It’s hard to review, write about or even read, really, a historical without feeling the weight of all the heavy “what’s wrong with historical romance” discussions of the past several years. (Discussions that are both very valuable, I think, and very frustrating.) I find myself wanting to just think about this book in isolation, as a recent reading experience. Well, good luck with that… it’s the first traditional HistRom I’ve read in months, and, for better or worse, it’s arrived here at the blog with some baggage.
I first became aware of Carrie Lofty during RT14 in a discussion of “Gritty Historicals” which also featured Courtney Milan, Zoe Archer, and Lorelei Brown. I wrote a bit about this panel, and the dearth of historical romance hoopla at the convention overall, shortly after returning from New Orleans. I must say that while I was very pleased to receive a signed copy of STARLIGHT just for being in the audience, I kept looking at the cover and feeling stymied. Gritty? Really? I can think of a lot of other adjectives that better describe the mood this cover evokes. If I had to pick just one, I’d go with “dreamy” (not dreamy as in a dreamy movie idol but dreamy as in twinkle, twinkle late at night, come hither bedroom eyes, backless boudoir wear, cool moonlit color palette and floral satin bedding strewn about).
But interestingly it was Lofty who made the excellent point about the disconnect between the publishing assumption that HistRom readers rely on the ballgown cover as the signifier for “historical romance,” and the issue of discoverability — that there are historicals which do indeed go “beyond the ballroom” into tough, gritty settings and/or themes, but they are often hard to identify if one relies on the marketing imagery. In this case it’s hard to imagine a book with a greater disconnect between content and cover. I know, cover disconnects are so commonplace it’s dull to even mention it, but I still really. Don’t. Get. This. One. At. All. Unless it’s some kind of working-girl-made-good fantasy…. but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Since I do still harbor a soft spot for Scottish-set historicals (especially if there is NO time travel involved, and NO heavy-handed kilt ogling), I decided to give Starlight‘s Victorian Glasgow a go. The opportunity to discover a new-to-me author with a nice backlist is always appealing, and now I wonder how I missed Lofty prior to the RT panel. This book certainly delivers on the grainy history, and a believably smoldering attraction and romance. There were distractions that prevented a wholly immersive reading experience, but I think these are as much about my HistRom baggage as about Lofty’s well-crafted romance. That is, although this was not sheer perfection for me, I admire the effort to tackle many of HistRom’s problems head-on, and the romantic energy and sexual tension of the central relationship worked.
The setting Glasgow, Scotland in the days of the Industrial Revolution — the book is permeated with Victorian-era urban squalor, class conflict, union-busting, corruption and capitalism. No dukes, no debutantes. Tenements, row houses, back alleys, pubs, and mills – no ballrooms, not even a lowly assembly room.
The master Alex Christie, widowed astronomy professor and reluctant mill owner. He’s thoughtful and fair, but doesn’t back down from a fight; an interesting mix of intellect, sentiment, and street tough. He didn’t expect to inherit the mill, and is forced to fight for its survival, and to retain custody of his infant son, due to the ill will and evil machinations of his dead wife’s abusive father.
The organizer Polly Gowan, mill worker, skilled orator, union leader, and vigorous advocate for justice. I’m trying very hard to not use the word “feisty.” She’s unusually progressive (unmarried, but not a virgin), a dutiful daughter and respectful, caring leader within her community. She is politically savvy enough to be OK with being elected to lead the union while letting the mill owners and outside world think she is merely a stand-in for her ailing father, the longtime union boss.
The tropes Opponents to Lovers (Mill girl and Factory owner);Terms of Dictatorial Will set up hero’s Mission to Save Estate (must make mill profitable or lose it all); Fate of an Innocent Child at Stake; Pub Brawl requires Hero and Heroine to Fight Thugs Together; Heroine is Unusually Clever and has been raised by Wise Father who Recognizes Her Potential to take over His Life’s Work (leadership of the union).
The Weight of History? It felt thoroughly fresh to read a period-piece Victorian-set romance about middle class and working class people that doesn’t rely on an upstairs/downstairs contrast with the ornate luxury of the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy. I found myself rooting for Starlight as an effort to reframe historical romance in terms of ordinary people, ordinary lives, and ordinary jobs.
Both Alex and Polly come across as likable and deserving of each other, and I found their romance emotionally satisfying. They’ve got a lot of physical chemistry and Lofty got good mileage from casting Alex as a strong-shouldered Scotsman who reminded Polly more of the men in her family than of a professor or pampered factory owner. Her plotting and character development also managed to avoid wallowing in childhood trauma/redemption backstories or psychobabble, for which I’m grateful. This narrative choice in particular sets Starlight apart from what Dear Author reviewer Sunita and others have dubbed the “ahistorical historical.” The class conflicts, financial straits, and labor relations issues that must be resolved in order for the romance to prevail are appropriate to the historical setting and organic to the circumstances. These obstacles make sense in the period setting, grounding the narrative rather than transplanting a modern thicket of angst-y pasts and/or inner demons.
While there were times when the mill setting, along with the chemistry embodied by this couple, caused dreamy North and South film-inspired imagery to mingle here with the particulars of Lofty’s tale, I kept having stray thoughts about the tension between the emotional aspects of the story and the socio-economic circumstances. Would these rank and file union men really defer to Polly’s authority? Even with the cover story that she was representing her ailing father, I felt skeptical about the union election where Lofty set up Polly’s male opponent as a flawed choice, rather than a serious, and in all likelihood successful, challenger.
What about Alex’s class status and worldview? He’s meant to represent the educated upper middle class of owners and investors, but he’s at home in a pub brawl or a bruising soccer match with the workers. And it turns out he eludes an easy label because he’s only a generation removed from the tenements of Calton, as he often reminds Polly. Do I really believe in the upward mobility and fluid identity this character embodies? Or is this “misleading whitewash” about the bitter history of classism in Britain, as Polly Toynbee, writing for the Guardian, recently asked in the context of much-adored Downton Abbey?
Actually, some of Alex’s traits seem deliberately deployed by Lofty in order to give him an ability to blur the line of class distinction between him and Polly. Here, when they’re sharing a bed, she asks him not to shave because she likes how he feels:
He sat up. “I’ll look like just another Scotsman if I keep the stubble. Seems like my father passed on a touch of ginger I hadn’t known was there” …
“But I like Scotsmen. They look burly and strong, like I’d be protected forever.” She pressed her lips down along his nape. “Isn’t that what you’ve offered me, Alex? What you’ve promised my da?” (p.325)
What’s also interesting is that in spite of her personal ambition, independence, and level of autonomy, it’s clear that Polly not only honors tradition and family in considering the protection of marriage and a man, but that, as an authentically 19th-century character, genuinely desires a husband who makes her feel protected, at least as long as she feels she can love him …. and he respects her choices, of course. That’s always the rub, and one of the things that makes a historical romance succeed or fail for me is whether the hero comes across as plausibly respectful and respecting of women’s rights and personhood, within the context of the time and place in which the story is set. So much of this is as much about the male characters as it is about the female ones.
In spite of the intense financial pressures he’s facing, Alex is remarkably noble; the clear exception as a humane employer in a city where his fellow mill owners are a pack of standard-issue greedy, corrupt, self-interested bad guys. Because how could Polly fall in love with a man who would cut wages or jobs in order to turn a better profit?
Hard Questions I admire the ways in which Lofty’s story tackles inequality and class along with gender, embodying a valuable, if not 100% successful, intersectional awareness.
Here’s a particularly interesting passage that demonstrates both the virtues, and the occasional missteps in Lofty’s historical contextualizing:
…she smiled at the sounds of her life. Her family. Her safe, familiar place.
Although she loved the security, a small part of her wished for some quiet – a place of her own. Then she imagined how lonely such a life would be. She needed the vigor and purpose and brazen, devil-may-care happiness of her community. She pushed out of her pallet and headed behind the curtain to change into her gown and apron.
After a quick trip to the communal bath… The family living space was a hazard of rumpled blankets that needed to be layered in the corner. She picked her way over her brothers’ boots. (p.116)
I love the way the details of how a large family lives in a tenement flat are sketched out in a few sentences that suggest intimacy along with inconvenience, lack of privacy, discomfort and hygiene challenges. But I stumbled over the willful characterization of the working class community as happy-go-lucky, hard-working, “secure” poor people. While I applaud the deliberate and unusual (in a romance) strategy of choosing not to make this a grinding poverty, rags-to-riches story, and to show Polly’s home life as stable and happy, if poor, there were times when the vision of tenement life and the the plucky factory workers just felt off. Something about the casual language seems to replicate, rather than interrogate, an Every(wo)man factory worker stereotype, and I’m again reminded of Toynbee’s Downton critique about the happy servants and benevolent masters.
I’m having trouble deciding how much to dwell on the things that bothered me, because I really liked the idea of this romance and this couple, but maybe it’s just too much of a stretch — maybe they just both had to be so exceptional that it doesn’t quite hold together.
Still, exceptionality can make for terrific storytelling. And here I can insert my customary Outlander reference: the tale of Jamie and Claire is a ripping good yarn and a romance for the ages, but as Abigail Nussbaum so effectively points out in her wonderful essay on the Starz series, it is “…nevertheless the story of a woman who is unique, who wins love and respect by not being like those other girls.”
This is the problem with Alex and Polly — in spite of the careful research and well-crafted historical setting, in order to make the story work they each have to be so unique, so “not like those other girls” (or boys) that it feels almost forced. Polly is a lot like Nussbaum’s take on Outlander’s Claire:
Her success was achieved not by toppling the system that discriminated against her, but by being the exception to that rule, gaining the admiration of men and the love of one particularly hunky and special one. (Asking the Wrong Questions, October 9, 2014)
Even as I have an id response to charismatic couples and unique heroes and heroines like Polly and Alex, Jamie and Claire — they’re all true badasses in their own way, after all — I feel tired of the sameness of the pattern. Romance between Two Exceptionals, and exceptionality itself, is more exposed in the context of HistRom than in contemporary romance, for example. Even if at the end of the story the Christie mill tops the list of Victorian Glasgow’s “Best Places to Work” survey, the compromise and change Alex and Polly achieve is still exceptional, because a happy ending with a side helping of systemic change is too tall an order.
Lofty is associated with the Unusual Historicals blog (she founded it, though is no longer an active contributor) and she outlined her strategy for “unusual historicals” in romance during the RT panel discussion. Yes, the genre finds itself forced to grapple with the tension between the historical status of women and contemporary post-feminist ideals of female agency and autonomy. To work within that tension, while preserving historical authenticity, immersing the reader in a place and time and avoiding the refuge of “lite” wallpaper-style fairytales, presents a real challenge. Lofty’s solution is to dig deep into the historical record to find intriguing and unusual circumstances, settings, and stories where an empowered heroine, or a feminist hero, could plausibly be situated. Nussbaum sees parallels with the “special girl” proto-feminist heroines of YA historical fiction my generation grew up reading. It’s a step in the right direction, and can work to make for a good story, but it takes a very nuanced and thoughtful approach to deliver both the charismatic, “special” protagonists while simultaneously interrogating and exploring the systems and conditions above and through which these exceptional people are held up.
So I’m left with a feeling of ambivalence, and I think this is why it’s taken me so long to make this post. It’s always easier to write a rave or a rant, and as with so many historicals I read nowadays, my response is necessarily happening on two levels. If the characters are strong and compelling and the romance sparkles, I find I still prefer historical romance, even when I find myself challenged by ahistorical content or considerations.
Starlight is book two of a series about the Christie siblings. Book one, Flawless, tells the story of Alex’s sister Vivienne, who must earn her inheritance by profitably running a diamond mine in colonial South Africa. Talk about going beyond the ballroom to an unusual historical circumstance ripe with possibility for intersectional exploration. I’ve also heard good things on twitter about her earlier medievals, so I’m looking forward to reading more Lofty.