Jul 26 2011
Dear Ms. Neville:
When I was offered the chance to review The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton I had no idea what to expect. I’ve had mixed reading experienced with Avon historicals, and while I have enjoyed our few brief exchanges on Twitter, I really had no sense of where your books fit in within the Historical Romance subgenre. The title and cover art are formulaic Avon (i.e. not remarkable to me at all), and the marketing seems to put your writing style somewhere between Lisa Kleypas and Julia Quinn, which wasn’t a big help, either. And I’ll confess that for perhaps the first few chapters of the book I was skeptical: a young woman kidnapped, stripped of her clothes, and abandoned (temporarily) in a deserted Yorkshire cottage; a dandy and member of the ton conked on the head, partially stripped and robbed, who wakes with amnesia. Said dandy is precisely the man who cut the heroine dead with one of his “witticisms” (in this case that she had a head like a cauliflower) and ruined her chances with a prospective suitor. How these coincidences persist given all the English Regency characters running around Historical Romance, I’m not sure, but one lesson I did learn (again) from reading this book: it is unwise to judge a book solely by its cover and title. Because The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton proved to be a witty, interesting, trope-busting read.
Celia Seaton has had a run of very bad luck. First her mother dies, then her father — who is raising her in a remote area of India, supposedly under the aegis of the East India Company – is killed on his way to meet Celia on a ship bound for England, leaving Celia to sail alone and without any prospect of family or employment upon arrival. Celia, who has never set foot on English soil, is briefly taken in by her uncle, who dies before he can provide for her economic security. From there she gains a position as a governess to four boys, whose widowed father proposes marriage, only to throw Celia out when the man’s sister convinces him (erroneously) that Celia has a lover. She is currently on her way to visit a Mrs. Stewart, a stranger who has written Celia to say that she knew her parents and her recent “misfortunes,” when she is kidnapped at gunpoint and left nearly naked in the abandoned Yorkshire cottage. Celia’s kidnapper has, however, suggested he will return to have a little “fun” with her later on.
With that promise lingering, Celia manages to get herself out of the attic where she’s been imprisoned, only to find an unconscious and half-dressed man lying across the cottage’s doorway. Recognizing him as Tarquin Compton – ton dandy and all around jerk – Celia manages to rouse him, seemingly intact except for his memory. At which point Celia tells Tarquin of the danger to them both, but fibs a bit about Tarquin’s identity; she tells him that they are a betrothed couple and that he – Terence Fish – is studying to be a vicar. Terence/ Tarquin is not convinced of the story’s truth (for one thing, he despises the name Fish and has vague, periodic memories of a rather high-flying lifestyle), but he is certainly aware of the predicament he and Celia are in, and together they set off across the moors, hopefully to find refuge with the mysterious Mrs. Stewart. Neither has any money (Tarquin has his boots, his breeches, and an erotic novel he recently purchased on his way to his Yorkshire property, while Celia has an old, tarnished silver baby rattle that belonged to her mother and that apparently escaped the thief’s eye), both are only half-dressed (Celia’s shift is far too short and her only other garment is a pinned-up blanket that serves as a makeshift skirt), and neither has any conscious idea of where they are or in what direction salvation may lie.
As Terence/Tarquin and Celia trudge across the moors (part of which, not surprisingly, turns out to be Tarquin’s Yorkshire property), they encounter everything from sheepherders who think they’re thieving gypsies to a farmer who agrees to give them a ride and a meal but who later wants to purchase Celia for a bride, and always they are aware that Celia’s kidnappers are in close pursuit. What neither can figure out is why a young woman of so little social consequence would be the object of such a dedicated kidnapping plot and search, and while Terence/Tarquin struggles with his memory loss, he can only rely on Celia to fill in the blanks of his now-forgotten life. She is terrified he will remember who he is before she can tell him about her lie, but even more she is afraid that once he knows who he – and therefore she – is, he will abandon her to her less-than-illustrious fate. For Celia’s experiences of Tarquin Compton have not been pleasant. Several times introduced to her, he never remembered her name, and once he publicly designated her a cauliflower (due to an unfortunate attempt to make her red hair appear lighter and blonder), the little chance she had to make a good match was destroyed. Consensus indicates that Celia is not possessed of great beauty, and she had only the most tenuous of connections to the ton. Once those were spent she really was an outsider to respectable society, both in position and perspective, and she has no faith in Tarquin Compton to help her.
Terence Fish, on the other hand, is an entirely different sort of man. He is protective and solicitous, suspicious of the story Celia told him of his life but trusting that she told him what she genuinely knew. In fact, Terence had a growing fear that he might be a “nobleman” but not a “gentleman,” recognizing the quality of his boots, for example, not to mention the erotic volume he has to keep snatching back from Celia. More importantly, Terence Fish finds Celia Seaton extremely appealing, and he wastes little time in seeking the physical commitment from her that a betrothed man might convince his fiancée – especially a fiancée who seemed to enjoy reading erotic fiction – to indulge.
That so much happens before Tarquin regains his memory might suggest a quick resolution to the plot once he comes back to himself. However, one of the surprising delights of this book is that Tarquin’s recollected life is actually a catalyst to the real heart of the novel, as well as most of its trope-rich action. For by the time Tarquin realizes who he is, the connection he shares with Celia is far more than casual, and even though his social position would allow him to abandon her with impunity, his conscience – not to mention a lower part of him – won’t allow him that option. With the mystery of Celia’s kidnapping still opaque, Tarquin takes her to Shropshire, where his best friend, Sebastian Iverly, is staying with his new wife’s family. Of course, Tarquin forgets that Diana is very close to delivering her first child, and the scene at the Montrose’s home is, to put it mildly, chaotic. What happens from this point on is really too complicated to explain (and would entail some spoilers and delicious details best discovered by the reader), but I can say that while I had guessed the great mystery quite a bit before its revelation, the way it is incorporated into the larger plot strains of the book is very logical and clever.
While the set-up for Celia and Tarquin’s amnesiac road trip seemed somewhat tedious to me, the momentum continues to build throughout the novel, making each chapter more engaging and suspenseful than the last. The outrageousness of the set-up is subtly admitted to within the book itself, especially by the clever framing device of Tarquin’s erotic volume, The Genuine and Remarkable Amours of The Celebrated Author, Peter Aretin, a genuine 18th C novel that Celia finds outside the cottage. The little book provides almost constant subtext, making many amusing contributions to Celia and Tarquin’s growing sexual attraction, not to mention quite an education for Celia, and, later in the novel, one of the younger Montrose sisters. The book becomes a clever way to negotiate around a heroine who is both virginal and sexually aware (her life in India and her father’s Indian companion also provided her with a rather unconventional sexual education). It also allows for some pretty funny bits involving the hero’s, well, bits, which riff off the standard Romance expectation that the hero is always well-endowed and often overwhelming to the heroine’s inexperienced eyes. In fact, one of my favorite things about the novel is that numerous genre conventions — amnesia, the road trip, the house party, the rusticating hero, just to name a few — are renovated and renewed in interesting ways.
The writing is witty, too. When Tarquin looks down upon Celia sleeping in the midst of much birdsong, and the reader expects some sentiment about her hair or face, Tarquin “wondered if she could be deaf in one ear.” There are clever turns of phrase, as when women would “flutter like deranged doves” around Tarquin. And there are some laugh-out-loud scenes, like the one in which Sebastian drunkenly worries about the physics of a baby’s head and the usual size of the birth canal as his wife labors without complication elsewhere in the house.
On a deeper, level, though, The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton is itself a novel about learning lessons and lessons learned, around which the novel’s more poignant elements are revealed. Celia has felt like an outsider all her life, and as an unbeautiful woman she sees herself as “a shabby wraith in the shadow of [Tarquin’s] magnificence.” How can she believe that a man like Tarquin could ultimately love her, especially when so much of his ego seems to depend on the good opinion of others? And Tarquin, who has spent so much of his adult life so privileged he no longer consciously sees himself as privileged, attraction to Celia is both challenging and vexing. After all, the woman lied to him, humiliated him, and then has the gall to question his intentions and his feelings for her — whatever they may be. There is a point in the novel where Celia is done-over by Diana’s maid, and while she cannot wait to surprise Tarquin with her new look, his attraction is already past her surface appearance. It’s really a lovely moment, because it highlights the disparities in their perceptions of each other at that point in the novel. And while the consummate insider and the absolute outsider do share an early personal history of sadness, the crucial difference between Tarquin and Celia – that he has had influential people to count on at crucial points in his life – stands as a very real obstacle between them. Not as much because of the social implications, but even more because of the emotional consequences of their very different life conditioning.
Despite the length of this review, I feel as if I have barely broken the surface of my feelings about this book. There is so much I admire and appreciate about the craftsmanship and a great deal that entertained me in a fresh, unexpected way. The way the different tropes play on surface v. substance and appearance v. reality, for example, and illuminate the different prisms through which people view themselves and each other. In some ways it is light, but not in the way of wallpaper historicals or straight romps; the light is emitted from the effervescent voice and prose. So what kept it from being an A read for me? This is the hardest part to articulate, because in the end it distills down to a matter of chemistry. Sure there were some anachronistic-sounding phrases, and Celia delivered a number of impassioned comments on the relatively disempowered status of women that fit her outsider status but still sounded a bit modern to me (or at least as vehicles for sharing historical details that might not otherwise be easily worked in), but mostly my issue with The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton is that I never felt deeply emotionally invested in Tarquin, Celia, or their relationship. In fact, I was more emotionally drawn to Sebastian and Diana, whose book I’m now going to go back and read. Had I fallen in love with this book to the degree that I admire and appreciate it, it would have been an easy A. Without that emotional clincher, though, it’s a B+.