Edith Layton saved my sanity. One semester in grad school, I was taking courses in Old English, French, and Chaucer, auditing a 19th-century American novel course, and teaching three sections of freshman comp, or as a friend described it, living my life in five languages. I was tottering on the brink of losing it all when I picked up a book I had bought at the local UBS and escaped for a few hours into Edith Layton’s Regency world. I fell in love with Arden Lyons, hero of The Game of Love (1988), the middle book in Layton’s Super Regency Love trilogy. How could an English major resist a hero whose book opened with an epigram from A Midsummer Night's Dream (“a lion among ladies is a most dreadful thing”) and who furthermore borrowed from the Bard to compliment the heroine and to challenge a coward? I didn’t fully appreciate at the time Arden’s role as a former king of the underworld, a plot point used with varying results by many romance writers I have since read, nor the rarity of a hero who shows a heroine why he is convinced he’s wrong for her. I cannot count the heroes post-Arden who made a different choice. But I knew I had found the perfect retreat from my stressed-to-the-nth degree life.
As soon as I finished The Game of Love, I was back at the UBS searching for the other books in the trilogy, Love in Disguise and Surrender to Love. They were as good as the middle book. In fact, Warwick Jones, hero of Love in Disguise, is still my standard for the credibility of love at first sight. I was a believer the minute I read these words: “And then, for the first time in his life, between the drawing in of one breath and the letting out of another, he lost a breath somewhere in between, forever...For she looked exactly as he'd always imagined love itself would look if he ever found it.” Arden and Warwick and Julian (hero of the third book) and their heroines helped me endure the insane pressures of that semester. I finished with every freshman essay graded in a timely fashion, a high pass on the French exam that completed my first foreign language requirement, A’s in Old English and Chaucer, and a forever debt to Edith Layton.
The Love trilogy was not my first encounter with Lady Layton, just the most memorable. Her first book, The Duke’s Wager (1983) was already on my keeper shelf. Just this week, thirty years after I first read it, I once more added it to my list for AAR’s all-time Top 100 poll. With due respect to many other reformed rake books I have loved, this one may be the best. Certainly it gives the most insightful explanation of what motivates the reform. The Duke of Torquay’s former governess says to him:
“The love of a good woman would roll off your back like water off a duck’s. I make no doubt you’ve enjoyed the love of a good many women and some of them good women at that, but that would not change you in the least.”
“But,” she said succinctly as she rose to leave, “the love for a good woman . . . ah, that, my lad, would make all the difference in the world.”
Layton proved her skill at rake reformation again in The Disdainful Marquis (1988) in which the loser in The Duke’s Wager gets his turn as hero. It is a less remarkable book than its predecessor, but it is still a story to treasure, as are two more of Layton’s trad Regencies on my keeper shelves: The Abandoned Bride (1985) and False Angel (1985), the latter another Layton book in which Shakespearean quotations feature prominently. I love literary romances.
Layton was also a regular contributor to the Signet Christmas anthologies, holiday collections that heralded the season for romance readers from 1989-2005. By my count, she wrote thirteen novellas for the anthologies, more than any of the other twenty-three authors who contributed to the popular collections. My favorites among her Christmas stories are “The Rake’s Christmas” (A Regency Christmas VI, 1995) in which an aging rake plays a masterful role as matchmaker and reveals a heart far more tender than anyone could have guessed, and “Best Wishes” (Regency Christmas Wishes, 2003), which focuses on a young married couple’s first argument—a disagreement about where they will spend their first Christmas as a couple. They are among the stories I regularly reread as part of my Christmas reading ritual.
While Layton’s early work proves her status as one of the most gifted authors of the traditional Regency, she also created unforgettable stories when she moved to the longer, sexier European historicals. One of the best in the latter group is To Wed a Stranger (2003), an extraordinary redeemed heroine story that finds the beautiful Lady Annabelle Wylde accepting a loveless arranged marriage and losing her beauty after a serious illness. Readers responded to the freshness of the story and to its emotional intensity, and critics praised Layton’s thematic treatment of self-worth and the transformative power of love.
Before she became the heroine of her own book, Lady Annabelle was a secondary character in Layton’s C series, so named because the first five books, which form the original series, all bear titles beginning with the letter C: The Cad (1998), The Choice (1999), The Chance (2000), The Challenge (2000), and The Conquest (2001). Many Layton fans consider this series her finest work. The books are all connected, but not so closely as to prevent a reader from picking up any one and reading it as a standalone. Taken together, they provide a compendium of romance tropes and an amazing look at Layton’s ability to take the conventional characters and plots of romance fiction and give them a touch that marks them as unmistakably hers.
• The Cad features a scarred, impoverished heroine with an independent streak, a rakish hero who harbors insecurity about his prowess as a lover, some heart-meltingly memorable romantic speeches, and an ending that this reader did not expect.
• The Choice, as the title implies, gives the heroine, a survivor whose newly acquired polish is not thick enough to prevent skills no lady would know from surfacing when she is threatened, the choice of three men, including a practically perfect, untitled hero (whom Lady Annabelle covets) as a husband.
• The Chance is the story of a red-haired hero, not at all the typical male lead in a romance. He is madly in love with Lady Annabelle but, in part due to her vindictiveness, finds himself forced by his sense of honor to marry the sister of a friend. The hero discovers that his wife’s dark beauty is as compelling as Annabelle’s, and his wife has intelligence, humor, and integrity as well.
• The aptly titled The Challenge offers readers an older hero and heroine, each of whom has been disillusioned by love. The hero responds with hedonistic indulgence that earns him the nickname of “The Lord of Adulterers.” The heroine becomes wary of men, especially handsome aristocrats. They meet in America and share a black moment dark enough to make a reader doubt a happy ending.
• In The Conquest, the man who has been the epitome of alpha power and arrogance as a secondary character in earlier books becomes a hero who is the victim of an accident that leaves him injured and dependent upon the care of others. The heroine, a virtuous young woman of humble origins, is his caretaker. Their cross-class romance plays out gradually and persuasively.
• To Tempt a Bride (2003) follows To Wed a Stranger and adds a younger sister in love with her brother’s best friend plot to those Layton deftly handles in this series.
Not all Layton’s books belong to a series. One of my favorites is a standalone, the underrated For the Love of a Pirate (2006) in which the very proper, paragon of a hero awakens with a hangover and a piratical looking stranger bearing the news that the hero is the descendant of a famous pirate and has been betrothed to the stranger’s granddaughter since the two were children. The story pairs a conventional hero whose life is determined by what others think of him with a free-spirited, unconventional heroine. The result is a character-driven tale that is sweet, funny, and utterly charming.
Layton died on June 2, 2009 after a five-year battle with ovarian cancer. She completed her final book, To Love a Wicked Lord, in March of that year. Released in October 2009, it is a character-driven romance about two people for whom love reveals unexplored depths in themselves and in life. Knowing it was her last book, I was sad when I added it to other Layton titles on a keeper shelf, but I was also grateful as I recalled three decades of the joy reading Edith Layton books had brought. I knew I would reread her books with continued delight. And so I have.
Many of Layton’s books, including all the C series, are now available in digital format. So are most of the Signet Christmas anthologies that include her holiday novellas. I’m certain that many other Layton fans join me in hoping that more of her books will be released as ebooks. I will happily preorder The Duke’s Wager, the Love trilogy, and other favorites as soon as they are made available. Edith Layton left romance readers a rich legacy. The most fitting tribute for one of romance fiction’s finest Regency authors is for readers to keep reading her books.
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.