Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Connie Brockway
The Lady Most Willing...
Avon / $7.99 print & digital / December 26, 2012
At the behest of three of the most talented historical romance authors writing today, you are cordially invited to a ball. No, a party. No...a kidnapping.
Taran Ferguson, laird of his clan, is determined that his ancient (if not so honorable) birthright be secured before he dies. When both his nephews refuse to wed, the old reprobate takes matters into his own hands: he raids a ball and makes off with four likely brides . . .
Miss Marilla Chisholm—the bonniest lass in Scotland, and an heiress to boot.
Miss Fiona Chisholm—her older sister, another fine choice (but for that tiny stain on her reputation).
Lady Cecily Tarleton—true, she's an English beauty, but very, very rich.
Miss Catriona Burns—without name or fortune, clearly someone made a mistake.
Oh, yes. And one very irate duke.
Because somewhere there must be one lady most willing to love a Scottish lord.
First, a warning to readers for whom such things as angst and credibility and logic are primary criteria for a good historical read: avoid this book. The Lady Most Willing, the second “novel in three parts” on which Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, and Connie Brockway have collaborated, is part legend, part farce, and wholly delightful. It reminded me of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a classic MGM musical from 1954, directed by Stanley Donen.
The movie, set in Oregon in the 1850s, has ancient roots; it was adapted from Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story “The Sobbin’ Women” (1937), which was a parody of the story of the Sabine women abducted to become the brides of Roman soldiers (Plutarch’s Life of Romulus, 75 A.C.E.). The Lady Most Willing is set in the Highlands of Scotland in 1819, it features two cousins rather than seven brothers, the cousins are not the agents of the kidnapping, and they are aristocrats rather than country boys, but the kidnapped brides, the impassable mountain roads that isolate the group, the sometimes surprising matches, and above all the boisterous laughter that fills the film are part of this novel.
The prologue sets the tone and places the stories that are about to unroll in the realm of myth and magic. These are tales for a winter’s night, guaranteed to evoke smiles and sighs.
Some said that the legendary storm of 1819 that screamed down from the north pushed madness ahead of it. Others said the only madness exhibited that night was born inside a bottle of contraband whiskey. And then there were those who claimed that magic rode vanguard to the snow, sweeping the halls of Finovair Castle and inspiring its laird to heights of greatness . . .
Or something along those lines.
The suggestion that these stories are touched with magic is a thread that runs through the book. It is repeated in the middle story when Fiona says to Oakley that their time together is “some strange fairy-tale moment” that will end when the storm passes and reality intrudes. Finally, the epilogue gives the Scots credit for knowing that “magic has its place.” Readers will experience the magic of a feel-good read that evokes a smile, a giggle, or a resounding laugh on nearly every page. For those who like their humor broad, there is the kidnapping and the over-the-top behavior of the laird and a single-minded beauty with more hair than wit. For those who like their humor more subtle, there are witty exchanges and clever quips aplenty.
The laughter starts with the opening. Taran Ferguson, laird of Finovair, fears that his line is headed for extinction. A childless widower, he must rely upon the sons of his two sisters to continue the line. He doesn’t have much faith in their ability to choose a proper bride. First, their Scots blood has been diluted by their sires: one “a refugee from the French Revolution, a penniless comte” and the other “an English earl who turned out to be as disagreeable as he was English.” Then, neither Robert Parles, Comte de Rochefort, better known as Robin, nor Byron Wotton, Earl of Oakley, seems inclined to select a bride Taran deems worthy of Finovair. So, with a plan born of inebriation and desperation, Taran and a group of his clansmen invade the ballroom of the Earl of Maycott and kidnap the earl’s daughter, Lady Cecily (“the best of the bunch: worth a fortune and pretty as a penny”); and a pair of sisters, Scotswomen with London polish and sizeable dowries: Fiona (“a bit long on the shelf”), who prefers libraries to ballrooms, and Marilla (“very young, very blond, and very beautiful”), who is on the hunt for a titled husband and eagerly displays all her assets in her search.
Because the kidnapping is a comedy of errors, the clansmen abduct four young women instead of three. Catriona Burns (“nice lass, no money”) is the daughter of a local squire with no higher expectations than to become the wife of a squire. They also kidnap the Duke of Bretton who is asleep in his carriage, and they transport their five captives to Finovair in the duke’s carriage.
As each author in turn tells her story, the couples fall in love to the accompaniment of laughter—the characters’ and the readers’. Catriona Burns and the Duke of Bretton, the two unexpected “guests” are left alone when the others are escorted to their rooms. Their conversation begins with an account of a Taran’s “bare-arsed” race through the village to win a wager to make the vicar’s wife faint. Catriona’s “slightest indentation of a smile” as she assures Bretton that the air in Scotland is far too chilly for such performances to be frequents leads to the duke laughing with a freedom uncharacteristic of him:
And then the laugh that had been fizzing within him finally broke free. It started small, with just a silent shake, and then before he knew it, he was roaring, bent over from the strength of it, rolling and rumbling in his belly, coming out in great, big, beary guffaws.
Several chapters later, the guffaws are the reader’s when an encroaching beauty goes too far and is literally put in her place by Catriona.
The laughter in the middle story is often less effusive, but it is no less real. Fiona notices that Oakley “did smile, with his eyes, though not with his lips,” but when Oakley hides behind the library door to avoid the pursuit of the determined Marilla, the well-read Fiona is reminded of a French farce and “found herself unable to suppress her laughter.” Later “laughter bubbled out of her,” and even the naturally sober Oakley replaces a scowl with a “reluctant smile.”
After talk of kisses and breasts and groveling, Oakley’s smile turns “dangerous,” but by the time the two are on their way to their HEA and Oakley’s somberness has been replaced by “the kind of dizzy silly joy he distantly remembered experiencing as a child,” the laughter has grown tender.
Robin, the hero of the final story, is described from the beginning as a man who laughs easily and often. Lady Cecily, who has been encouraged by her parents to follow her heart, has dreamed of “heated kisses, easy laughter, passionate nights.” When she falls in love with Robin, she thinks of his laughter as an integral part of him. “She wanted a lifetime of Robin’s roguish smiles and unaffected humor, his teasing laughter and warmth.” Fear and misunderstanding steal Robin’s laughter for a while, but this is romance. Robin and Cecily’s story ends appropriately with laughter and kisses.
The actors and other professionals associated with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers spoke afterwards about how much fun making the movie was. The novel suggests that same sense of creative joy. I could almost see the authors’ smiles as I read the book. And from beginning to end, this reader was smiling back at them.
Janga spent decades teaching literature and writing to groups ranging from twelve-year-olds to college students. She is currently a freelance writer, who sometimes writes about romance fiction, and an aspiring writer of contemporary romance, who sometimes thinks of writing an American historical romance. She can be found at her blog Just Janga and tweeting obscure bits about writers as @Janga724.