REVIEW: A Most Lamentable Comedy by Janet Mullany
Dear Ms. Mullany,
Two years ago I feel in love with “The Rules of Gentility.” Its first person spoofing of the Rules of Writing a Regency Romance had me in stitches. When Janine mentioned that you were going to have a sequel to it published this summer, I rubbed my hands with glee.
Deep in debt, widowed Lady Caroline Elmhurst and her maid Mary are decamping from their rented room literally one step ahead of the bailiff. Caroline’s two marriages – first to much older man who left her money and second to a young man who spent that money – plus her slight slip in social mores by allowing a man unrelated to her pay her rent, have left her with a soiled reputation among the ton. Luckily for her, she’s received an invitation to a country house party given by an amateur thespian with plans to stage Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” using his guests and servants as the actors. With luck, she’ll be able to find a wealthy man here to marry.
Mr. Nicholas Congrevance and his valet Barton, lately of the Continent, are also among the guests present. In the past ten years since leaving England, Nicholas has turned his hand to many occupations, including cicisbeo, and changed his name almost as much. After the servants of his latest lover’s husband toss him in a canal in Venice, he’s overcome with a desire to see his homeland. And hopes that he can find yet another wealthy wife or widow among the guests to charm and fleece.
So the two of them meet among the many guests roped into presenting a play about star crossed lovers and amateur actors. But what will happen after each discovers the true financial status of the other and how will their hearts work out a future in the face of their pasts.
Anyone expecting a regular Regency novel ought best to change their expectations before starting “Lamentable.” As with “Gentility,” this is a delightful spoof of what we’ve come to expect in this historic subgenre. Caroline and Nicholas are cheerfully honest with themselves, if not with each other, about their plans to take the other for everything they can get. The only difference is that Caro needs marriage to remain halfway respectable in society while Nicholas plans to take the money and run. If they had been plotting against anyone else, I would have had more trouble with their dishonesty but since they are each other’s marks, I can sit back and enjoy the fun.
The humor is razor sharp yet underneath lies the precarious situation of Caro and Nicholas’s need for money and the risk that they will fall out of polite society, both of which were ever present in this age. They are surrounded by a complicated set of secondary characters, many of whom we first met in “Gentility,” and several of whom we see from a different POV than in that book.
Since this book isn’t trying to be a serious presentation of Regency life, even Romance Regency Life, I can accept the unconventional relationships among the secondary characters, though I still found them odd, and that these people would be accepted in polite society even if it is in the country. After all, how likely is it that a man, his wife and his son would also be in the company of two of his former mistresses, his son by one of those women and her current beau? Plus his mother and her second husband.
I was sorry that Nicholas turns to a tired romance cliche late in the book and that Caroline believes it. There’s also a deus ex machina character who suddenly springs into the story and allows for a happy ending for our lovers. But despite his appearance which Changes All, I laughed hysterically during the scenes in which he interacts with Caroline and at the correspondence which is sprinkled through this part of the novel.
The final resolution of Caro and Nicholas’s romance is a farce** in the positive sense of the word rather than as a mockery or sham. I love that Caro is well aware that she’s being manipulated and that Nicholas has his doubts about the whole enterprise. Caro also calls Nicholas on his earlier action that I disliked and generally gives him hell – much to the dismay of some of his workers. But he knows that she’s the woman for him and underneath it all, she’s aware that he is her true love as well. A final thing that delighted me is how you worked out a final station in life for these two which fits with the character limitations you’ve given them.
Comedy is so subjective with one person’s delight being another’s “I simply don’t get it” so I hesitate to recommend this as a comedy but those who like conventions turned on their heads and something slightly different might enjoy this. Since I’m a reader who is tired of yet one more Duke spy/rake crossed with a martyr heroine who tosses convention aside for some quick, hawt sex, I dove into this with gusto. If it had not been for those two issues I mentioned, this one would have garnered an A range grade but as it is, I give it a strong B+.
**(Wikipedia: A farce is a comedy written for the stage or film which aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity, verbal humour of varying degrees of sophistication, which may include sexual innuendo and word play, and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases, culminating in an ending which often involves an elaborate chase scene. Farce is also characterized by physical humour, the use of deliberate absurdity or/of nonsense, and broadly stylized performances.)
This book can be purchased at Book Depository. There appears to be no ebook version.
This book was provided to the reviewer by either the author or publisher. The reviewer did not pay for this book but received it free.