When I reviewed Cecilia Grant previously, I mentioned how she seems to delight in turning tropes on their ears. A Woman Entangled is the last book in her Blackshear Family series, and Grant’s target here is perfect.
With overt nods to both Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Grant uses the romance of Kate Westbrook and Nick Blackshear to make larger points about vanity, respectability, and expectations. What I find particularly interesting about her romances is that, while her books are in company with other top-quality Regency romances that feature socially non-conforming characters to highlight the oppressiveness of structural social inequality, Grant’s approach is more harsh, less escapist. This is demonstrated to great effect in this book: following the events of the second in the series, A Gentleman Undone, in which the male Blackshear hero marries a former mistress/courtesan-type, the reputation of the Blackshear family is completely destroyed. Beyond losing all social standing, the scandal has affected the career of Nick Blackshear, barrister, whose caseload has dropped considerably as he is recommended to clients substantially less often. The eldest Blackshear, along with his wife and his daughters are outcasts, and they fear for the girls’ marriage prospects. As we are amply reminded, Regency women who are not themselves wealthy heiresses live and die by the quality of their marriage prospects, so the romance that readers so treasured and cheered for in the last book is now a dark cloud over the rest of the family.
Similarly marred by scandal is the Westbrook family. Though Kate’s father is an earl’s son, he married a stage actress, and got cast out of his family for their trouble. Never mind that their marriage is happy and healthy and they love each other, because actresses are trash or whatever. Kate, the oldest daughter of their happy union, is exceptionally beautiful. She turns heads wherever she goes, but she’s never been courted by anyone of the peerage, as should befit her status as the earl’s granddaughter. And that brings me to the thing I really loved about this book. Because other books — and other books I have loved, to be sure — like giving the unconventional girls their place in the sun. The wallflowers, the bluestockings, the ones who want to marry for love, who would never dream of chasing a title. But this book actually chooses to humanize the beautiful, seemingly vain, ambitious title-hunter who distances herself from lesser connections. In doing so, Grant deconstructs a couple of really insidious tropes, and I’ll just quote the book directly here because they are some fist-pump worthy moments.
He eyed her sideways, one brow arching as he lifted his cup. “I hadn’t noticed you to have much use for modesty of any kind.”
So he was in that sort of mood, was he? Good. She could keep up with all the plaguing he cared to throw her way. “Ah, I take your meaning.” She shaped all her features into an exaggerated show of comprehension. “You think me vain of my looks.”
“No, Miss Westbrook. Think suggests an element of doubt. And that particular doubt, in my acquaintance with you, was long since done away with…”
“… I must say, you gentlemen are very vexing in your expectations of us.” A small toss of her head would not go amiss here, so she added it. “A man wants a lady to be beautiful, but to drift about in ignorance of the fact until the day he can come along and enlighten her. And all the while, a well-looking lady is subjected to such incessant attentions and courtesies from the lot of you as can leave her in no doubt of her appeal… The trying part is the inconsistency, the inherent contradiction in what gentlemen would like us to be. There’s simply no such thing as a beautiful woman who’s unaware of her beauty, unless she’s monumentally oblivious. More likely she’s feigning her ignorance in order to snare a credulous man in a web woven out of his own illogical expectations.”
And, I mean, right??? Sit down, One Direction, because rigid beauty standards are difficult enough to navigate without also being expected to be disingenuous when you know you’ve surmounted the impossible odds of performing femininity correctly.
… if she were ever to write a novel, it would be the opposite of a love story. Her hero and heroine would choose duty over their hearts’ desire, that their children need never be taxed for a romantic indulgence that was none of their own…
Yes, the very opposite of a romance would be the story to warm her heart. Something full of prudent choices and practical considerations. Something where people consulted their heads and kept a tight rein on their sentiments…
Men thought her unfeeling, she knew. Heartless, Mr. Blackshear had pronounced her, the last time he’d come to call. Of course he’d laughed as he’d said it, good-natured and brotherly, though they both knew he had reason to mean it.
Well, be that as it would. She carried enough already, what with worrying for her younger sisters’ welfare, scheming to make connections that could better all their prospects, and striving to somehow mend the great rift in Papa’s family. She had neither time nor energy enough to feel guilty for every young man she’d disappointed. They’d surely all go on to find girls who could afford the luxury of marrying for love, and they’d be happier than they ever could have been with her.
Beauty faded, after all, and with it, the love it had inspired.
I love this passage, too, because it demonstrates two key things:
1) Kate is practical, she’s smart, and she’s empathetic. The quote follows a section where Kate has just learned that one of her younger sisters is tormented by her peers at the seminary where she has daily lessons. The reason for singling her out is her sordid family history, and her “low” birth. Kate knows that until someone, namely her, mends the family rift and sees her nuclear family re-accepted by the rest of the Westbrooks, that her sensitive younger sister will have to continue to endure this cruelty. Furthermore, she also knows that, like the nieces of Nick Blackshear, their marriage prospects are dim as things stand, and since at least she is recognized as a renowned beauty, perhaps she stands a fighting chance of making an advantageous match. The daughter who sacrifices herself for the good of her family is not a new heroine archetype in romance either, but Kate’s depiction reads as new because of how, on the surface, she seems to so perfectly fit the stereotype that’s frequently the antagonist of the quieter, more self-effacing heroines.
2) The passage recognizes the emotional labor that women disproportionately take on in interpersonal relationships — she spends so much time worrying about the black stain on her family and how to overcome it — and appropriately redirects the awkward fallout from shallow demands on her energy back to the people it comes from. For all that men gripe about the pain of being rejected, women — particularly beautiful women — experience blowback as well for not being more considerate of their feelings. In truth, men who are only besotted with a woman’s looks aren’t feeling anything very deeply at all, so Kate is correct by refusing to feel guilty for superficial hurt feelings that will quickly enough fade.
The road that Kate and Nick take to get together is a difficult one that is marked by the contrasting highs and lows that are gifted, and then inflicted, on the other by people who know each other well enough to hit their marks. It takes both characters a bit of coming to terms with their own family scandals before they can understand the other better, but along the way there is hurt, misunderstanding, and plenty of seething sexual tension.
Grant’s characters find ways to carve out spaces of happiness for themselves, but they feel the consequences of flouting social mores and, as such, these books feel very unflinchingly authentic in a way that many of Grant’s contemporaries either aren’t as concerned about or don’t achieve. The Blackshear books are romances and therefore have HEAs, but outside of that, they’re light on wish-fulfillment and feel more measured. With her name-dropping of Jane Austen in this book, I rather think Cecilia Grant does a good job mimicking some of Austen’s sensibilities; Austen would recognize the Regency and the people in this story.