A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting
Back in the days when I ran a food and drink website, I regularly had people applying to write for me who intentionally emulated the style of Anthony Bourdain. When I would reply to them and tell them to find their own voice, they would get angry at me. “I want to be the next Bourdain!” they’d write back emphatically. But here’s the thing, we only ever needed one Bourdain. Everything else, every person who wrote anything in a style of flowery, meandering prose punctuated with sharpish observations of the world, would always be second rate. Solely because they weren’t Anthony Bourdain. And it wasn’t that their stories, or observations, were bad, or even badly written; it was just hard to get past how desperately they were trying to be like someone else.
Such is the case with writers who emulate Jane Austen.
I get that the Regency era is hot right now. I get that the fashions are fun and that the etiquette and social rules of the time make for lots of opportunities for the drama, intrigue and misunderstandings that are the backbone of a good story, romance or otherwise. But there’s got to be some plotline other than of a plucky young woman fighting for her family, or against the unfairness of social hierarchy, who overcomes the odds and falls in love with her (rich!) nemesis. As much as I want to adore Kitty Talbot, out on the hunt for a rich man to save her household of young, orphaned women from certain ruin, I just can’t help reading A Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting and thinking how this is just trying to be so, so hard to emulate Austen.
Because the aura of Austen actually ruins what is otherwise a fun and decently well-written book. I mean, poor Kitty, bless her, she’s destitute, with four younger sisters, her only prospect of marriage has bailed on her, and so she heads off to London to hunt down a rich man, doesn’t matter who as long as he can pay off her debts and take care of her sisters. She’s taken under the wing of a former courtesan who is an old friend of her (former courtesan) mother and she does the rounds of balls during the London season.
Given that the whole point of the high society season was to marry off eligible young people, and that there is little pretense of people being in love, with wheeling and dealing based solely on potential income, what Kitty does is not really so cynical and conniving. It’s icky, but it’s icky for every young woman who was ever paired up with someone just for their money. She is judged by Lord Radcliffe because she’s poor, and because her rich father gave up everything to be with her mother. But she’s no different than her wealthier colleagues in her approach or end goal.
As a straight-up romance novel, this works fine and author Irwin has some sharply humorous bits that make this work effectively contemporary without breaking the setting to become overly modern. And sure, for a romance novel to work, you’ve got to have a heroine who is believable, and relatable. Plus a hero who is just enough of a jerk to be contemptible without making him creepy or aggressive. Or icky. And who comes around to love the main character despite himself, societal rules be damned!
So, yes, all boxes are ticked, but I’ve read this story before, right? And that’s almost the point of romance novels, that they’re formulaic and predictable – but I wanted something else besides the standard Austenesque tropes. After all, Austen only wrote “romance” novels as a way to disguise political discourse with a readership (predominantly young women) that would have been dissuaded from or uninterested in political issues otherwise. That Austen had to disguise her gender to get published in the first place further speaks to the attitude of the time that women should not be involved in or have opinions about, and certainly not write about, issues such as slavery, primogeniture, enclosure laws or the poor management of the military.
And as witty and sharp as Irwin’s story and dialogue is… if I wanted to read Austen, I’d just read Austen. Because those books never get tired, that’s why they’ve endured for so long and why everyone comes back to them over and over again.
Overall rating: 3.5/5 – an enjoyable read, absolutely, but feeling slightly too much like it was trying too hard.