“I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.”
One of the worst things about being a Jane Austen fan is that once you've finished her handful of novels, perused her juvenilia and pored over the few remaining letters of hers we have, you can find yourself at something of a loose end. No wonder, then, that she has inspired such a huge number of novelists to try their hand at the regency romance. A recurring issue, I find, with these books, is that they can be rather formulaic and strait-laced in their interpretations of plot structures and tropes. The familiarity that these stories bring do have their value - many of us read Austen for comfort and warmth when things get tough - but sometimes it can feel like when you've read one Austen-inspired romance, you've read them all.
This is not the case for Lex Croucher's Reputation, which promises a fresh new take on the Regency romance. Georgiana Ellers has been sent to live with her aunt and uncle, abandoned in their dreary country home whilst her parents enjoy some fresh seaside air. Absolutely gagging for a hint of adventure, Georgiana is thrilled when she meets Frances Campbell, local socialite, and her circle of wealthy and wild friends. Frances takes Georgiana under her wing, drawing her into a world of drink, drugs and debauchery.
Though it's likely unintentional, Reputation stands to profit from the wave of excitement generated by Bridgerton earlier this year, incorporating atypically racy elements into a typically conservative genre. What Reputation does better than Bridgerton, however, is romantic tension. My main gripe with Bridgerton was that it failed to understand that one of the most enthralling parts of the Regency romance is withholding gratification, especially when it comes to the main romantic arc- what is sexier than the Matthew MacFadyen hand flex, or the dance scene between Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in Autumn de Wilde's Emma? Croucher, on the other hand, gets this spot on, bringing in the reserved Mr Hawksley, who stands out for being far more level-headed than almost all of Georgiana's new acquaintances. Without revealing too much, Croucher paces the romance of this novel just right, ensuring both Hawksley and Georgiana are fully fleshed out, so their relationship never feels clunky or forced.
There is also a clear effort on Croucher's part to acknowledge the realities of the diversity of Regency Britain. Both Frances and Mr Hawksley are explicitly portrayed as mixed race; though the realities of the imperial situation that brought their families to England aren't shied away from, Croucher is able to maintain the novel's light, comedic tone throughout. There is also acknowledgement of the presence of LGBTQ+ folks in England at the time, even dealing with the idea of the 'confirmed bachelor.' One thing I would have liked to see a bit more of, in this regard, is interaction with the servant characters, who are present but not in any complex way throughout the novel.
We come then, to the issue of who this book is for. It is being shelved in bookshops as 'Young Adult', but I believe would fit more neatly in the ever-growing genre of 'New Adult'. The characters are all in their early twenties, which as a twenty-something myself, I appreciated (I often find characters are unrealistically aged down in order to appeal to a teenage audience), and the content is broadly adult in nature, though teenagers are bound to be able to appreciate the biting sense of humour that make's Croucher's style unique. Certainly, critical consensus that this will appeal to fans of Mean Girls, Gossip Girl and Bridgerton, rings true. In fact, sometimes the debauchery and antics can feel so outlandish that the Regency setting feels more like window dressing than a narrative model. This novel certainly doesn't shy away from stretching the boundaries of what we consider the Regency romance.
All in all, this is a very solid debut from Croucher, who I am excited to hear is working on a new book, turning their hand to medieval YA romance in Gwen and Art are Not in Love. I highly recommend it to Austen fans who love her quick wit and deft hand for building romantic tension, and who are willing to be open minded about their Regency romances.
Reputation is available at your local independent bookshop, or at all good online retailers.
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