Monday, January 14, 2008

Jane Austen meets Bridget Jones

The Rules of Gentility
By Janet Mullany

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with fashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer. I consider the pursuit of the bonnets and a husband fairly alike – I do not want to acquire an item that will wear out, or bore me after a brief acquaintance, and we must suit each other very well.”

Thus begins the story of Miss Philomena Wellesley-Clegg, a young lady of substantial fortune and respectable (if somewhat plebeian) breeding. Philomena is in London with her family doing what all young ladies of the time do – hunting for a husband. Philly has a keen eye for fashion, and a talent for retrimming a bonnet that would make a milliner green with envy. Alas, our heroine has much better luck finding wonderful bonnets than suitable suitors. Her list of potential husbands includes:

  • Lord Elmhurst, who is the catch of the season, but appears to be exceedingly fond of Lady Caroline Bludge, a young lady of impeccable pedigree and questionable virtue.
  • Viscount Elverton, also a catch, but one who is exceedingly fond of his dogs and horses (pedigrees unknown, but presumed impeccable as well.)
  • Mr. Thomas Darrowby, who is unfortunately penniless, though respectable, and who at least is exceedingly fond of Philomena, who in turn thinks of him as a brother.
  • Lord Aylesworth, who is always stylish, and Carrotte, the Mad Poet, who is incredibly handsome. These two are exceedingly fond of – each other.
And so it goes, until Mr. Inigo Linsley arrives in town. Mr. Linsley is the wicked younger son of a noble family, possessed of modest expectations and tremendous charm. It just so happens that Philomena’s dearest friend is married to Linsley’s older brother, and so the two meet on the doorstep of Linsley’s family home. The meeting results in Philomena deciding that Linsley would really be quite handsome if he shaved and cleaned himself up a bit, and in Linsley deciding that Philomena, though silly, has impeccable taste in stockings.

Can True Love be far behind?

Of course it can’t. But since “the course of true love never did run smooth”
the story evolves into a comedy of manners that would do Oscar Wilde proud.
The plot twists include, in no particular order: a false engagement, a jilted suitor, a former mistress, an overbearing Earl, an illegitimate child, a fortune hunting scoundrel, drugged brandy, a visit by genteel ladies to a “house of ill repute,” and any number of grave misunderstandings. The result is one of the wittiest, most entertaining books I have ever read.

Author Janet Mullany confesses that she started The Rules of Gentility for her own entertainment, basing it loosely on Bridget Jones’s Diary. She was also inspired by Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia Bennett and her bonnets. What emerged was Philomena Wellesley-Clegg, a likeable heroine with a talent for misadventure. Inigo Linsley is the kind of mischievous rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold beloved of women everywhere, and the secondary characters are fully realized and engaging. This gentle spoof sends up both historical romances and chick lit, and fans of either genre will find themselves laughing out loud.

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