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Devil May Care

The phrase was made for George Broughton-Caruthers, Winifred de la Coeur’s Norfolk neighbor. Everybody likes him. Nobody trusts him.

“Country Casanova, Rural Reprobate,” a journalist from Where Your Treasure Is writes of him.

“I want to be George,” one male reader of the book’s early draft confessed. “Only for a few hours,” he quickly amended, “and only if no one gets hurt.”

Tall, blond, popular. Rich. Not for much longer if he doesn’t slow down. George Broughton-Caruthers is the sort of man who looks in the mirror and likes what he sees. Women like what they see too. His conceit would be unforgivable if he wasn’t so—George. His confidence is equal parts amorous accomplishment and indifference to how his actions affect others. He spends his life at the card table; riding and shooting; rolling in haystacks with farm girls; ruling the beds of opera singers. He is a former soldier, a scion of the landed gentry, a gentleman.

By the 1890s, George is also a member of a dying breed of men. In England, agriculture had suffered since the '70s. Dropping grain prices, affected by the burgeoning growth of farms in the American Midwest and the low cost of steam transport, pinched the pockets of families who owned great estates, like George's. He’d laugh at the news that his time is running out, raise his glass with a wink, or ride off behind the horsewoman with the best seat and a mischievous gleam in her eyes.

George isn't the only one in trouble. The late Victorian period is a world on the wane. In historical terms, The Great War and the flu pandemic of 1918 are imminent; yet in 1892, when Where Your Treasure Is begins, we are still a generation away from the horrors that set the stage for the twentieth century’s bloody conflicts, and a disease that struck down the young as mercilessly as mustard gas used in the trenches.

Belle Époque, Gilded Age, Edwardian Era; we revel in what we love about the decades preceding August 1914: the clothes, carriages, manners, country house parties, balls. An aura of romance infuses even the less glamorous downstairs life. We want to linger at the party, for the dancing to go on, and the kiss to never end. But the magic lantern turns inexorably; the golden scenes flare and are brighter and sweeter because we know that the light is about to go out.

Time to wake up.

I understand what my early reader meant about wanting to be George. For a few hours to cast off responsibility, to play fast and loose, to recklessly gamble all when the stakes are at their highest—and to do it with a smile.

We are not only readers of romance but history. Alongside the glamor of the age, we know life had a darker, grittier side. George knows this too, and how tempting it is to believe that fantasy has no consequences.

But of course, it does.

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