Dear Ms. Gray:
I wanted to dislike this book. I really did. The premise, the asshole hero, all of it. But I was also intrigued that you decided to write about the Earl of Somerton, the villain of your previous novels. He’s the dissolute husband of Elizabeth, Countess of Somerton (heroine in A Gentleman Never Tells), and is controlling, heartless and, seemingly, without scruples. I wanted to see if you could pull something like that off, although I assumed it wouldn’t work. I was wrong, though: mea culpa, indeed. I also have to say that I’ve never read a romance novel with the hero still married, the wife of the hero committing adultery during the novel, and a divorce midway through. That, in and of itself, is certainly a different take on things.
How to School Your Scoundrel is the third book in the Princess in Hiding series, and the sixth book surrounding many of the same characters in 1890s England. Princess Luisa of the fictional German principality Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof has fled her country along with her two sisters after revolutionaries stage a coup and take the throne. With the help of her English uncle the Duke of Olympia, Luisa and her sisters hide in various homes in England, disguised as men.
Setting aside the premise of three princesses hiding as men in 19th century England (we’ll get to that later), Luisa becomes Somerton’s secretary, calling herself Lewis Markham, whilst biding her time until she can return home. Luisa is practical and confident: the heir to the throne of Holstein-Schweinwald-Huhnhof, she refuses to cow, for the most part, to Somerton’s outrageous demands, and in return, she intrigues him. Recently widowed and having lost her father, Luisa fights quietly to find her way back to her birthright while attracted to Somerton despite herself.
Somerton, though, eclipses Luisa as a character tenfold, although not always in the best of ways. At the start of the novel, he is still married to Elizabeth, living with her and his young son whilst Luisa is in his employ as his supposedly male secretary. He is obsessed with finding evidence that Elizabeth is cheating on him with her true love, Lord Roland Penhallow, and takes every opportunity to discover her perfidy. He is ruthless in this pursuit, unwilling to admit his gross hypocrisy since he has slept with countless women during his marriage.
His marriage, of course, has crumbled—although it never really existed, he eventually admits—and you do a marvelous job showing how desperately he wanted the marriage to work while, ironically, showing how Somerton never tried to mend his philandering ways. He also works as an English spy, dispatching traitors and whatnot, although that side of his life was never perfectly clear to me.
Although Somerton is difficult to like, I appreciated that you didn’t defang him as a means to garner sympathy. Often in romances, the rakish villain of a previous book is rendered lifeless in his own book, with a backstory revealing he’s unhappy because his father never hugged him and he’s slept with two or three women along the way. Somerton, quite honestly, doesn’t really change, per se; even by the middle of the novel, he is still pursuing his errant wife and child, in order to enact his revenge on his wife’s lover who has gone with the pair to Italy. It’s only after he fails in his revenge that he gives up the course, instead of deciding that revenge isn’t worthwhile after all.
After Somerton fails and comes to grips with the fact that he’s lost Elizabeth, he and Elizabeth divorce. I’ll admit I know nothing about divorce in England in the 1890s, so I shall continue to assume it was possible. Luisa—no longer Mr. Markham—proposes that she and Somerton marry in an effort to return her to her throne. She believes bringing home a powerful English lord for a husband and perhaps returning pregnant with the next heir will give her the leverage to roust the revolutionaries.
The relationship between Luisa and Somerton simmers from the beginning, even when Somerton believed she was a man. Somerton finds her fascinating and frustrating, and becomes protective of this young woman placed in his care. When they marry and consummate their marriage, the scene is both scorching and poignant, showing how each desires human companionship but not knowing how to go about it. Somerton calls Luisa Markham as a sign of affection, a lovely touch to their relationship. Their idyll in Italy after their marriage is, I would argue, the highlight of the novel, shown especially here:
His new wife remained still before his eyes. Waiting. Humming. A delicate gift wrapped in linen.
He lifted his hand. Hesitated. Wrapped it tentatively around her middle.
She let out a gentle sigh and leaned against his chest.
He closed his eyes and pressed his lips into her hair, and they stayed that way, fitted together, separated only by the whisper-thin linen of Luisa’s shift, until the teakettle began a soft, high whistle.
So what didn’t work in this book? The premise. Oh, the premise: three young princesses sent to England, to hide as men within the homes of various lords. It was so ridiculous that I had to keep reading despite the initial, “oh, for the love of God,” reaction it engendered. Add to that, Somerton—ruthless spy, wily lord—does not have any suspicions of Luisa’s gender, despite the numerous and obvious clues right in front of him. His shock at the revelation made me roll my eyes. Really, you had no idea?
There is also a very clunky (as these things go) deus ex machina by the end, which caused the story to end on an anti-climactic note. Again, I was rolling my eyes.
But, despite the premise and the absurdly tidy ending, How to School Your Scoundrel shines with your attention to period detail (well, not including the hiding as a man bit), gorgeous prose and introduced me to one of the most intriguing male characters I’ve read in a while. The romance between Somerton and Luisa is slow-burning and intense, ending perhaps on an overly sweet note in the Babylogue—yes, that’s what it’s called—but seeing their journey to happiness made me enjoy that bit nonetheless.
With all of that in mind, I have to give this one a B.