Gritty in Glasgow: Carrie Lofty’s Starlight, Matters of Class, and Historical Romance

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 romancediscussions 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).

downloadBut 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.

Badass RT: Not a Duke in Sight

In which I offer impressionistic reflections on a trip to New Orleans that I sense will have far-reaching effects on my reading & blogging & thinking about the romance genre

Corner of building in New Orleans with elaborate ironwork balconies, a photo I took in the French Quarter.Every time I turned a corner in the giant convention hotel with multiple floors of massive meeting rooms, there was another huge line of people clutching totes and books and swag. There was a constant restless feeling that you hadn’t correctly figured out where to be and when. The lobby was open and line-free, but like a giant all-day cocktail party where every time you passed through you had to shout to be heard. After easing into the convention with the cozy & cool blogger pre-con on Tuesday, I was definitely overwhelmed by the crowds and noise as the week grew in intensity. But even with the lines and the swag and the relentless promo, RT (the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention) was pretty much a giant love fest of romance readers and authors and, happily for me, bloggers.

I haven’t begun to digest all the ways in which the amazing women I met, and the conversations I was lucky enough to have, will inspire me and challenge me to keep thinking and writing about what I read, and how, and why. For now, I just want to record some early impressions.

Nicola (@alphaheroes) tweeted a pic we took at the first “morning mixer,” and it cracked me up to hear back from my twitterverse that I look a lot less scary than my handle. Heh. Because really nobody at RT really looks like a super badass — we are mainly geeky and charming women of all ages who like books and read obsessively. But badassery was definitely on display. After a couple of days, you grew numb to it, but who can forget stepping in to the elevator for the first time upon arrival?

Very large (over life size) poster covering rear wall of elevator; depicts a bare-chested white man in a kilt with the tagline "good romance never ages"

There was apparently an exercise/fitness meet-up early in the morning (not that I ever found or confirmed this) and they had shirts that look like old school gym shirts and say RT 2014/ Books/Love/Badass. I’m pretty sure I’m not making this up and I saw this on a blurry slide at the front of a cavernous ballroom at the welcome breakfast, so I’m not exactly sure about the first two words, but I know BADASS was the bottom line and I thought that was pretty cool (you know, because I am so incredibly badass).  I kept asking where to get one of these shirts, but I could never find anyone who knew what I was talking about, so I suppose it’s possible I hallucinated it.

What I didn’t hallucinate were the intensity and saturation of the imagery.

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Everyone (including me) has been tweeting pics of the elevator dudes — but it’s not just the elevators. On the main conference levels, no architectural feature had been left unadorned. Floors, walls, even windows! And curious special laminated round table tops.

Occasional table in lobby area, with laminated image of Lacy Danes book covers; images of fantasy heroes with tattoos and leather jackets

It feels like the vast majority of these giant, expensive promo graphics feature the growth-area subgenres: erotic romance, urban fantasy, romantic suspense, contemporary subthemes like sports romance, lots of super badass tats and abs and leather and weaponry.

Wall-size poster in elevator:

And lots of looming imagery that is dark and suspenseful.

Floor-to-ceiling window covering with Jo Gibson book cover that depicts close-up of one side of a white woman's face, with a very wide-eyed frightened expression. The title is AFRAID.

 

Lobby area wall and window posters, floor to ceiling, with fantasy and suspense book covers, looming over conference attendee seated in armchair.

Also well-represented: Contemporary romance, and m/m romance — and note that not a wall area is left un-promo’ed.

Wall-size posters over escalators, including m/m clinch cover.

The salad bowl elevator was so innocuous, relative to the others!

Another elevator wall poster, with torso of casually dressed white man holding a clear glass salad bowl and preparing and/or offering the salad.

All the edgier romance genres were living large,  from rock stars to BDSM.

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In spite of the presence at numerous panels and events of “romance royalty” like Mary Jo Putney, Lisa Kleypas, Eloisa James, Eileen Dreyer, Lorraine Heath and other queens of HistRom, there was nary a duke or duchess in sight as far as the high-impact imagery with which the publishers physically and visually surrounded conference-goers.

I am not whining or complaining about this, nor do I think historical romance was necessarily underrepresented in the conference agenda itself. I just think it’s interesting to look at what is represented, and what isn’t, in the visual culture of RT2014.

The first night I was there, someone tweeted a pic of herself or a friend literally straddling one of these super-size floor heroes in  a prone embrace. And then there are the cover models, some of whom I saw carrying around life-size stand-up cut-outs of themselves, for photo ops with fans — but that’s a whole long digression I won’t do here/now.

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It’s not that badassery and historical romance are mutually exclusive categories. At Wednesday’s grand Author Chat session with several of the aforementioned Queens of HistRom, Eloisa James talked about her forthcoming book’s hero – a “rough duke, a boxer.” There was a lot of discussion about the challenge of making, and keeping, historical romance “relevant.”  And then there was the excellent and thought-provoking conversation at Zoe Archer’s “Beyond the Ballroom” panel discussion of “Gritty Historicals” with Courtney Milan, Lorelei Brown, and Carrie Lofty. I’m planning to write more in future post(s) about the substance of discussions around historical romance these days — it’s a fluid and important conversation I like to keep having. But back to the imagery…

Here are the promo posters that happened to be stationed outside the Historical Author Chat breakout room.

Freestanding lobby posters for contemporary and urban fantasy romance imprints.

So I started to actively search for representations of historical romance there at the New Orleans Marriott this week.

I found this high-impact floor-to-ceiling wallcovering featuring Blushing Books’s erotic historicals.

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An earl! I also found some spots in “Promo Alley” which featured familiar Regency imagery and other historical evocations.

Table-top tri-fold display of Regency book covers, with promo swag including pens and bookmarks.

The Promo Alley tables seemed to feature mainly small press and individually curated author displays, with swag.

Promotional table top display for Norwegian historical romance author Kris Tualla

The Hansen series: “Norway is the new Scotland” !

But you can tell where this is going.  Not one giant supersize ballgown cover to rub up against. Again, this is not a lament.  I’m never really sure what the ballgown covers are all about, though I admit, they’re lush and gorgeous and I love their brilliant use of color trends. And there are plenty of historicals with swashbuckling or Byronic man chest covers. But of the 8 elevators, the only one which referenced historical romance is the leather-kilted dude with the swords I posted up top — and he could easily be a fantasy hero.

I’m not sure what this all means, but I’m mulling it over.  Certainly the big promo dollars are going where the industry believes there is potential to grow audiences. Historical romance has a strong vanguard of established authors with loyal readership. But it doesn’t seem to function in the way it used to, to attract new readers to the romance genre. Among HistRom devotees, there seems to be a lot of talk about newer historicals being “lite” while some readers yearn for more angst-y, substantive reads.  On the other hand, just because a book has a ballgown on the cover, doesn’t mean nothing of substance is on offer.  But as Carrie Lofty pointed out in her panel remarks, for those seeking depth and challenge in historical romance, discoverability can be quite difficult since all the ballgown covers tend to blur, and unhelpfully to elide authors who may be writing with very different tones and voices.

As I’ve said in other posts, I don’t think the historical romance is dead or dying…but with most trends over time there are cycles. Will the effects of the trends in other romance subgenres, especially with regard to “grittiness” and badassery, counteract the frothy historical trend? What can historicals offer in the way of challenge and substance that other subgenres can’t? For me, this is an especially interesting question, and the “Gritty Historicals” panelists offered some intriguing ideas I’m still pondering, especially about exploring and problematizing issues of gender, class, and race, at particular historical moments, as a way of bringing depth and substance to the story, and creating space for heroines with agency.  So this is a To Be Continued, but I loved my time at RT.  I’m deeply grateful to everyone who took the time to talk with me and offer me so much food – and drink — for thought.

photo of RT pub crawl logo fan and street outside Pat O'Brien's bar.

Outside Pat O’Brien’s, abandoning the pub crawl in favor of dinner and conversation…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Siege Warfare: Meditations on Medieval Romance with Author Elise Cyr

Besieged by love?  How many times have you read something like “her emotions were under siege” in a romance novel? I feel like this metaphor is common, and compelling, yet I’ve never really unpacked it. For one thing, it suggests a traditionally gendered experience, in which the hero is the pursuer, surrounding the heroine with his army of manly charms until she accepts and gives in to the inevitability of surrender/conquest.

What makes this work in genre romance is that while she may be “conquered” by the hero’s love, the heroine surrenders as much to the power of her own corresponding emotion as to the conquering male. The siege as romantic metaphor sort of circles in on itself, since the besieged is frequently “starving” herself of love/emotion while the besieger “attacks” by providing rather than depriving. (I know there must be examples of the metaphor used with the genders reversed and a pursuing heroine laying siege to her hero…I hope to hear of such in comments since I can’t find one at the moment!)

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Ivory mirror back depicting “The Siege of the Castle of Love,” French, 14th century, now in the Louvre (via Wikimedia Commons)

Until last month, it’d been quite a while since I read a romance, or indeed any novel, where the hero wears chain mail.  Then I picked Sharon Kay Penman’s LIONHEART off a very dusty spot on my TBR shelf, for a “challenge” read involving Big Fat Books. Not a romance, but it reminded me how much I used to enjoy and immerse myself in historical fiction with medieval settings, and whetted my appetite. Also, here was a book brimming with literal historical examples of siege warfare, replete with all the implements (heavy weaponry, grappling hooks, scaling ladders) and strategies (starvation, persistence, ruthlessness) from which the literary & emotional metaphors derive.

I confess, I had to push myself a bit to get through this long book about England’s Richard ‘the Lionheart’ and his exploits in the Holy Land during the Second (?) Crusade in 1190-92. Based on my memories of Penman’s Welsh trilogy (it was nearly 20 years ago, but I treasure these books among my ‘best evers’), I had thought there’d be a stronger romantic element, and I found myself really missing the emotional satisfaction of a romance HEA. I also missed the sense that there is an end to the story at all, since this was just one long chunk of a multi-novel Angevin saga, and leaves off just as Richard is returning to England to deal with his treacherous relatives.

siegeoftheheart_FinalSo – time for a medieval romance.

Fortunately, hard on the heels of my March reading challenge came SIEGE OF THE HEART, a debut release from Elise Cyr, an author acquaintance from Twitter. I am thoroughly enjoying this romance between a Norman knight and a sword-wielding English heiress, and it’s got me re-examining some of my own assumptions about medieval romance novels, thinking about why I stopped reading them, whether they’re still as popular as ever, and what’s happening in this historical subgenre that’s new and fresh.

 Is harsh history romantic? Elise has graciously agreed to share some ideas about medievals – the chivalry, the history, and what makes a romance novel work in a setting where historical accuracy means a world with a challenging dominant belief system characterized by religious intolerance, a rigid feudal class system, very limited access to literacy and learning for most people, and marriage laws that left women with very few rights, even over their own bodies and children.

Pamela: I just read a great review of Jeannie Lin’s THE JADE TEMPTRESS in which Miss Bates referred to the setting – also medieval, but 9th century China – as a “harsh, hierarchical world” (I can’t wait to read this one, too!). What makes this kind of setting a good place to tell a compelling love story?

Elise: It comes down to stakes. In the medieval period, regardless of which continent we’re talking about, the “harsh, hierarchical world” often meant most people were so focused on their survival and that of their family, the concept of “love” we think of today was rare as a result. The medieval version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs often didn’t move beyond food and shelter for the vast majority of people living at the time. So when love did strike, the afflicted had a lot of barriers to work through. Not least of which was the concept of marriage, which was essentially a contract negotiated between families at the behest of their liege lord. Compatibility had more to do with dowries, ready coin, and the whims of nobility instead of attraction, passion, fidelity. So love not only had to exist, it had to be a love worth fighting for, since often the couple would be going against the wishes of their families and their liege lord, removing any security they had in society. It was a harsh world indeed for lovers of the time.

Pamela: What do you think is the particular appeal of the European-set medieval? Are there deeper associations with folklore and fairytales many English-speaking readers may have grown up with?

Elise: For me, the medieval time period comes closest to evoking the world of fairytales. Castles, knights, adventures, with the more unpleasant aspects blunted by the passage of time. I grew up on fairytales—the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Andrew Lang. This legacy is distinctly Europe-centric, so it makes sense to me that many historical romance authors keep returning to European history and the fairytale structure with the obligatory happily-ever-after in the stories we write for ourselves and others. (I wonder to what extent that would change had I been exposed to the fairy tales and myths from other cultures at such a formative age.)

Pamela: I kept thinking about your siege metaphor as I was reading about the Crusaders’ trebuchets and other siege implements and strategies, in Penman’s LIONHEART. That was a later period than SIEGE OF THE HEART, which is set immediately following the Norman Conquest, but the forced marriage as part of a strategy of conquest, alliance, and/or assimilation is a common theme. It’s a tried and true historical romance trope, but I think it can be particularly powerful in a medieval story – how does it work in medieval to become more, and to transcend the plot device that serves to throw the hero and heroine together?

Elise: The forced marriage trope is indeed common in historical romance. The reason I think it works in medievals is because the marriage is bigger than either partner, and more is riding on its success. Servants, townspeople, villeins, and vassals all had a stake in the success or failure of an alliance. The term “peace weaver” originates from the Anglo-Saxons where a woman was married off to a warring tribe to make peace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace-weaver). To have so much riding on a match raises the stakes for a relationship, and finding ways for the hero and heroine to connect, compromise, and complement each other are elements at the heart of any romance, regardless of the time period.

Pamela: Isabel faces a forced marriage like so many widowed or otherwise vulnerable women of the ruling class in her period, because a single woman can’t “hold” a castle, or a kingdom, for her liege lord, and needs to be married to another powerful lord.  But in what ways does she hold power? Can she hold on to her own inner “castle” – ie. her heart, at least until she chooses to open the gates…?

Elise: When I chose to write in this time period, I soon realized the cards would be stacked against my heroine Isabel. The fallout from the Norman Conquest threw so many lives in turmoil, including that of an unwed English noblewoman. So I had to figure out a way to not only make her someone worthy of a story, but also have enough agency to sustain one. That way a modern reader could respect her choices despite changes in culture and gender roles brought on by the march of time. It helps that my heroine is a bit spoiled by her father, still mourning the loss of his wife. Because of this, Isabel has been afforded opportunities to acquire certain skills and experiences not available to other women. Her power lies in the respect she commands from her father’s men and the rest of the household, her knowledge of the land and the vassals who tend it, and the passion she brings to her responsibilities. The result, I hope, is a strong character, cognizant of her place in the world, confident in her abilities, who realizes her heart is only hers to give.

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Siege of a motte and bailey castle at Dinan as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Pamela: Beyond her inner qualities and skills such as strength of purpose or being politically astute, you also gave Isabel an outwardly fighting spirit and weaponry and badassery to go with it. She’s quite a shield-maiden, and in this way reminds me of the warrior maidens from a Tolkien saga, or the early Norse mythologies that inspired him. What made you decide to have Isabel be skilled at physical combat in her own right, in spite of needing to marry in order to retain dominion over her family’s lands?

Elise: Well, badassery was indeed a consideration. One thing I always disliked about fairy tales was the passive or secondary role women often played. I didn’t want that for my heroine, especially given the modern lens and the power dynamics of the time. So I wanted her skills with blade and bow to match her fighting spirit. She couldn’t be easily dismissed, politically, personally, physically. If you dig into the accounts of the Conquest, it wasn’t very pretty. I wanted a heroine who could transcend the brutality of the time period and be strong enough to pick up the pieces afterward.

Pamela: Alex is a wonderfully patient yet determined siege strategist. It’s refreshing to read a medieval warrior hero who’s open about his willingness to fall in love with the heiress he’s being commanded to marry, rather than bemoan his lost bachelorhood or succumbing to insta-lust for wedding, bedding, and then ignoring his new bride. He approaches Isabel as he would any worthy potential adversary or ally – and only once he realizes that he’s attracted to her, both physically and in terms of her character, does he decide upon a courtship strategy of emotional siege warfare. So many romance novels cast the hero as the protagonist whose deeper emotions are walled up behind a mental fortress – did you think about this as an inversion or subversion?

Elise: I did try to invert some expectations when it came to Alex, the Norman knight who throws Isabel’s world in turmoil. Going back to the brutality of the Conquest, it’s easy to assume that bloodlust is what defined the conquerors as they raped, pillaged, and razed the land on their trek from the coast to the heart of London. I felt not every man William brought to England could be ruled by such aggression—these very knights were the origins of chivalry after all, formalized roughly a hundred years later. As a conqueror, it’s easy to view Alex as a “bad guy.” So I tried to give Alex those honorable, chivalric impulses, while retaining the rough edges of the Norman culture. Having him in touch with his emotions, aware of how he’s perceived by others and how to manipulate that, were tools I used to keep him accessible to the reader. I also wanted to highlight his leadership qualities—he may be a landless knight, seeking his fortune in England, but he is still worthy of a noblewoman like Isabel.

Pamela: They do seem very well-matched, and I am looking forward to finishing their story.

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Siege of Mortagne (Hundred Years War) from a 14th century Flemish manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons.

I am also feeling very pleased with myself for rediscovering the delights of a well-crafted medieval romance. It’s interesting there are some very popular mainstream television series with medieval or medieval-inspired settings, and I have been wondering if we’d start seeing more romance novels that show the influence of Game of Thrones or Vikings, at least in terms of setting, if not theme, but perhaps there is more epic fantasy that uses such settings these days, as opposed to traditional histrom?  I’ve gone back to find Jo Beverley’s medievals – new to me and, as expected, both satisfying and and complex — but I’m also eager for recommendations of newer titles.  Apart from the perennial popularity of Scottish-theme books (which tend to involve castles and claymores, even when set in a later century!), I’m having a hard time coming up with recent traditional medieval romances.  (Happily, Elise is working to fill the void.)

From the publisher, about SIEGE OF THE HEART: He fought for king and country, but that battle was nothing compared to the one he’ll wage for a woman’s heart.

Still reeling from the news of her father’s death during the Norman Conquest, Isabel Dumont is unprepared when trouble arrives at the castle gates. Alexandre d’Évreux, a Norman knight with close ties to England’s new king, has arrived to secure the land and the loyalties of the Dumont family. Desperate to protect her people, Isabel strives to keep the confounding knight at arm’s length and hide the truth about her father’s death.

For Alexandre, the spoils of war come with more than just a generous gift of land. They come with Isabel Dumont. Vowing to marry only for love, Alexandre finds himself in a difficult situation as a conqueror granted dominion over the land and its people. Isabel is the one person capable of helping him win the regard of those living in the war-torn country…if he chooses to accept her.

Just when Alexandre finds a spark of hope that he and Isabel have a chance at love, she vanishes. His quest to find her plunges him deeper into the conquest’s fallout. Was she taken? Or did she leave?

CONTENT WARNING: Entering into this novel may cause extreme affection toward knights of old, admiration for strong-willed women, and the overwhelming belief that love really can conquer all.

SIEGE OF THE HEART is available from Kensington as an e-book in the usual places. I believe a print edition is forthcoming. I’m grateful to the publisher and to Elise for sharing an e-ARC with me.

 

RevWar Swashbucklers: A conversation with REBEL PIRATE author Donna Thorland

In which we discuss swashbuckling novels, heroines in disguise, dangerous heroes, edgy historical romance, pirates (NOT witches!) in Salem, and Revolutionary women

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I can’t tell you how much I’ve been looking forward to THE REBEL PIRATE, which is the second book in Donna Thorland’s heart-stoppingly romantic Renegades of the Revolution series, and was released last week. Book one, THE TURNCOAT, which I reviewed last year, was one of my best reads of 2013, and it wasn’t just because the American Revolutionary period is my favorite setting for historical romance.  The new book, about a British naval officer (that’s right, a master and commander) and a rebel privateer, is set much closer to home for me, in Salem, Massachusetts, and I do want to talk about the history, but let me start by asking Donna about the romance…

Pamela: Your background in historic preservation and curatorial work certainly lends itself to writing historical fiction, and I’m wondering how you made the decision to write books that, for argument’s sake, I’ll call romances. With THE TURNCOAT, the love story was absolutely central, and you gave Kate and Peter a Happy Ending – I suppose it could have been HEA or HFN – did you leave that open for a possible sequel with their further adventures?

Donna Thorland:  I fell hard for historical romance when I read Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I loved all of the swashbuckling adventure, the quotations in Latin, French, and Spanish, the tangled familial relationships and the desperately fought duels, but it was the romance threaded through the series that made my heart beat faster, the palpable longing between Lymond and the heroine, whose name is a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t read the books. Dunnett’s work wouldn’t fit the current RWA definition. It takes six long volumes full of poisonings, politics, and fiendish plotting to get to Lymond’s happily ever after, but when it comes, it’s a profound union of equals, of two people who challenge each other to become their best selves. That’s the kind of book I wanted to write.

The next three Renegades books are standalones with new characters, but someday I’ll return to Peter and Kate, who go on to have further adventures, including foiling a plot to assassinate Franklin at the French Court…

Pamela: Glad to hear it! I really do like the trend towards following a married couple past the HEA into another book. But for their wartime courtship which was the focus of THE TURNCOAT, I loved the way you deconstructed some traditional romance tropes, like the charming and dangerous hero (I read Peter as more of a survivor than an alpha badass) and the sheltered and inexperienced heroine discovering her sexuality (Kate’s complicated sexual awakening that includes a man other than the hero was such a bold and risky plot move!). What led you to engage with traditional romance tropes so directly and centrally, rather than write the kind of historical fiction where the romance is merely an element among other central themes?

Donna Thorland:   After Dunnett I had a hard time finding the kind of adventure driven romance I was looking for—books that had the capacity to thrill and at the same move me. I found books in other genres that came close to striking the right balance—I love Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch books, George MacDonald’s Fraser’s Flashman, Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series—but it was in romance that I most often discovered satisfyingly emotional storytelling.

Pamela: I think I know what you mean – it’s why I really loved Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, yet I always wanted the romance to be more central.  On the other hand, we both followed the rich discussion around Sunita’s “romantic vs. romance” post, so I know you define your genre somewhere at the edge of romance — as the “swashbuckler.”  Very apropos! And especially perfect for your new pirate-themed book. How does the swashbuckler relate and/or overlap with the traditionally defined romance genre?

 

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Love this headline! The Boston Herald, March 10, 2014

Donna Thorland:   I define the swashbuckler as a blend of action, adventure, and romance in which single combat between a protagonist and an antagonist plays a crucial role. The Three Musketeers is a swashbuckler, and so is Steven Sommer’s excellent The Mummy. Not all swashbucklers end happily, but my books fall into the camp of those that do, like The Scarlet Pimpernell. You will not be surprised to learn that I am a huge Lauren Willig fan.

Pamela: OK, let me follow up about this notion that this genre — the swashbuckler — relies on single combat. Do you mean this literally as well as narratively? That is, must there be physical combat between hero (or heroine) and villain? Does it work if the combat is a battle of wits or strategies, or must there be swords involved?

This is interesting to me because it was reading THE TURNCOAT, which involves mortal danger and physical combat (in addition to torture) that made me want to explore the ways violence functions in the romance genre. And I’ve been thinking and writing about that theme in the months since then. Kate and Peter’s story was just that much more dangerously and graphically intense than typical historical romance novels. I guess that’s partly the wartime setting under an army of occupation, and partly the swash of the buckle!

Donna Thorland: Terrific question! Some day I really want to write an essay that surveys and defines the swashbuckler as I see it. The short answer, though, is that the combat can be a battle of wits. Dunnett uses it to devastating effect in Pawn in Frankincense. I don’t want to spoil those books for anyone but she builds up a ruthless villain who may in fact be cleverer than the hero and their climactic battle is one of wits, although the stakes are life and death not just for Lymond and his antagonist but for a whole cast of characters we have come to care about.

Pamela: What about American historical romance – I am always on the lookout for colonial and Revolutionary settings in romance, but I can’t tell if we are actually seeing a trend towards more books like this. Do you think it is more or less popular as a setting for HistRom these days? American romance readers seem to have an endless appetite for English and European settings, but are there audiences for RevWar books anywhere outside the US?

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Patriots Day reenactment near Lexington, April 2012

Donna Thorland:  I hear from readers in the UK and Australia who really enjoy this setting, so I think there is an audience. It’s a revolution after all—and why should the French have all the fun? I’m hoping that the enthusiasm for AMC’s TURN and Fox’s SLEEPY HOLLOW will bring more readers into the fold.

Pamela:  Both books involve heroines who undergo dramatic changes in circumstance that require them to transform their outward appearances.  Are the elements of disguise, assumed identities, deception, honor, and betrayal, among the hallmarks of your “Renegades of the Revolution”?

Donna Thorland:  Yes—definitely. When you study storytelling as a craft you discover that one of the most universal desires in fiction is the desire to be seen for your true self. I think this is especially true for female protagonists because so often gender obscures individual identity, and part of the heroine’s character arc is to break from her prescribed role. Disguise, cross-dressing, and assumed identities are also staples of 18th century drama. My third book, MISTRESS FIREBRAND, will be set in the world of the Georgian theater in America and might even contain a masque…

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Pamela: In THE TURNCOAT, although British officer Peter becomes the literal turncoat, it is patriot Kate who most radically “turns” her coat — or her dress — to become a completely different person on the outside. And it’s more than just taking on the persona of a wealthy Loyalist: I really felt as if your careful descriptions of her lavish clothing, powdered hair, and domestic accoutrements conveyed the sense that she was constructing an artificial gender identity. Not exactly a Deborah Sampson, but certainly perilously hiding in plain sight, and as a spy, in greater danger should the artifice be exposed? And it’s interesting to think about Kate as a “soldier” for the Revolution in disguise as the brittle Lydia, in contrast to Deborah’s literal enlistment as a man…? I just loved how you played around with themes of loyalty, identity, honor, and deception.

Donna Thorland:  One of the things that I really like about that title is that almost everyone in the book, at one time or another, could be considered a turncoat. Not just Kate and Peter, but Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold, Andre when he trades Kate’s whereabouts for the letters, and even Arthur Grey when he lets Peter go after the skirmish in the woods.

There’s a quick description of Kate’s preparations to meet Peter at the house in the Neck, and though it isn’t a full scene, in my mind, the clothing, the hair, the makeup, the jewelry, is how Kate arms herself to do battle. If I had the opportunity to shoot it for a film, I’d cover it the way Peter Jackson covered the arming of Theoden in The Two Towers.

If there is a geek meter on your blog, I have just broken it.

Pamela: Oh, I just re-watched that, this time with my daughters! It’s a great parallel. We join you in geekery. Though I know nothing about filmmaking, I’m very much a history geek, and they are digging into local colonial history right now in their 5th grade social studies unit. I hope they are getting a more balanced view of historical women than the one presented when I was their age.  Do you aim to educate as well as to entertain, by weaving your stories through and around the real history of women in the Revolution – ordinary women as well as women who took grave risks for love or patriotism, such as Kate?

Mrs. James (Mercy Otis) Warren, by John Singleton Copley, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (via WikiMedia)

Donna Thorland:  I want to reclaim early American women from their Victorian intercessors. I was reading Carol Berkin’s excellent Revolutionary Mothers and was intrigued by her mention of Elizabeth Ellet’s 19th century Women of the American Revolution. Ellet’s book kept the memory of Revolutionary women like Mercy Otis Warren alive, but also re-imagined them to appeal to Victorian ideals. Warren got herself on a British hanging list writing seditious plays and penned one of the first histories of the Revolution (and she’s the inspiration for the heroine of my third Renegades book). Ellet characterizes her as a pious homemaker who never put politics before family. Who is the real Mercy Otis Warren? Ellet describes the surface of a card table embroidered by Mercy as covered in flowers painstakingly copied from nature. The table is in Pilgrim Hall. It has got flowers on it. It has also got several hands of three-card Loo depicted, along with counters. This woman gambled. She was a person, not a paragon.

Pamela: Sounds like we may see a spectacular card table in a future book. As an erstwhile art historian myself, I especially appreciate your careful yet never pedantic attention to details of material culture, from costume and dress, to interiors and decorative arts. It’s a very tangible way the stories are enriched by your background in museum work, and your interest in the domestic environments which your characters inhabit.

Do you think we can view Kate’s act of performative and provocative femininity as both bold patriotism and a form of “turncoat” betrayal — or denial — of who she really is as a modest Quaker woman? Of course both identities become inextricably intertwined and equally authentic aspects of Kate as she grows and evolves through the novel, but I am curious about how you conceived such a wonderfully complex character. Is she an unassuming spinster who becomes a bold badass, or a bold spinster who was just waiting for the opportunity to break free of her unassuming surroundings?

Donna Thorland:  I wanted to give Kate something that more heroines deserve: a strong female role model. If Kate hadn’t met the widow, she wouldn’t have broken from her setting. It’s a common paradigm for male protagonists—for an experienced mentor to see promise in the young hero—but heroines are more often singled out for their beauty or kindness or other “feminine” characteristics, and then usually by the hero.

Pamela: With THE REBEL PIRATE’S  heroine, Sarah Ward, you have given us another protagonist who obscures her true identity, and in this case she meets the hero while disguised as a boy. And where there was a highly dangerous and uncomfortable love triangle in THE TURNCOAT, Jennifer McQuiston recently described what goes on in your new book as a “love rectangle.”  These are complicated, edgy romances, and a far cry from wallpaper-ish drawing-room historicals. Which other books and authors have most influenced your romantic, swashbuckling, yet hard-edged vision of Revolutionary heroes?

Donna Thorland:  In fiction, I think that what I write is closest to Dorothy Dunnett and George MacDonald Fraser’s work, but my perspective on the Revolution is informed by a lot of non-fiction as well. There is an acid tone to some 18th century journals—the engineer John Montresor had a particularly dry wit. A J Languth’s Patriots is one of my favorite general histories of the Revolution, because it highlights the role that character played in the conflict. Events turned on personalities, bold, flawed, timid, stalwart. Men and women of incredible ability—and fallibility.

Pamela: Speaking of fallibility…..  In general, I think people may know, or think they know, much more about the earlier period in Salem’s history, and the infamous persecutions of 1692.

Do you think people will be surprised by any of the history in this novel, especially how cosmopolitan and prosperous the city was in the late 18th century?

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Custom House and Salem wharf, Salem Maritime National Historic Park

Donna Thorland:  This was our daily challenge when I worked at the Peabody Essex Museum. The Witchcraft Trials of 1692 are a seminal event in American history—you can practically hear the door close on the Puritan hegemony and see the enlightenment beckoning on the other side—but the rest of Salem’s history is just as remarkable. During the Revolution, Salem took more British prizes and outfitted more privateers than any other American port. By 1804 she was the richest city, per capita, in the nation. She produced, arguably, the finest architect of the Federal period in Samuel McIntire, and the most important American novelist of the romantic period in Hawthorne (never mind that we practically ran him out of town on a rail for his unflattering portraits of local luminaries—hopefully I won’t meet the same fate…). 

Pamela: I doubt it! More likely a festive book signing at the House of Seven Gables… or the Salem Athenaeum…?

You also work in film and television – how has this influenced the way you construct novels? And what about your innovative use of short videos to promote historical novels – how fun and fabulous are these Vines?

DONNA THORLAND:  Novels are a bit like television in that readers are inviting your characters into their home. Your characters have to be people that your audience wants to spend time with, to learn more about—or they will change the channel or close the book.

Making the Vines was a crazy amount of fun. We shot several of them in Hamilton Hall—think a Regency-era assembly hall straight out of Jane Austen, but in Salem—built by Federal architect Samuel McIntire and in continuous operation for over two hundred years. It also happens to be around the block from my house, and friends and neighbors were able to drop by to lend a hand. When you live in a historic district, your friends and neighbors can also often lend you 18th century pistols or a spare neck stock.

Pamela:  I can’t decide which of the Vines is my favorite – the pirates turning pages or the badass delivery of the first line from THE REBEL PIRATE.  Watching them and checking out the links to Hamilton Hall and other Salem sites makes me want to spend more time in Salem this summer. I love bringing out-of-state visitors there, to experience the layers of history in a way seems closer to what an 18th century city may have felt like, than when you take people on the Freedom Trail walk through Boston.   But for now, I want to get back to reading about Sarah and Sparhawk and what they get up to, in Salem and aboard the Charming Sally

THE REBEL PIRATE (2014) and THE TURNCOAT (2013) are available from Penguin/New American Library in the usual formats and places. I received a review copy of The Rebel Pirate and purchased my copy of The Turncoat.

Defaulting to the Duke: A funny fairytale romance and seeing through and around titles

Making an exception for ROMANCING THE DUKE by Tessa Dare

I keep thinking I’m done with dukes. I read a great deal of historical romance but, like many others, I feel poor old England’s been duked to death with a surfeit of fictional aristocrats. I guess I did also make an exception for Sarah MacLean’s “Killer Duke,” but only because he suited my purposes so well as an example of the “brutal” hero with a violent way of life that is both redeemed and eroticized.

Now along comes an over the top romantic cliche’ of a duke from Tessa Dare: He’s brooding, surly, half blind, and living in sulky squalor at gloomy, bat-infested Gostley Castle. Oh, and he’s also a shining example of the once and forever popular Duke of Slut archetype, with an apparently near-constant cockstand (whenever the heroine is present) and delightfully dirty repartee. (My thanks to @PennyRomance, @IsobelCarr and @SmartBitches for the assist with Duke of Slut research!) He’s joined by our equally predictable heroine, a penniless, writerly spinster who believes she’s inherited said castle and arrives just in time to save him from himself, and turn the keep into a home. It’s book one of Dare’s new “Castles Ever After” series. (The series title alone should tell you this is either saccharine silliness, or it’s going OTT).

I know it sounds too predictably ridiculous, but this book. Cracked. Me. Up. And when I was done laughing, I realized there’s also a lot going on here, some of it very cool and clever.

The Setting Regency England, the aforementioned Gothic ruin of a castle:

‘To Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight, I leave the property known as Gostley Castle.’ Is it pronounced like ‘Ghostly’ or ‘Ghastly’? Either one seems accurate.

Yet Another Duke Ransom William Dacre Vane, Duke of Rothbury

“So while I read, you’re just going to lie there. Like a matron reclining on her chaise longue.”

“No. I’m going to lie here like a duke, reposed in his own castle.”

Yet Another Penniless Spinster Miss Isolde Ophelia Goodnight

“Oh, but this gift isn’t the same as an ermine. This is property. Don’t you understand how rare that is for a woman? Property always belongs to our fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. We never get to own anything.”

“Don’t tell me you’re one of those women with radical ideas.”

“No,” she returned. “I’m one of those women with nothing. There are a great many of us.”

The Tropes Clever Spinster Left In Poverty By Thoughtless Male Relatives; Wounded, Jilted Duke Doesn’t Trust Women; Loyal & Trustworthy Manservant Aids & Abets the Course of True Love; Female Friendship Where We Might Have Expected Rivalry (absolutely love that she pulled this off!); Spooky, Ruined Castle with Super-Romantic Turret Bedroom; Evil, Scheming Lawyers; Charming Band of Admiring Ordinary People become Main Couple’s Team Romance.

Romancing_the_DukeTruly Madly Deeply Romantic Comedy Romancing the Duke (Avon, January 2014) captivated me in ways I absolutely did not predict. Dare is a master at taking the tired and trite and refashioning it as something that’s somehow hilarious, sweet, and deeper than it seems at first glance. She succeeds because she’s so entirely willing to go over the top in a direction that is two parts farce and two parts sizzle, and she does it without taking anything about the enterprise too seriously. Her light touch results in a thoroughly enjoyable romance and a very satisfying, faux fairytale HEA.

So I’m glad I didn’t let my Put Away Your Dukes policy keep me from reading this. I have been a fan since Dare’s first trilogy, especially Goddess of the Hunt. I just had to google to find out what that trilogy was called, and I’m a little bemused to find …  The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy ..?? But that’s the thing about Dare — she’s always winking at the reader, and with the Spindle Cove series she impressively balances compelling love stories with fun and frothy ensemble romcom.

I do have a few quibbles. It really is a feat to strike the right balance between breathless comedy and compelling romantic tension, and there are a few wrong notes for me. I don’t love horny girl virgin lust-think, especially in a historical romance. This was the chief reason I really didn’t like the Spindle Cove cross-class romance novella that consisted almost entirely of a well-bred young lady ogling and lusting after the hardworking, hard-bodied village blacksmith. And there’s a bit too much of it here, with Izzy’s inner panting about Ransom’s buckskins and boots. I’m sure this actually says more about me and my own internalized heteronormative perspectives on male vs. female maturity and sexuality than about the writing. I can handle the hero’s inner horny adolescent in most cases, especially when it’s accompanied by a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. Somehow it doesn’t work for me in reverse, maybe because with this type of heroine it comes across as more clueless and breathless, instead of lusty and funny. Mostly, thank goodness however, there’s a lot of snap-crackle-pop dialogue that’s plenty lusty and funny.

“Every time you wake up, you let fly the most marvelous string of curses. It’s never the same twice, do you know that? It’s so intriguing. You’re like a rooster that crows blasphemy.”

“Oh, there’s a cock crowing, all right,” he muttered.

Blind to Love? And then there’s the disability theme here. I’m not sure what I think about the blindness of the hero. Ransom’s visual disability, which is partial and recent — due to an injury sustained in a fight over a woman — is a major plot hinge.  There are a couple of minimal glimpses of self-pitying “you deserve better than me” nonsense, and there’s Izzy’s oddly swoony realization that he’s “overcome” his affliction through intense concentration on mapping the castle and its furnishings by feel. Plus the part about his refusal to eat in front of anyone, which causes a train wreck of a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get Ransom to “accept” help.

On the up side, there’s a whole back-and-forth theme running through the novel, about who, exactly, is “saving” who.  She’s penniless and fainting from hunger as the novel opens, and he picks her up in his strong arms and revives her in dashing romance-hero style. At the end of the story she is saving him emotionally, from himself  and his wounded isolation. He’s saving her, emotionally and sexually, from an oppressive and repressive public image as “England’s Storybook Girl” (more about that anon). She’s also, with his permission, “rescuing” him from the aspects of his disability he truly cannot overcome without aid (she reads and scribes for him), and which almost lead to a disastrous end (his lawyers have been skimming funds and selling property out from under him, while he’s been moping around ignoring his mail).

It’s frankly hard for me to tell whether all this comes across successfully as part of the ironic exploration of over-used romance conventions, or merely re-produces an unwelcome set of disability dynamics. Unlike other disabilities, blindness also works as an easy metaphor in romance — he can’t see her, but in the end, when he acknowledges his love for her he’s the only one who really sees her… for who she is… her inner beauty…. etc etc. I did like the fact that neither his blindness nor Izzy’s “plainness” are reversed in order for them to love or to HEA. And the question of Izzy’s appearance remains open-ended, which is also refreshing — there is no cheesy miracle recovery enabling Ransom to see her with his eyes and tell her, and us, that she’s really actually a paragon of beauty.

The Enduring Appeal of Gothic Tales Overall, I think the first half of the novel is cracking good fun and I loved the blend of frankly bawdy banter with burgeoning awareness between Izzy and Ransom of each other’s isolation and deep loneliness. In spite of the apparent effervescence, there are difficult emotions surfacing and real shadows lurking — poverty, neglect, exploitation.

Things decelerate and get more sentimental after they start having actual sex and figure out that someone is out to steal the duke’s fortune and title by having him declared incompetent. The final section of the story is a bit like a caper, as they join forces with Duncan (the trusty manservant) and Abigail (the friend from the village) and a roving band of enthusiastic LARPers, to prove the lawyers are defrauding the estate and the duke is neither insane nor unfit.

And yet in spite of the sentimentality, this is where I really got hooked. It was the nutty LARPers that did me in. You see, our heroine, Izzy Goodnight, is not just any old penniless, bookish spinster.  She’s a celebrity.  She has a dual identity as both the inspiration for a leading character in England’s best-selling serialized fairytale, and the daughter of its wildly famous author (recently deceased). The Goodnight Tales are the 19th-century equivalent of, say, a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings phenomenon, set in the fictional world of Moranglia, and featuring a princess in a tower, a dark brooding hero, and a Shadow Knight villain. Izzy is ambivalent about her public image as “England’s precious innocent.” She lusts, she’s pissed off at the injustice of her financial situation (her male cousin got everything), and she’s more steel than satin, with a hidden history of strength and unheralded accomplishment. Yet she is never cynical, and neither is this novel, in spite of the element of farce.

The existence of a massive Moranglian fandom, complete with LARPing knights and maidens, could easily have been the big joke here. Ransom is amused and mocking at first, while Izzy drops into character (“Good Sir Wendell, please be at ease. I’ll come thither anon!”) to welcome the clankingly costumed Knights of Moranglia and Cressida’s Handmaidens, who’ve tracked her down on the way to a re-enactment and encampment.  The “fancy-dress fools” are figures of fun, but in the end, it’s a shared belief in doing the right thing – sheer old-fashioned honor and loyalty – that forge bonds of trust and mutual respect between the ill-tempered duke and his newfound fans.

“Make up as many stories as you wish. Just don’t make me the hero in them.”

Of course the Moranglians, like the reader, can see plainly that he’s the romance hero — I loved how cleverly and yet simply Dare accomplished all this, without over-writing or over-thinking it.

“Even if you did read my father’s stories, I doubt you’d enjoy them. They require the reader to possess a certain amount of…”

“Gullibility?” he suggested. “Inexperience? Willful stupidity?”

“Heart. They require the reader to possess a heart.”

There are knowing winks and nods to medieval romance from Lord Tennyson to Laura Kinsale, but the meta-story is an unabashed appreciation and celebration of gallant deeds and happy endings.

“You don’t have to admire my father’s stories,” she said. “But don’t disparage the readers, or the notion of romance.”

Defaulting to the Duke? I so appreciate a book that can make me laugh, even as it’s teasing out something fundamentally important about the nature of fiction and fandom, romance and reading. I don’t even mind so much about the surfeit of dukes anymore, at least not in the context of a book that’s thoughtful and genuine. I recognize Euro- and Anglo-centric romances about white aristocrats offer a privilege-reinforcing fantasy for some readers. There’s no doubt the genre will be better off as we see more and more historical romances about other kinds and colors of people.

Bitch Media published a great interview with the Love in the Margins team from last week that provided an interesting foil – and rich array of other options – as I pondered the pros and cons of the mainstream dukely regency, which has become such a dominant default in the genre.  I’m still ambivalent about it overall. But a cleverly told fairytale is always welcome, and who wants to live in a world where readers are disparaged for the books they enjoy — as long as those readers, and the writers of such books, are willing to interrogate their choices?

ROMANCING THE DUKE is available from Avon in the usual formats and places. I received a copy from the publisher as part of the Avon Addicts program, in exchange for an honest review.

THE ANNOTATED TBR: Winter Reviews & Recommendations

Here’s another round-up of books from my TBR — women of endurance, breaking down gender & war is hell

Some of these are actually sitting on my shelves and some are on my mental list, waiting to be purchased or checked out, depending on the relative levels of my patience and my budget.  The idea is sort of an annotated TBR for myself (to help with the “now WHY was I thinking I wanted to read this…?”), with links to the reviews and reviewers most responsible for fueling the out-of-control growth of my reading aspirations.

HILD by Nicola Griffith  reviewed by Natalie over at Radish Reviews  A historical novel that shatters conventional wisdom about the lives of ordinary women is based on the life of a medieval saint who lived at the court of King Edwin in 7th centrury England? With strong female communities plus a focus on material culture (textiles and tapestries)? Yay!  Back in my own Dark Ages (college) I studied English medieval architecture, and even read me some Venerable Bede, and I still harbor a lingering fascination with the “strange but true” tales of anchoresses and abbesses and other female acts of virtue (or vice) deemed important enough to find their way into the written record.  Natalie has mentioned this book on twitter often enough that it’s pretty much topping my wishlist right now. And then there’s the reviewer at NPR who says this book shatters the myth that women of the middle ages were too oppressed to make interesting subject matter for historians. I’m curious to see for myself how this work of meticulously researched historical fiction might “read” like fantasy. For some reason I want Hild to look and act a little bit like Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones, but since I haven’t read this book yet I should probably refrain from ‘dream casting’.

REVOLUTIONARY by Alex Myers I am eager to read this not because of a particular review, but because once I saw it reviewed a couple of places, it just sounded like a book I need to read. RevWar history is one of my side obsessions. I live less than a mile from the path Paul Revere’s horse trod out to Lexington on April 19th, 1775  and last summer I tracked down the grave (in Blacksburg, Virginia) of an ancestor who served as a private in a Maryland regiment and, according to family lore, witnessed the surrender of the British at Yorktown. This novel tells the story of Deborah Sampson, a woman who hid her gender and fought as a man in the American Revolution. Alex Myers himself has experience living both male and female lives; he was recently interviewed by The Daily Beast about the book, and his life as a female-to-male transgender person. Of course this seems to be a big part of the buzz around this book, but it’s really not the main reason I’m interested in reading it. I am always on the hunt for a well-told Revolutionary tale and I’m hoping this one will soon have a place of honor on my Best Of Minutemen shelf.

AncillaryJustice

ANCILLARY JUSTICE by Ann Leckie   reviewed by Janine Ballard at Dear Author This is pretty far outside my usual territory, but Janine’s review grabbed my attention since she loved it so much and I consider her the right kind of tough critic. Also, she’s read Outlander and is willing to entertain a deconstructionist conversation about whether or not it’s a romance, so when she talks about falling “headlong” into a novel it makes me think something pretty interesting must be going on. So even though this is science fiction, and the protagonist is an artificial intelligence who may or may not be female, it sounds like this is a novel about relationships, loyalties, and the construction of gender, and I am happy to have a hold request for this book pending at my library.

THE SHATTERED ROSE by Jo Beverley  I’ve been thinking a lot about JoBev recently, thanks partly to Janet Webb, who is a fellow appreciator and fans the flames of my Malloren/Rogues obsessions.  I’ve read nearly all of Beverley’s canon, but none of the medievals. When I posted about Lucien hitting Beth in An Unwilling Bride, the ensuing discussion revealed that The Shattered Rose also involves jealous anger and violence between hero and heroine.  Because Beverley can always be counted on to be challenging, even in the context of an engaging and absorbing romance, I’m very curious to see how this plays out in a medieval setting, especially with the story told from the hero’s POV.  A brief review and summary are here, at The Romance Reader.

THE OUTCASTS by Kathleen Kent I just feel like reading something western.  Also, Kent is the author of The Traitor’s Wife and The Heretic’s Daughter, both of which rank among the most beautiful and haunting historical novels I’ve read in decades. Possibly ever. Set in and around Puritan Andover and Salem in the years prior to the witch hunts, the former is so achingly romantic I reviewed it as a romance even though it is so not a Happy Ever After story. It was a beautiful HFN, though. Sigh. But on to Texas, and a book that sounds possibly even more menacing — a ruthless prostitute on the run from the law (after escaping from a brothel where she was a virtual prisoner).  In the Salem novels Kent’s portrayal of frontier justice and hard women chafing in the cages society places around them was breaththaking and I found I quite liked her female protagonists’ rough edges. Since the Dallas Morning News did not seem to like her very much, I’m very curious about Lucinda, and what happens when she runs into a Texas Ranger tracking a murderer. I’m a little afraid I may not like her, I’m not sure it’s going to be romantic, and I’m definitely not betting on an HEA, but I am definitely going to read this book.  

In fact, several of these books are making me think about female characters who are unsympathetic in one way or another. Since I haven’t yet read them, I can’t speak to their likeability but sometimes unlikeable heroines are actually my favorite kind.

Happy reading!

Of Marriages and Mallorens: A Backhanded Look at Jo Beverley’s Feminist Brides (and still more violence)

AN UNWILLING BRIDE and SEDUCTION IN SILK: forced marriages, feminist rhetoric, and another violent hero

I’m a huge Jo Beverley fan. Beverley has pretty much everything I’m looking for in historical romance: characters with depth and humor, solid and convincing historical settings with just the right amount of intriguing trivia concerning manners and material culture, intricate world-building and interrelated stories across multiple books, richly imagined and not-too-cheesy dude groups, a dash of bromance, strong well-read heroines, a lovely long backlist to explore, and a willingness to test the conventions of the genre. Beverley’s novels can be fun, and funny, but they are not light. I could go on and on but there’s already a wonderful summary of the best of Beverley here @ Janet Webb’s “Jo Beverley Appreciation” for Heroes & Heartbreakers.

I thought I had read pretty much her entire backlist, or at least all the Rogues (Regency-era) and Malloren (Georgian-set) novels, but a funny thing happened last October right after I read Seduction in Silk, which is the newest book set in the glittering Georgian world of the Mallorens. I was pondering this novel’s explicit discussion of feminist issues regarding marriage, property rights, and the legal status of women, when Liz @ Something More blogged about throwaway uses of the word feminist in romance fiction, and wondered about a “strain of resistance” to the appearance of feminist language, or principles, in the genre. ErinSatie identified a counter-example drawn from the historical romance subgenre — Beverley’s An Unwilling Bride:

…the entire novel is straight-up structured to question the appeal of alpha men from the perspective of a feminist heroine who has to deal with the worst flaws of one.

It’s not the most emotional romance novel, but it’s tight, well-structured, thoughtful. A romance writer at the top of her game grappling with a troubling aspect of her own work and profession.

At that point, I jumped in with an incoherent comment, and subsequently realized either I’d somehow skipped book #2 in the Company of Rogues series, which was 1992’s An Unwilling Bride, or I wasn’t remembering it very well. It turns out I was confusing it with the first in the series, An Arranged Marriage (1991). Of course I was excited to uncover a ‘hidden’ treasure – a heretofore unread novel from the Beverley canon. I read Unwilling Bride last week, and it compelled me to revisit Seduction in Silk.

Love, Honor, and Obedience Both these books contain a similar forced marriage premise, and feature somewhat unlikeable and rigid spinster heroines who read Wollstonecraft and/or make use of feminist rhetoric to mask the unsettling realization that the hero’s appearance in her life has revealed she may actually have emotional, romantic, and sexual needs. Which of course this man, whose presence has been thrust upon her, can and will meet.

In each case the emotional journey of the couple involves actual conversations with each other (and each of them with various friends and relations) about the meaning of matrimony and the effort involved in the crafting of domestic harmony. Beverley’s characters explicitly discuss how to arrange their lives together to allow mutual interests and individual identities to thrive and prosper. She is masterful at weaving such conversations (not just in these two books) into the narrative and giving voice to feminist concerns about the marital state, property rights, masterful husbands, and the appeal of the badass alpha, without breaking the character of her Georgian and Regency period settings. This is partly accomplished through the liberal use of bluestocking heroines who read Wollstonecraft, but is also due to careful research and excellent dialogue.

From Seduction in Silk:

“There is no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to Miss Mallow.”

“That is for her to judge.”

“Unreasonable woman! There’s no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to her, because I’ve promised that after the vows are said I will leave her completely to her own devices.”

Genova cocked her head. “That does remove many objections. However, before the law you would still be her master.”

“As Ashart is yours.”

“A factor that weighed with me, I assure you. Love is the very devil.”

Keeping Her In Line  Both these books were absorbing, satisfying reads — the kind of reading experience where you find yourself musing about the characters and their interactions or conflicts when you’re not actually reading. Yet my satisfaction with the two HEAs was decidedly dissimilar. Seduction in Silk left me pleased and content, but was more memorable for its strange subplots than for the actual relationship, which ended up being rather bland in spite of a rather explosive beginning.

An Unwilling Bride left me unsettled and (almost) unwilling or unable to believe in the HEA.  Yet in a way I love this book more for its edginess and willingness to more deeply interrogate the historical romance enterprise itself — what does it mean (both for the heroine and for the reader) when the HEA involves submitting to marriage with no legal protections? How to balance the pleasures of a period setting with the tolerances and interests of contemporary romance readers in the post-feminist era? Some historicals leave legal matters offscreen except when needed as plot device, but Beverley’s characters directly converse about essential everyday questions related to the status of women.

From An Unwilling Bride:

“How do you keep her in line, then?”

…. “In what line?”

It was a challenge and Lucien reacted by stiffening. “Within the line of appropriate behavior.”

Nicholas’s warm brown eyes became remarkably cold. “I’ve never stayed within that line myself. Why should I try to impose it on anyone else?

“She’s your wife, damn it.”

Nicholas shook his head. “She’s Eleanor. I never wanted to become the guardian of another adult human being and God was good and granted me a wife able to accept freedom…”

Both these novels present heroines facing tough choices and harsh consequences if they refuse to accede to the marriage that’s been arranged. Yet although Claris Mallow, a country rector’s daughter struggling to raise and educate her younger brothers (Seduction in Silk), faces much more precarious economic circumstances and hardship, Beth Armitage’s experience as the titular Unwilling Bride in the earlier novel feels both harsher and more emotionally precarious.

Force vs. Persuasion  The most obvious reason for the different tenor of the two relationships is the contrast between heroes Lucien de Vaux, daredevil rakehell with violent tendencies who treats his unwilling bride with a mixture of hostility and detachment for much of the book (until he suddenly falls in love with her and becomes overprotective and jealous), and Peregrine Perriam, amiable charmer and beta hero who eventually wins his bride over with a combination of practicality, directness, and silken luxuries. Both couples are forced to the altar by external circumstances involving adultery (by parents or other relatives) and inheritance, and much of the eventual romance takes place after each couple has tied the knot.

(Spoilers beyond this point, especially for An Unwilling Bride)

Lucien and Beth are the 1992 Regency couple from An Unwilling Bride. At their best they are swapping erudite quotations and bantering about books, while engaged in a very public show of courtship and endless social events at the very highest level of London society. I loved that they discovered shared enthusiasm for competitive quoting that offers them a safe space for exchanging ideas and genuine opinions.  But at their worst they withhold and dissemble so much that they constantly offend and resent one another, and there is a terrible lack of trust between them which only becomes more disturbing when Lucien’s violence erupts and he strikes Beth.

That’s right — this is a 1992 RITA winner in which the hero backhands the heroine across the face in an uncontrolled jealous rage. I’m still wrestling with my mixed responses to this book, which I was love love loving right up to this point. Beverley dropped clues to Lucien’s barely-contained violence along the way, which I thought were interesting in and of themselves — it’s clear Beth found him physically intimidating but she was also coming to understand and love him. But I wasn’t expecting to spend the final chapters preoccupied, as are both characters, with Beth’s bruised face and whether or not I can believe in (a) Beth’s immediate forgiveness or (b) Lucien’s redemption and vow that it will never happen again.

As for Perry and Claris of last year’s Seduction in Silk, they too must cope with the emotional fallout of a violent episode.  This time, however, the gender dynamic is reversed and it is a pistol-wielding woman who expresses deep rage and frustration by shooting her would-be suitor at point-blank range. Fortunately, trusty maidservant Ellie had loaded the weapon with powder but no shot. Perry is unharmed, but Claris is undone by the realization that she has almost killed a man. And truthfully, the whole episode, indeed the whole novel, is played for laughs to a much greater extent than Lucien and Beth’s story. Where Beth appears clever but helpless, and even makes her own situation worse with several strategic errors that plant the seeds of mistrust, Claris comes off  as wacky but not without resources.

Not all feminist brides are created equal Although they share the same views about the disadvantages inherent in submitting to marriage, Claris and Beth respond differently because their circumstances are so different. Beth, with only a spinster aunt and the school where they teach to call home, capitulates early in the novel and internalizes her anger at being manipulated into marriage, becoming ever more isolated and fragile in her sudden ascendance to the rigors of public life in a ducal household. She does assert her autonomy by choosing to help a downtrodden former student seeking refuge (which secondary plot leads to all manner of mayhem and more violence, including the bloody death of a villain who did terrible things to Nicholas Delaney in the previous book in the series). But overall, she just seems entirely overshadowed by Lucien and his confidence, physical presence, powerful allies, and warm circle of friends.

With my other Beverley couple of the week, it is Claris who overshadows Perry. She’s got a motley household to manage, a warm and quirky assortment of family members, and an agenda — to see her younger brothers educated as gentlemen. The two of them also have a convoluted curse plot to unravel, and a manor house to save. As a younger son, Perry has made his way in the role of diplomat and courtier; he puts others at ease and blends into the background, leaving center stage to pistol-packing Claris and her starchy, self-interested grandmother, Athena. Claris doesn’t want to marry because she fears loss of independence and she has a genuine fear of the risks of child-bearing, but she’s also got strong motivation to marry since it will improve her economic situation sufficiently to ensure her brothers’ futures.

Perry is being forced into the marriage by the terms of an unlikely will, but he sets out to win Claris’s acceptance directly, resulting in a narrative of seduction and pursuit that is tart and tangy and not at all unpleasant. Among other things, he brings her well-chosen gifts including fruit and silk (he’s receiving mentoring from Ashart and Genova, an iconic Malloren-world couple). This is all very witty and charming, and asked the right questions about submission, autonomy, and identity, but it wasn’t nearly as challenging as Lucien and Beth’s story.

Violence in Romance With Lucien and Beth, Beverley forces the reader to look right into the heart of a marriage, which has now become a love match, where the husband has legal authority over his wife, and listen in when he struggles to rationalize his belief system in the context of his abhorrent behavior.

“Yet you threatened to beat me. Twice.” She didn’t mention it, but the blow which marked her face hovered between them.

They walked a little way in silence before he responded. “I suppose I consider force appropriate on occasions, but I have no excuse or justification for what happened tonight.” Thoughtfully he added, “It worries me considerably.” After a moment he continued, “As for my threats, I threatened to beat you – although I don’t know whether I could do such a thing – when you seemed about to bring scandal into the family. If it helps, I’d threaten to beat a man in the same situation, and be more likely to do it. Does that make you more equal, or less?”

“I don’t know,” said Beth, frowning. “It’s late and I’m tired. That must be why you can justify violence to me. It can’t actually make sense.”  (An Unwilling Bride)

The rest of the novel focuses on Beth and Lucien working together to rescue Clarissa, the imperiled former student, from a forced marriage, along with Lucien’s badass former mistress (she and Beth become friends and allies) and several other Rogues and their wives. There is more violence, and even worse the implied violence and misery of the life Clarissa would have been sentenced to — virtual enslavement to an evil husband who is known to be a sexual sadist and rapist. I think it’s interesting that this secondary plot surfaces quite graphically in the final chapters of the novel. Is Beth so determined to help Clarissa because she wishes someone had done the same for her when she was facing the blackmail threats which resulted in her own unwanted marriage? She had no way of knowing what kind of man Lucien would turn out to be.  Or does she see Clarissa’s situation as completely different from her own, given that by this point in the story she and Lucien have fallen in love and she has succumbed to the physical and intellectual attraction she had for him from the start? Still, on what basis does she trust that his blow was a one-time mistake? I kept wishing that Nicholas and Eleanor had got wind of it, with perhaps some severely man-to-man, and mano a mano, consequences being meted out. And then I can’t believe I’m wishing for more violence to balance the scales!

In the end I almost always prefer a romance novel that makes me think, or even pushes against the limits of my comfort zone. An Unwilling Bride does both these things, and boldly raises many more questions about the appeal of the romance genre, and historical romance in particular, than it answers. Does the HEA justify the means, even if vows are forced?  Where do we draw the line when it comes to an unwilling woman? OK for her to be forced to the altar, an act with far-reaching legal repercussions, as long as the hero doesn’t force her sexually until she consents?  Is she merely reluctant and skittish and ripe for falling in love? Or is the forced marriage trope a common theme because it provides narrative space to explore various ways in which a woman may be taken against her will, from the emotional shock of falling in love, to the social requirement of marriage, to the surrender to desire?

What about the vulnerability of falling in love with someone who will have legal authority over you once you marry him? Seduction in Silk echoes some of these questions, but the sharp edges are blunted — it’s a much more comfortable read. Which begs the further question — was Beverley seeking to make readers uncomfortable with the earlier book? Does having the hero actually hit the heroine force us to examine our own willingness/unwillingness to engage with the badass hero fantasy? Can you believe in the HEA if there has been violence between the hero and heroine? Was this just much more common in the 80’s and early 90’s than I am remembering? Are there any other romances you have enjoyed where the hero strikes the heroine in anger (to distinguish such acts from those in BDSM romance where the violence is consensual and ritualized)?

Seduction in Silk and An Unwilling Bride are available in the usual formats and places. An Unwilling Bride was recently released as an e-book. I purchased both books at my local used paperback shop.