by Mary Ellen Dennis, historical (2011, reissue)
Sourcebooks Casablanca, $7.99, ISBN 978-1-4022-4631-9
Mary Ellen Dennis's The Landlord's Black-Eyed Daughter was first published in 2007 by Five Star Expressions. I'm not sure whether there had been any revisions done in this edition, however.
As you may have guessed, this book is inspired by Alfred Noyes's poem The Highwayman. Only, Rand Remington is a former soldier who decides to do that Robin Hood with a pistol thing after he becomes bitterly disenchanted with the way the rich are allowed to wallow and fester in a stew of corrupt hedonism while the lower classes suffer under the tyranny of these privileged jerks. Or something like that. So there he goes, bang bang bang and what not. Our heroine is Elizabeth Wyndham, who decides to shake off the yokes of expectations and becomes an independent woman of means, by writing Gothic romances.
They meet when she is in London for what I guess is the 18th century equivalent of a book signing, and when he robs her on her trip, she recognizes him and decides to step up her bunny-boiling stalker act. It's love, breathless breathtaking tab-A-poundingly-explodingly-explosively-slot-B love, but the unrequited affections of one - or is it two? - bitter man will tear these two apart. Will there be a happily ever after for Rand and Elizabeth?
The Landlord's Black-Eyed Daughter is in so many ways an old school romance that has somehow found its way to the 21st century from the darkest recesses of the 1970s. Oh, this one avoids the rampant rape fest that those old books tended to be, but the language is still purple ("raven hair" ahoy) and the collective IQ scores of all principle characters are pretty abysmal. But unlike the more sober romance novels of today, this one is full of over-the-top melodrama that is so ridiculous that it actually becomes a whole ball of fun to read.
Elizabeth is a bewilderingly dumb yet fascinating train wreck of a heroine.
For a start, she is an imbecile. She immediately lets Rand know on the spot that she recognizes him, when they are out there in the middle of nowhere at night and he could have shot her dead on the spot. However, she doesn't care because she just knows that Rand will never hurt a woman. She only knows him for a very short time prior to this, but she is convinced from the start that they have met before. When Rand decides to let her be, she concludes that she's in love with him, but since she can't fall in love with a highwayman who may die one day at the gallows, she will write a story featuring him very clearly as the hero, a story where the heroine will reform him. It's a good thing that Rand is this one-dimensional do-gooder or she'd have long met a gruesome end.
Elizabeth is also a snob. She actually thinks poorly of her books and her readers, and when she meets a reader who praises a character of hers, Elizabeth will wonder what is wrong with that reader. The joke's on her, actually, because the moment she lays eyes on Rand, she turns into a parody of the sentimental and overly visceral heroine that she writes, heh. In addition to being a snob, she is also a hypocrite with no sense of self-awareness. She claims to want to be an independent woman, but she still enables her father's gambling habits by constantly paying his gambling debts. When the story opens, she has to pay £800 to settle his latest debt. £800! How is she going to be this independent woman if she keeps letting a man walk over her like that? Worse, she blames her stepmother for her father's gambling debts, actually reprimanding her stepmother for not giving the man enough good sex to keep him away from the gambling den!
And unlike Rand, Elizabeth doesn't have to pay for her flaunting of social norms of her time. Indeed, her fans love her and ladies of the Ton want her to marry their male relatives. There are noble men who want to marry her too, even if Elizabeth is merely the daughter of an innkeeper. Apparently her celebrity status is enough to let her waltz into ballrooms of the rich and famous. Then again, Ms Dennis assures me that she has made all efforts to ensure that this story is historically accurate, so maybe this is actually normal back in those days? I'd let the history experts decide. But I personally find it a cop-out for the author to set the heroine up as so different and defiant, only to have the heroine enjoy all the privileges typically accorded to more conventional heroines.
And the romance! Oh my goodness, Elizabeth is on her way to being a professional bunny boiler here. She's decided that she's in love with him pretty much from the moment they meet, and she also interprets his actions to mean that he too has an undying love for her. Life is empty without him! Rand is far more stronger person than I am, because I'd have fled for the hills when, the morning after their shag fest, she announces that he must take her with him because sleeping with him clearly proves that she has given her heart to him and he must now keep her... forever. This imbecile is really creepy. I am convinced that this grand love between them is mostly in her head. It is a good thing that Rand does love her, because, otherwise, she'd probably go all Single White Fatal Attraction on him.
Rand, because he has a penis, is generally smarter than Elizabeth, but he is not exactly the brightest bulb in the house, either. He spends more time moping that they can't be together, as he drags out these big bags of baggage from his closet to spill the contents all across the pages. Because Elizabeth is so over-the-top crazy, Rand comes off as bland in comparison, something like the Trophy Penis for the Crazy Nutjob that Could.
And really, Elizabeth just keeps going. After a while, I have to break down and admit that the crazy darling has gotten under my skin. I have to begrudgingly admire this imbecile's dogged tenacity. Once she has latched on to Rand's pee-pee, nothing - not even the threat of death and prison and what not - can compel her to let go. Her love for Rand is one for the crazies, but this love keeps her going to the point that she actually finds the strength to endure and even claw her way out of trouble. She can't die - not when she's going to have this wonderfully happy-ever-after with Rand, so die, villain, die! Seriously, the last chapter of this book actually makes me look at Elizabeth with respect. Remind me never to get between her and the pee-pee of her desire - she plays dirty to get what she wants, as the villain discovers too late.
And it's probably a good thing that Elizabeth is demented and Rand is stupid enough to reciprocate, because this story is filled with deliciously melodramatic chest-pounding and clothes-rending declarations of love and tragic lamentations about why they can't be together. The whole story is just too stupid to be taken seriously, but damn if it isn't so riveting and absorbing nonetheless. After the rather slow first third of the book, the story plunges into rapidly paced crazy-beautiful melodrama and excitement, all designed to evoke pathos in a way that simultaneously makes me laugh and sigh a little inside.
At the end of the day, I am thoroughly entertained by The Landlord's Black-Eyed Daughter. I won't say that it's a romance for the record books, but this charmingly stupid and fun story of dumb people being fools for love still ends up pushing all the right buttons where I am concerned. So what the heck, good job, Ms Dennis, and here's to dim-witted fools who do their best to remind us that they deserve love too.
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