Jack Reynolds does not remember why he was in the carriage. All he knows is that he was pulled from its wreckage by the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
Rosalind – a widow with a scandalous reputation – is not expecting another Christmas guest, particularly not a mysterious, devastatingly handsome Yorkshire carpenter, but she has no intention of sending an injured man out into the snow.
In case the cover and characters had not already made it clear, this is a romance. It’s a short one – definitely more an novella than a novel, and it’s hard to explain more of the set-up without explaining the whole story. It follows the broad strokes of all romances, and that is not at all a bad thing.
The characters and plot are engaging, if all a little larger-than-life; I could have read about them for much longer than the length of Joy to the Earl and not minded. Although, as already mentioned, the plot does follow the standard romance beats, there’s quite a bit of originality here. He’s the shy, modest one while she’s the active confident suitor, which is an unusual dynamic, but there’s more to it; their specific roles in society are ones I haven’t seen in romances before, and disability is front and centre in the story.
I do really like mainstream romance tropes, but I’m always very happy to read variations and nuances. Frankly, the whole “bullish older man/blushing maiden” thing can get a little stale and has some disturbing under-currents and implications. Nicola Davidson experiments with dynamics and roles and neglected aspects of society, and I think that’s great.
If you read historical romance for genteel conversation and indirect, arch flirtation, then this book is probably not for you. Characters are direct speakers with earthy humour and blunt desires. I’d like to stress at this point that I’m not calling the book or its dialogue anachronistic – I know the author has a particular bugbear with people calling out perceived anachronisms when characters use words and visit places that definitely existed at the time the book is set.
I have no doubt whatsoever that the book is meticulously researched and contains nothing that does not belong in the appropriate century; similarly, I have no issues with the characters and their relationships. However, I think it’s fair to note that the cultural idea of the Regency is significantly different from its historical fact, in the same way that California in the ’30s probably wasn’t as pithy or symbolic as Chandler wrote it.
In (somewhat) popular culture, we think of that era as genteel, dignified, and with a population consisting entirely of inexplicably single dukes and spirited governesses. Obviously that’s not the case – people have always been people, and society is never as simple or thematically consistent as fiction tries to convince us. Joy to the Earl does not fit neatly into that tradition, and if you read it looking for letters of obliquely declared love or decades of pale pining, then you’ll be disappointed. There’s definitely a larger discussion to be had about how society creates and defends a-historical histories, I’d just like to flag that Nicola Davidson is not an imitator of Austen’s understatement.
In fact, the book is quite explicit, fitting quite a number of varied and detailed sex scenes into a short space. Rosalind is a Regency sex therapist, and is appropriately clear about her desires.
There’s nothing wrong with that, but this is a book where space is at a premium – it’s a full romance plot in a novella’s shape, and in places it feels a little rushed. I would have liked a slower burn on the romance, and the mid-point and final resolutions have a slight touch of deus ex machina to accelerate the plot. I get why the author has done that, but again, I could have happily spent longer with the characters, and I think it would have led to a more satisfying conclusion.
Overall, I enjoyed this book; the quibbles I have are mostly caused by the author compressing a full novel plot into a novella, and I think such issues are unavoidable in a book of this length. I liked the characters, the setting, and the author’s willingness to subvert expectations and standard dynamics. I’m definitely going to read her other work.