The Earl by Katharine Ashe highlights 19th-century women’s rights
The Earl by Katharine Ashe is a historical novel filled with adventure and mystery, and sprinkled with romance. Ashe is a professor of history who creates strong heroines that learn from and teach the men who love them. In this novel her heroine, Emily, is fighting for women’s rights in early 19th-century England.
Ashe feels, “I am a historian at heart and find the struggle for rights fascinating. In her earlier book The Rogue, Lady Justice writes, ‘Even the sacred vows instruct a woman to love, cherish, and obey while a man must only love and cherish.’ When a woman wed in the 1820s, the Law of England placed her income, belongings, and body in the possession of her husband. She had no power or authority over her money, property, and children.”
This new book is the conclusion of the Falcon Club series and the second book in the Devil Duke series. Throughout both Ashe focuses on Lady Justice, a pamphleteer, moral crusader and denouncer of the abuses and injustices wreaked upon the voiceless masses by the wealthy and privileged. She has been trading letters with Peregrine, who has publicly clashed with her, as they debate over women’s issues in the 1820s, specifically a woman’s marital status. She is trying to encourage the passing of the Domestic Felicity Act, which would end the unfairness of marriage for women, allowing them to have control of their finances and even their children.
The backstory on these characters had Lady Justice, an alias for Emily Anne Vale, and Colin Grey, whose pen-name is Peregrine, as childhood friends. Colin for years was unable to speak and Emily became his voice. Once he overcame the disability and no longer needed her she found others for whom she could speak, notably oppressed women and the common man. Ashe wants readers to understand, “The reason Emily feels this way about marriage and wants the passage of the Domestic Felicity Act is to free women from men’s control. That said, the Domestic Felicity Act itself is fictional. In reality, marriage laws changed in small increments over the course of a century. This period of history is full of heartbreak and conflict since women did not have legal autonomy. In texts of the era women were crying out for equal rights. There were calls for human rights, such as in the American Declaration of Independence, yet it only meant men. In the epigraph of The Earl I quoted Olympe De Gouges: ‘The exercise of the natural rights of women has no other limits than those that the perpetual tyranny of man opposes to them.” Emily and Colin embody that societal conflict of the era.’”
Although these characters have been at odds with each other for years, Peregrine agrees to help Lady Justice find her sister. He imposes one condition: they find out each other’s true identity. At the meeting place, Colin admits he is Peregrine and believes Lady Justice to be a man, insulting her by demanding to see her master, the real Lady Justice. Because of her deep disappointment that the man she once knew as a childhood friend could so blatantly dispel a woman’s capability, Emily refused to reveal herself.
Through one powerful line Ashe is able to show how chauvinistic Peregrine is: “Everything she (Emily) was proud of having done he credited to a man.” Ashe explained, “They’ve each built up ideas of who the other is. I wanted to show that not all heroes have to be John Wayne. The men important to me are intelligent, sensitive, and emotional. Over the course of this journey they must tear these notions apart. In the beginning they each believe they know the truth about the other, but by the end they realize they’ve only been partially correct.”
Both characters meet up in Scotland as they try to find out what happened to Emily’s sister who had disappeared. The two become victims of mistaken identity and find themselves on the run together. The banter of barbs, bickering, and debating allows them to begin to understand the other’s passion and point of view. “In bringing my characters together I hope readers saw how they learned from each other, and had made a massive change over the course of the novel. As they became intimately close, they understood they had only been partially correct in their views. This culminated in Colin’s speech before Parliament in favor of the Domestic Felicity Act after Emily told him ‘I don’t want to be above you; I don’t want to be below you; I want to look at you eye to eye and be an equal.’ For me, this is the essence of feminism.”
Furthermore, Emily understood that in some ways she has been hypocritical after Colin called her out. “I had Colin telling her that by hiding behind Lady Justice she had made the world safe for herself without having to be vulnerable. By her own choice she has been isolated and a recluse. By the end she realizes this. ‘How can I claim that women’s voices are worthy of being heard,’ Emily says, ‘when I have hidden my own so effectively behind this crusade.’ Early in the story she is unforgiving when others don’t behave the way she believes they should. But by the end she is far more open and understanding of differences.”
The Earl addresses the vulnerabilities of society and the role people have in it. Through Ashe’s characters there is a lot of historical context woven into a story about relationships. Emily and Colin are seen as emotionally vulnerable and confused as they take on the constraints of society. A good novel allows readers to learn something within a good story, and that is the case with this book.
About the contributor: Graduating from UCLA with a degree in American history, Elise Cooper has found it fascinating how the past affects the present. She is a historical fiction fan because she likes reading and learning about events, but within a good story instead of a textbook. Her book reviews and author Q&As focus on the history within the story.
Posted by Claire Morris