REVIEW: The Rules of Gentility by Janet Mullany
Dear Ms. Mullany,
Like Jayne (who recently reviewed this book), I read and enjoyed your debut, Dedication, shortly before the Signet Regency line went kaput. I had liked the book enough to hope that you might get a contract before too long. Luckily for me, not one, but two publishers were smart enough to offer you a contract.
The Rules of Gentility is the result of the first of these contracts, with Avon (The second is for Forbidden Shores, an erotic historical which I eagerly await, to be published as a Signet Eclipse in October under the pseudonym Jane Lockwood).
Written in first person journal form, and, even more unconventionally, in present tense, The Rules of Gentility chronicles the delightful courtship of Philomena Wellesley-Clegg and Inigo Linsley. Both Philomena and Inigo's points of view are included, as each writes about their encounters and adventures while negotiating the tricky waters of the marriage mart.
Philomena is the second oldest daughter of a family in Trade (they own a coal mine), whose mother wants her to break into the rarified world of the ton. As Philomena, an aficionado of all things millinery, puts it:
I consider the pursuit of the bonnets and a husband fairly alike–"I do not want to acquire an item that will wear out, or bore me after a brief acquaintance, and we must suit each other very well.
Philomena has a list of five potential suitors, but one is quickly snapped up, a second she views in a brotherly light, a third is obsessed with his dogs and cows, and the other two are more interested in each other than in Philomena. Fortunately, she meets Inigo, her best friend Julia's brother-in-law, while visiting Julia. Philomena notices his black curls and his bright blue eyes, and in short order, she adds his name to her list.
Inigo's first impression of Philomena is that she is silly and fashion-mad, and he's not completely off the mark. She is at times both of those things, but she's also intelligent, caring and (as it doesn't take Inigo long to discover), despite her inexperience in carnal matters, sensual.
When Inigo's older brother and mother begin to pressure him to marry, he considers Philomena as a candidate for the role of his wife. Although he is not yet ready to propose, he and his mother pay a call to the Wellesley-Cleggs’ home. After causing some comical mayhem in the foyer, Inigo notices that Philomena is about to burst into tears. She confides that one of her suitors is about to propose, and though she doesn't want to marry him, she doesn't feel she has a good enough reason to refuse.
Before you can say "pretend betrothal,–? Philomena and Inigo announce to their families that they are engaged but want to keep it quiet so that Philomena can have her season. The scene in which Inigo issues his proposal, in the water closet no less, lovingly satirizes the time honored conventions of historical romances, as do many of the developments that follow, including misunderstandings, the revelation of a big secret, the visit to a brothel, etc., etc. Of course, even in farces, the course of true love is bumpy, and that is very much the case here.
The Rules of Gentility is meant to be a cross between historical romance and chick lit, and indeed, the alternating journal entries and the present tense narration give it a kind of hip, updated feel that miraculously, does not conflict with the historical setting. Instead, it lends the book immediacy and gives it verve.
I enjoyed your writing style here, which manages the feat of being chatty and elegant at once, and of sounding (not surprisingly, since you hail from the UK) British at all times.
The farcical humor kept me amused throughout, and I found Inigo and Philomena both fun to read about and easy to like. Still, I would have preferred for their characters to be explored in more depth. The rest of the cast of supporting characters is nothing if not entertaining, but most of them, too, could have used a bit more dimension.
Your warmth and affection for the genre you spoof comes though, but I wonder if the goal of satirizing romances may be what limited the character development. Or perhaps it is fairer to say that while I enjoy humorous books, I prefer them to be more than pure farces.
I was entertained by The Rules of Gentility, and although I would have liked it to have a bit more bite or gravity beneath the humor, I thought it well worth reading. This frothy, enjoyable confection gets a strong B from me.