Miss Emma Harlow hasn’t earned the reputation as a hoyden for nothing, so when the Duke of Trent discovers her in his conservatory stealing one of his orchids, he’s isn’t surprised—charmed, delighted and puzzled, yes, but not surprised. It is Emma who is amazed. She has naturally concluded that the man reading in the conservatory must be the country cousin (who else in London would actually read?) and is quite vexed to discover that he is the Duke of Trent himself—imagine, stealing the duke’s prize Rhyncholaelia digbyana under his very nose!
But her vexation doesn’t last long. For Emma is a practical young lady with a mission: to end her dear sister Lavinia’s engagement to the villainous (and dreadfully dull!) Sir Waldo Windbourne, and she thinks that the famous libertine is just the man for the job. If he would only seduce her sister away from Sir Waldo…. Well, not seduce exactly, but flirt mercilessly and engage her interest. Perhaps then Lavinia would jilt the baron. The Duke of Trent is resistant, of course. Despite his reputation, he does not toy with the affections of innocents. And besides, it’s not her sister he longs to seduce.
Publisher and Release Date: Potatoworks Press, February 2014
Time and Setting: Regency London
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Maria Almaguer
Jane Austen’s arguable masterpiece, Emma, featured a heroine who danced to her own tune, managed other people’s lives, and thought very highly of herself. Many readers find Emma Woodhouse conceited, bossy, and rude, but I have always found her amusing. She lives life on her own terms and that is always admirable to me. Lynn Messina, a new-to-me author, has created another vexing Emma in her charming historical romance novel of manners, The Harlow Hoyden.
Emma Harlow also reminds me of other independent-minded literary heroines: Sophy Stanton-Lacy from Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy and Flora Poste in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. Both of those stories are very amusing and feature a pushy, managing, yet thoroughly enchanting heroine who only sees things her way and fixes bad situations.
This is a pleasant and refreshing story. From the very first scene, when Emma steals a unique and beautiful orchid from the Duke of Trent’s conservatory for her horticulturalist twin sister, Lavinia (Vinnie), her wit, impetuousness, and open and direct manner capture the attention of Alex, the Duke of Trent. She also vexes him to no end.
Emma doesn’t plan to marry so feels free to live her life as she chooses and, if it “keeps the serious suitors away,” all the better. She’s delightfully different; instead of using the pull cord to summon servants, she hollers for them. Society shuns her and calls her “the Harlow Hoyden” after she raced her carriage wildly through the streets of London, breaking a gentleman’s record. Indeed, her view of marriage as a trap for women and a wonderful boon for men shocks Alex. Marriage without love is unfathomable to her so it is best to remain single. “‘A man’s life continues in the same vein, as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened, while a woman’s is altered irrevocably. I’m not sure it’s an advantage.'” (p34)
Emma is in London with her sister, Vinnie, and sister-in-law, Sarah. Vinnie is newly betrothed to Sir Waldo Windbourne – Emma calls him Sir Windbag – a gentleman Emma neither likes or respects. He’s a pompous and long-winded politician with dark secrets of his own. Windbourne cannot tell Emma and Vinnie apart so he often says things to Emma that anger her, such as how he wants a submissive wife who takes care of hearth and home and gives up her study of horticulture. Emma doesn’t think he deserves her sister and plans a wild scheme to break the engagement.
Somehow, amazingly and hilariously, Emma manages to engage the services of Alex, when she persuades him to woo her sister away from Windbourne. At first, of course, he refuses but, undaunted, she announces she will just find another rake to do the deed. He then capitulates because, while he thinks her (and her plan) mad, he also fears for her safety in the company of other men and seeks to protect her from ruin. Emma even convinces Alex to help her break into Windbourne’s house but, when Emma suspects Windbourne of more sinister misdeeds, the story quickly turns into an almost dangerous adventure story.
Vinnie figures things out, especially when she notices that Emma is miserable and also that Alex only has eyes for Emma. It is interesting that the author also gives Vinnie’s point of view. Vinnie and Alex even form a friendship grounded in their mutual love of horticulture and of Emma.
Alex is a typical aristocrat of the ton. He has had mistresses and gone on his grand tour, but is now expected to marry and to continue the family line. He resists but finds himself drawn to Emma’s vibrant and unusual personality. Their love story is sweet yet frustrating as miscommunication divides them, and love scenes are few and far between; the real story is Emma’s grand plan and the book’s title accurately reflects this focus.
There is some seriousness to this otherwise lighthearted and sparkling novel. Emma’s older brother, Roger, returns home gravely injured while in France and Sir Windbourne’s exploits also lend some intrigue. But these are mostly offstage and do not take away from the overall breezy tone of the novel.
Mention of makers of fine furnishings give a nice sense of time and place of the Regency era as do rituals of tea, enticing descriptions of food, and even Emma’s disregard for propriety and the strict rules of ton society.
Secondary characters are interesting and colorful: Philip, Alex’s young, eager, and green country cousin from Yorkshire; Sarah, Emma’s proper sister-in-law and chaperone; Pearson, Alex’s friend; Roger, Emma’s no-nonsense but mostly emotionally absent brother; and Emma’s friend and co-conspirator, Kate Kennington (with her almost too alliterative name).
Unfortunately, there were several grammatical and spelling errors, typos, and missing articles in my reading copy that sometimes distracted, but I was captivated enough by the story that I didn’t let it bother me overmuch.
If you enjoy an unconventional, carefree, and very spirited heroine who takes responsibility for her own life and actions, then you will enjoy this engaging story.