The subject of comfort reading has come up many times on Smart Bitches. Everyone has their warm-fuzzy author, the one we go to when we want to feel a little better about the world or visit an old friend. My comfort author is the late Edith Layton. When someone wants to try Regency romance for the first time, I always suggest they start with Layton. There's something about her writing that transcends the usual tropes found in the Austen era ballroom.
So why do I love Layton so much? Why does she give me more warm fuzzies than a basket full of kittens? Part of it is the consistency of her writing, part of it is her amazing characters, and a lot of it due to her ability to make me fall in love along with the people she's writing about.
About two years ago I had my tonsils out, which is especially sucky when you're an adult. I spent two weeks eating nothing but Jell-O and popsicles, high as a kite on red dye no 4 and liquid Percocet. I was way too stoned to read anything new and remember fuckall about it (my husband claims I once woke him up at three a.m. to tell him, “Polar bears are fucking intense,” but I have no memory of this), so instead I went back to my happy place. I gathered up Layton's backlist in a stack and went to town. Despite feeling generally awful, and despite having read all of her books before, Layton took me away from my temporary misery to candlelit, Jell-O-free ballrooms. It says something about an author when they can ease you through two weeks of post-op recovery.
I have a handful of favorite authors, the ones who knock my socks off. The thing about favorite authors, though, is that while they often turn out A+ books, there are usually a few clunkers too. Eloisa James is probably my all time favorite historical author, but as much as I loved When Beauty Tamed the Beast and When the Duke Returns, I found myself lukewarm on The Duke is Mine and actively disliking An Affair Before Christmas. Layton's real magic is that every one of her books is good. Some are better than others, sure, but I can't think of a single book of hers that I read and thought 'meh.' That's the beauty of a comfort author–here there be contented sighs and happy endings. When I first discovered Layton at my local library, I devoured all of her books and didn't feel the least burned out. Each of her books had her voice, her style, but was unique to itself. I have yet to find that quality in another author.
But the main reason I love Layton like cake is her swoon-worthy heroes. Here's the thing, I secretly really crush on the nice guy. I like kind men. I mean, who doesn't, but when I read a book about an alpha-hole who's domineering and out of touch with his feels, I like the hero but I probably don't get all mushy over him. But when I read a book about a hero who is complex, but fundamentally kind and unafraid to show it? That's when my panties drop. I love the hero who is thoughtful and considerate, even when he might look tough, scary or beastly on the outside. Unfortunately heroes who have all their feels in order and are nice guys don't make for scintillating reading, usually. Layton somehow writes these characters and makes them shine.
Let's look at how Simon meets his heroine, Jane Chatham. Jane is an impoverished lady seeking employment in the few respectable trades available to her: she is a dancing instructor for the children of nobility. Simon, Lord Granger, is a spy and he wants to recruit Jane to pass along gossip and eavesdrop on her noble clients. When Simon approaches Jane it's in the streets of London, and she believes he's about to proposition her. She is acutely aware of how precarious her position is and how easily she could be ruined.
Now, Simon is attracted to Jane. He watched her teach dance to students while she had her dress rucked up to her knees. That's right, he saw her goddamned calves and ankles. I mean, that's seriously erotic shit right there. Simon confronts Jane in an alley, and, assuming he wants an assignation, Jane basically tells him to go to hell. In another novel there would have been a moment where Simon shows Jane that she really would welcome his advances by grasping her wrist, or whispering something seductively in her ear, or even pushing her up against the alley wall. Not here though. Simon respects her boundaries, explains he's interested in her only in her ability to gather information, and generally makes her feel okay. There is no undercurrent of menacingly sexual tension.
EXCEPT THERE IS.
Because now Jane has been propositioned for an unexpected reason by a super hot guy and she's thinking, wait, what just happened? Also he smells good. Wait? What?
Layton does this thing where her heroes are so not douchey, and somehow in not being so, become infinitely more sexy. It's hard to describe, but basically Simon does not act as expected, which makes Jane–and in turn the reader–step back and really look at him and think “hmmm…I wonder what's going on there.” Her heroes are sexy because they don't advertise being sexy. It's like reverse psychology.
In To Tempt a Bride the hero, Eric, is the best friend of the heroine, Camille's, older brother. Camille has secretly loved Eric from afar, but he's always treated her like an affectionate older sibling himself. To make matters worse, Camille is not a traditionally attractive woman and she believes he can't want her. Of course, Eric secretly has feelings for Camille, but he contracted malaria during his time in the military and the reoccurring bouts of illness make him fear he'd leave her widowed young. The thing that I love about Eric is that he has a real reason for not pursuing Camille. There are so many dukes, earls, rakes and rogues who decide they can't love because they did ONE BAD THING in their past or because their dad didn't love them enough that they have to become super broody and dark and emo. It's almost like “I can't love you Julianne…I…am…the night…I…am…Batman.”
Eric is really sick, and that really scares him and it should. But when he does start to let his guard down and show Camille that she is beautiful, it's absolutely heart-melting.
That's the other thing I love so much about Layton. Her characters fall in love slowly, organically, without over-the-top realizations. It feels so natural and subtle that as a reader I'm completely with them on their journey. In To Wed a Stranger, Annabelle and Miles have a marriage of convenience. Annabelle is not an awesome person in the start of the book. She's a beauty and the toast of the ton and she's kind of self-centered and shitty. She becomes violently ill on their honeymoon and Miles, literally a stranger to her, nurses her back to health. During her illness her looks fade. She becomes gaunt and the doctors, using awesome 1800s medicine, cut off her hair to help with her fever.
Stripped of her beauty and completely vulnerable, Annabelle has to learn who she really is all while falling in love with the man she cynically married for convenience, the man who stood by her when she was sick. They go from almost total strangers to best friends and lovers in a way that is so natural and beautifully developed that it takes my breath away as a reader every time. Miles cares for Annabelle without controlling her, and I loved that about him.
In 2009 I learned that Edith Layton had passed away. I was struck with grief, not only for her family, but selfishly for me as a reader. As much as I'd love a new Layton novel, I'm grateful for the all wonderful books I do have. She's the only author whose entire collection I own in digital and print versions. Even as I read this, I'm thinking that I should re-read His Dark and Dangerous Ways this weekend.
Who are your comfort authors? Are there any authors that are as magical for you is Layton is for me?
Plus, there are a few other Edith Layton novels on sale, as well. You can see the complete list here.