nineteenth-century aristocrats who must abide by the strictures of this world…which makes their falling for each other within the starchy confines of their arrangement all the more delicious. I also really liked how Lady Sara and the Duke light it up in the bedroom from the beginning whereas the other parts of their connection take more time to develop. Miller sets up their agreement so that it is, from the beginning, a real marriage; this book is not a marriage of convenience book where they are planning to call it off or annul it or separate permanently after a year. They very much understand that they are stuck with one another and the Duke even promises her at the outset that he will be faithful as long as she agrees to share his bed. Their connection in the bedroom surprises them both and they end up having to work from there to build a real marriage. I found this handling of the marriage of convenience really refreshing.
I recommend Never Marry a Scandalous Duke to readers who love a marriage of convenience with an authentic nineteenth-century feel, STEM heroines, and stuffy dukes who need to learn how to have emotions.
J.J. McAvoy’s Aphrodite and the Duke
Okay, so a lot of publishers compare their historicals to Bridgerton given the success of the show and, as we all know, a lot of these books aren’t really that much like Bridgerton. But Aphrodite and the Duke really is comparable to Bridgerton—it is truly the perfect read for those who enjoy the dynamics of the Netflix rendering of the book series. If you enjoy the parts of Bridgerton that center on the Queen, the different debutantes jostling to claim the “diamond of the season” title, a big, close family, and a racially diverse high-society world, then you’ll find a lot to love in Aphrodite and the Duke. In its approach to race, the book very much works in the vein that Bridgerton opened. Aphrodite’s family is multiracial (her father is white and her society-leading mother is Black) and, much like in Bridgerton (particularly Season 2), this version of Regency London is one in which racism is not a force at play. Aphrodite is a Daphne Bridgerton-esque diamond of the season and, as her name suggests, she is regarded in the ton as the beauty not just of that year, but of her generation. I found this really satisfying because, in Bridgerton and other historical romances, we haven't yet gotten to see a character like Aphrodite—even though Edwina in Season 2 of Bridgerton is the diamond, she isn’t the heroine, so we don’t really get to see a woman of color represented as both the pinnacle of ton feminine ideals and the hero’s desires in the way that we do for Daphne in Season 1. If you are a reader hungry for this type of representation, I would definitely suggest reading Aphrodite and the Duke—I really enjoyed this aspect of the book myself.
Whereas its approach to historical romance and the depiction of Regency London is familiar due to Bridgerton, this book is unusual in aspects of its storytelling. McAvoy gives us POV sections from characters who are not just Aphrodite and Evander and we don’t get a POV section from Evander until almost halfway through the book. I rolled with this difference, but it seems distinctive enough to be worth noting and I wondered if McAvoy made this choice to set a particularly intimate tone for this series and its ensemble cast going forward. Additionally, whereas its similarities to Bridgerton might strike a reader as being more in line with a newer, modern brand of historical romance, the writing and the sensibilities its characters express in regard to gender were a little reminiscent of old school historicals, in my opinion. Aphrodite’s father and brother and the hero, Evander, were more traditional in terms of their views on gender—Aphrodite has to push all of these characters to allow her more self-determination, and that element of the book definitely ran counter to the already feminist heroes/male characters (with the exception of villains) that have become increasingly popular in the historicals of the past ten or fifteen years. If you are a reader who enjoys seeing a heroine having to reckon with typically 19th century views from her family members (and from loving family members, not just those who are clearly meant to be harmful), then you will appreciate this strand of the book. Overall, this stylistic blend makes Aphrodite and the Duke unique and totally delightful.
I recommend Aphrodite and the Duke to readers who want more of that Bridgerton feeling and, also, to those who enjoy the second chance romance and childhood-friends-to-lovers tropes!
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