Have you ever looked forward to a book soooooo much that when it’s finally released you can’t bring yourself to read it? Have you coveted that book to the degree where you’ve squirrelled it away for just the right circumstances to come together to allow you the luxury of time and the indulgence of space to maximise the enjoyment you know it will provide you? And when you finally embarked on that torrent of words did their passage augur more than you even expected? And at the end of the journey when you reached Ithaca, having endured emotional travails and survived, did you experience that redemption – that revelation – that homecoming – that happily ever after?
Well, I didn’t. Not fully. Not exactly. Not quite with Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep Northand boy, did I sit on that book- waiting for the perfect moment to begin reading it – since 2014!
The problem is, Mr Flanagan built up my expectations for a romantic journey out of existential spiritual darkness into the light of reunion and the righting of deeply entrenched wrongs with a happily ever after… but there wasn’t one.
His main character’s story had the hallmarks of romance: melodrama- beautiful moments-charismatic heroine- brooding hero – all-consuming attraction, but not the carry through. It was almost a romance but just didn’t get there.
How? Why? What happened?
Hmm… it begs another question, maybe he doesn’t know how to write a romance? What if he tried his best and all he could manage was that much?
How disappointing for him! To put down such a sweeping story and not manage to cross the finish line for the main protagonist!
Flawed? He must have been floored when he finished it. Luckily for him, he was handed a consolation prize to encourage him to keep on – the Man Booker Prize.
However, I believe a piddling prize like that alone won’t aid him achieve the perfect historical romance. I think he will greatly benefit from the following reading list. I’ve put it together for him keeping in mind the themes he exercises: melodrama; redemption; pathos; flawed characters; catharsis after struggle; love ethereal, undeniable and uncontrollable; self knowledge/ identity; and a strong sense of mateship.
Crippling self doubts over loss of identity, a long suffering fiancé- love bolstering and healing- humour – Julia Quinn’s light touch
This is not typical of historical romance due to the time spent with the identity crisis of the male protagonist – which is absolutely engaging. To get the full on fun elements from the melodrama the companion story The Lost Duke of Wyndham has to be read. These two books should have been published as one as there is unnecessary overlap between them. To appreciate both, leave a time gap between them when reading.
A warrior trying to relax into civilian life- an irrational attraction that can’t be controlled- melodrama – forgiveness and redemption – loyalties challenged – humour – pathos – dramatic tension
This one has all the charm and humour of a Golden Years of Hollywood adventure tale – think Errol Flynn or Clark Gable in rom-com mode. Sentimentality, loyalty and humour not only through the heroine’s antics but through the secondary characters supporting her.
The Duke (no, not John Wayne – the English aristo) is damaged. He could also be an Earl, a Viscount or just a Lord. Whatever his title, he’s often a rake and the ultimate catch for every ingénue who happens to cross his path. Her purity will set him free of the arrogant, broody coil he has been born into. She will be the toast of the ton as all her happily-ever-afters will radiate out from the point at which this rich, entitled – in every sense of the word – white, anglo-celtic, protestant male to-the-manor-born, who has inherited connections, money, respect, power and is a perfectly package symbol of patriarchy, professes his undying love for her.
I love it. It’s the classic and enduring historical romance trope and I love historical romances. I’ve been indoctrinated from an early age. I revel in romance’s overture a.k.a. the happily ever after, the beautiful gowns, the handsome prince, the carriages, the servants living their emotion journey vicariously on the hem of the heroine’s swooshing gown – who wouldn’t want a cluster of individuals so invested in their well-being that they will act for them against their own person safety, even if their true selves are rodent, canine or equine.
Today’s sexy, genre-fiction romance novel began with historical romance – with delicious adventure stories – a rollercoaster ride through exotic locations with Alpha-males who strutted about needing to be tamed by insecure teenaged virgins.They could be rapey and their facts could be very, very wrong, but their social milieu seems closer to historic truth than those written today.
Today’s historical romances fit modern American 20-30 y.o. feet into the slippers of the past. You can find duchesses who often wear breeches and busy themselves in business of all calibres, even running brothels and gaming houses. Not that this sort of thing didn’t happen in history. I think there is a historic precedent in every unexpected depiction – today’s novel’s are very well researched. However, these unusual femmes are populating that imagined era more and more often.
These novels are read quickly and in great volumes. I fear the impression of a past society where there were many such extraordinary women would stay with the reader because of the number of books read – reinforcing the idea that these types of women were plentiful, enough to form their own clique.
They bring today’s woman’s confidence and entitlement to a society that was hard pressed to produce such an individual. If that society could, feminism would have taken off earlier. Are we disrespecting the women of the past and what they put up with? Their resilience? The enormity of their success and the obstacles they overcame by writing so loose with societal pressures of the past?
It’s wonderful that strong heroines who challenge the patriarchy are being depicted- that there are blue stocking heroines, but can feminism in historical romance have any meaning when the object of desirability is a symbol of patriarchy?
At the speed at which romance novels are written and consumed a whole world is clearly created that lingers between reads and overlaps them. This collective world of hundreds of novels by many writers leaves an impression of the past beyond the covers. The brothel owner – game hall owner may be the exception in the particular book but comes as part of the Romancelandia world.
Will readers believe this is how the past really was? Are we devaluing the struggle? Are we devaluing feminism and its history?
Or are we healing it in our memory so that we can deal with the injustice and more forward? Is this the way we should be doing it? Does history matter?
Can a sexually empowered female character challenge the patriarchy today when Medea and Helen were examples to keep women behind closed doors?
Can sexually liberated/empowered female characters in literature reclaim respect for women -smash the patriarchy- in today’s world whereas in the classical Greece Euripides Medea lost everything because she had such power? For the Ancient Greeks a sexually empowered woman was likened to a witch.
Ancient Greek literature influenced European literature in a big way done to the twentieth century. Often religion is blamed for maintaining the Patriarchy but this is undervaluing the place of the Classics and their Renaissance revival. For deist and atheist alike there has always been examples of Patriarchy to model future endeavours on.
Why would a sexually empowered female character today smash the patriarchy? What’s the difference today – electricity and the pill? A platform to fight from built on an accumulation of ongoing struggles throughout history?
The English Aristocrat as a Symbol of Patriarchy
Patriarchy is intimately entwined with the British class system and its entrenched wealth, political system and socialisation. It’s been maintained by social subjugation.
Aristocracy/colonialism/patriarchy – control – have been entrenched in the British class system. By making the romantic object of each heroine’s desire an aristocrat, this caste system is reinforced and so is the patriarchy. When the heroine marries this symbol of patriarchy she substantiates her joy and reinforces her worth in society and herself based on climbing the patriarchal social ladder.
Yes, I know it’s because she gets the man she loves. Yes, I know he could actually be a feminist. Yes, I know it heightens the tension because of his desirability and the achievement of defying the social order etc. But again, in Romancelandia the choice of the aristocrat is a choice of a the symbol that reinforces the patriarchy. When these books are consumed as quickly and regularly as they are, the patriarchy is reinforced again and again.
There are historical romances where there is no prince, duke, earl, lord, saving an ingénue from a life of obscurity or life as an unwed wallflower – genre novels that feature working heroes and heroines – eg., Lisa Kleypas’ Someone to Watch Over Me and Sarah MacLean’s Brazen and the Beast. Logic says there must be more but most historicals you’ll come across will feature Dukes etc as their heroes.
Despite all of this I still love reading Historical Romance but I have to quash the niggle in the pit of my stomach almost every time.
Anne spun in front of the looking glass and felt positively… excited, mischievous, nervous, apprehensive, aroused in crashing waves. Rolling them all together, her stomach became so queasy she was certain the result was sinful.
The anticipation for what she was about to do and how she was going about achieving it was liberating… whenever she convinced herself that she would succeed. When she doubted, she felt like a small malleable, weakling devoid of the sophistication of Elizabeth’s court. How ridiculous was that? Could anyone other than her Majesty be closer to the apex of English society in the year of our Lord fifteen seventy five? She was no less than those the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. This would be her first court intrigue – executed at home, in her own bed.
Sinful! What a ridiculous feeling. She was a married woman. She had the ring to prove it. And the license. Letters of congratulations had arrived from royal courts in Europe sending solicitations to her father on the match he had arranged for her with the earl. No, there was nothing sinful about what she was about to do. But it could be… no, it couldn’t be…could it? Could it be slightly scandalous?
Well, it shouldn’t be. He was the one who was seeking solace in the bed of another. Yes, they did marry young. Sooner than her father had led her to believe she would be betrothed. Her courses hadn’t come yet, she scowled into the mirror. He‘d have no excuses if they had. She adjusted the seat of her bosom in her corset. She was a late bloomer. Her figure was finally blossoming over her bodice and disappearing into her farthingale. Her body was, after such a tedious wait, ready, but he hadn’t seemed to notice. He still saw her as a child.
His little sister? When Edward said he’d wait for her to mature she had expected him to abstain. She didn’t realise that he would find someone to occupy himself with until then. And she had put up with the interloper. The very beautiful, lissom interloper with ne’er a penny in her glory chest to fill Edward’s empty coffers.
Was Edward more attracted to her father’s coffers than he was to her? Anne swallowed the lump in her throat. Truth be told, they did grow up together. He was a ward of the state and her father raised him with her brother and Earl Roger. Earl Roger seemed to have noticed the change in her. The way he looked at her across the supper table a sennight past; the way his eyes had glazed over; the way the parting of his lips had animated his eyebrows, had coloured her cheeks. She had to turn her face to hide her giggles.
It was her time now.
Yes, she was an attractive girl – no, woman. Definitely woman. Married woman – to the premier earl in all of England – the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. But what good was it if she couldn’t take her place by his side confident that she was the premier woman in his life? What good was calling herself the Countess of Oxford when they hadn’t even consummated their marriage yet? There was more scandal in that, than in what she was about to do.
She’d been planning this over the last couple of months. She watched his Trollope – the way she moved, the way she dressed, the way she laughed, the way she did her hair. She had even swallowed her pride and watched him make love to her through the crack in the service door. She learnt the Trollope’s ways and sought out her scent, imprisoning it in a vial around her neck. She perfumed her breast with it and dabbed wine around her chin. She knew the Trollope’s ways her purr and call of pleasure. Tonight she would be an actress like a muse in one of the Queen’s masques. Tonight, she would be the Trollope but there would be no stage.
Tonight after he had finished entertaining his fellows from town, when he had ascended the staircase to the upper floor, while he waited in the hall for his Trollope to turn the key and push forward into his bedchamber, her manservant would be waiting for them and so would she. Her man would gag the Trollope’s mouth and hold her back while the rightful denizens of the chamber tripped onto the bed. He would be too drunk to notice the switch in the darkness.
She spun once more before the glass. She wore her kirtle over her shift, its folds skirted the floor, without her farthingale to suspend it. She had her stomacher tied tightly and low over her bodice – so her propped up bosom was a fitful diversion for his attention. She pulled her hair back off her forehead and circled it with a strand of pearls, allowing long tendrils to fall over each cheek. She was ready. Would he be so intoxicated that he wouldn’t realise the switch? Had she learnt enough in her clandestine peeping to switch his allegiance and keep his attention in the morning?
The morning…oops! She prayed for the inspiration for what to say. She may well need divine intervention.
This has been my fictional take on the Earl of Oxford and the Bed Trick, an episode in history lampooned in Elizabethan theatre.
I’m not telling historically accurate stories but stories that are anchored in historical events that I’ve gone and added motivations to the characters that I can relate to – and am banking on you relating to them too – with an emphasis on romance. For some of the stories history has left us a lot in the way of documents and I’ve stayed close to sources, for others like this slice of Byzantine history I’ve let my imagination run away with me. I will have to unpack my interpretation of the history behind it in another post, as this one is a lengthy one.
As the acrid stench of drying urine cut through the pervasive odour of dank water, her senses heightened. How could anyone stand it? She followed almost blindly the hulking frame of her personal guard, the eunuch Nikitas. Her soft leather soles padded the flagstones beneath. Her gut contracted. Was the ice-cold wave shooting up from underfoot a natural sensation from the subterranean rock or was she treading in festering water? Her feet didn’t make a sound.
The glow of the eunuch’s torch spread its soft light as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Cages lined the corridor on either side of them. Moans reverberated softly backward and forward over the stone walls. New odours assailed her the deeper she progressed: vomit, bile, rotting flesh and mould.
Unlike her own, the eunuch’s boots crashed with every footfall heralding their progress through the corridor of horrors. In the small hours of the morning she hadn’t expected anyone in the prison to be awake but then she hadn’t expected so much darkness. Did the incarcerated realise that the night wasn’t over? That it was time they were abed? She could feel their gaze trying to discern who the eunuch was chaperoning.
What was she doing here?
Her long cape and hood covered her silken gown and her carefully attended coiffure – her rose painted lips, her slightly rouged cheeks, her kohl-lined glittering eyes and carefully dyed hair. No longer a young woman, and by no means a virgin – she had given birth to six children, two of them in the palace’s purple chamber- her figure was slim and her skin was smooth if a little more soft than firm. She was still an attractive woman but never one prone to displays that would undermine her role in society – not as Constantine X’s wife – not as the Holy Patriarch’s niece.
Her modesty was lauded by all. It came at a price.
Evdokia had soaked longer in her bath that day, thankful now that the water had been infused with more fragrance than usual. She thought of the prisoner she was visiting. Her heart beat a little faster.
Once his eyes had sought hers.
Once she was convinced he thought her beautiful.
That was years ago, would he remember the girl who was smitten by him and not the Empress? They had few stolen moments over the years. Did they mean to him, what they meant to her? Would he even remember? She would have to remind him. It would give her strength, fortitude, to do what she must – to risk so much.
Now that the Emperor was dead she was finally free not only to be self-directed but to direct the Empire, herself.
Yes, there were complications.
Her claim to rule rested on her sons’ being too young and in Michael’s case untrained and disinterested. Once he was mature enough, she would have to rescind her authority. However the boy was poised to step into the Emperor’s shoes, he would rather read books. The Empire didn’t need another civil servant to pander to its obsequious factions, it needed a general. Someone to lead the army – to keep the Patzinaks at bay, to face off with the Normans, to stop the invading Persians[i] and contain the rival factions in Constantinople who would throw the Empire into another civil war.
What the Empire needed was someone capable of ruling from Constantinople, keeping the cosmopolitan wolves well fed and patrolling the boarders at the same time. Someone capable of inspiring the respect of the citizen and the soldier – whose presence and military prowess would force their enemies to think twice before coveting the throne. The Roman Empire needed a ruler with a woman’s cunning in the capital and a warrior’s heart in the field. Could she deliver?
When Nikitas stopped abruptly before a wooden door, Evdokia placed a hand on his shoulder to prevent him from opening it. What was she doing ferreting out the traitor?
She breathed in through her mouth – trying to limit the putrid air while steadying her nerves. She wasn’t having second thoughts. She knew what she would do. She had made her choice, she had to believe in it. There was no time for procrastination. In the unlikely scenario that he would deny her, her political rivals machinations were positioning a consort for her who would move with the slightest agitation of the strings they held. One whose first priorities was the Doucas clan and not the greater good of the Empire,
Romanus Diogenes, Duke of Serdica, wouldn’t deny her. He couldn’t – she held his life in her hands.
Still, she had to steel herself. The Duke was more to her than a political pawn in public life.
With a nod of her head, Nikitas motioned the guard posted at the door to open it. A whoosh of air threw back the hood from her head, nearly extinguishing the torch Nikitas held.
“Why?” A growl escaped the void.
Evdokia couldn’t place it.
Something scurried across her feet. She saw nothing in the dark. She hoped he didn’t see her flinch.
“I could ask you the same question,” she threw belatedly into the void.
Nikitas followed her in.
“Because I love the Empire.” Evdokia turned her head to find the voice.
“If you loved the Empire, you could have waited!” She snapped and turned to scan the cell.
“Present yourself!” Nikita demanded.
The warm glow of his torch diminished with the level of oxygen in the cell. There were no air grates or windows with just the one, solitary door. What comforts should a try-hard regicide expect? Sufficient air was not a priority for a man facing death.
Holding the torch out from him, Nikitas walked about the room. When he turned back to Evdokia, Romanus was towering above her, his eyes locked with hers. She was as beautiful as Romanus remembered her.
“It is customary to kiss the Empress’ feet when in her audience,“ Nikitas exclaimed as he swept the Duke’s feet from under him in one pass of his own.
Romanus crashed to the ground. Pain barrelled through him. Bracing himself on the palms of his hands, Romanus glared at the eunuch. If his ribs weren’t broken the eunuch would be on the floor with him for that.
“Pay homage to your Empress,“ the eunuch demanded as he booted Romanus’ shoulders into the grimy floor.
“Enough, Nikita. Hand me your torch and wait outside.” When Nikita left, Evdokia called after him, “Close the door. There is no danger here.”
When she turned back, Romanus was standing. Their faces locked over the flame between them. They assessed each other, each waiting for the other to say something.
His face had hardened with years in the saddle. His hair was stippled with grey, his skin was bronzed. A delta of lines streamed out from the corner of his eyes. Regardless of his treachery, she still saw a handsome man. His voice toyed with her cherished memories, it hadn’t changed.
“You would kill me?” He asked softly.
“You would kill my son?”
“I hold no animosity towards Michael. He is respectful. A good scholar, I hear – well suited to the University. Wholly unprepared and unsuited for the throne. He hasn’t the temperament for politics nor war.”
“So you would remove him to install yourself.”
“I would remove him,“ he responded choosing to ignore the other. “There are dozens of monasteries that would welcome a man of his connections and scholarly aptitude.”
“Before or after you mutilated his face?” Evdokia shuddered with the memory of slit noses on faces of subjects she could no longer cherish. Those who thought above themselves and pushed their claim to the throne.
“I would not harm him.”
“Then you are a fool. How would you secure the crown with Constantine’s legitimate heir alive?” She paraded her knowledge of the way of the world before him.
“Michael doesn’t want it. He could be talked into yielding. Don’t you know your own son?”
“That’s now. Michael doesn’t want it, now. He needs a guiding hand. He needs time to learn.”
“His mother wants it more. But will she be able to reign alone? The boy isn’t ready to rule but his mother can only rule for him if she has the support of the factions. Can she control them?”
“His mother is the reason we are not in civil war!”
“For how long can Penelope embroider harmony when the world knows Odysseas is dead? I hear the Patriarch’s brother is a willing bridegroom. But you’ll need a tried General to keep the peace. Of course, the Doucas clan is military and abundant with willing suitors. The Doucas’. How happy are your in-laws with me under lock and key? Have they not yet arranged another husband for you?”
“Haven’t you realised yet that you can never have the throne for yourself. You may inspire the army but you cannot rule Constantinople.”
He snorted and prodded, “Can you?”
“Constantinople is mine.” She hoped she was as convincing as she sounded. If she were so certain of her place in the capital she would only have personal reasons for this visit.
“And the army, the tagmata, are they yours too? I didn’t realise you sat a horse so well.”
“You know I can’t!” she snapped back.
His face so composed until now, broadened into a small smile. He’d won the point and he was going to relish it.
His smile, so familiar in memory, so yearned for, so distant in reality, broke her barriers. “I may not sit a horse so well, but it hasn’t stopped me trying to ride a jackass.”
“Marry me.” She spoke the words with ease – neither a command nor a question.
He was dumbfounded. “You forget my wife.”
“Divorce her. For the good of the Empire.” He turned away in shock unable to believe the offer. “She will be well looked after, I promise you,” Evdokia refocussed his attention on his wife. He hesitated. “Word has it, it wasn’t a love match.”
“Will ours be?” With his question, she knew she had him. She relaxed her restraint.
“There was a time when you filled my dreams, “ she said.
“You saw me in the dark, “he said and took the torch from her hands.
“Behind closed lids.”
“Like closed doors?” he said walking around her, taking her cloak in the circle of his path. He held the torch aloft and indulged himself in looking at her. She came with all the trappings of the palace and an empire in the offering. She shone, glamorous in her golden silk and embroidered gems. She was out of place here. It was no place for a woman and certainly not the Empress, yet he had brought her here in his mind. With all the reminiscing and regrets of a man who is expecting death he would have been satisfied just to see her smile at him again.
Evdokia stood still. Could she still hold his fascination at her age? Could he feel for her the way that his yawning absence from her life left her yearning for him?
He looked at her in all her glory, her regalia, all luminescent – all fire and light and forgiveness. She came to humble herself before a lowly rat. He was too brash in his youth to negotiate the labyrinthine protocols and contingencies of offering for a lady above his station, a woman raised to inhabit the purple rooms of the palace as a consort. A woman older than him. A woman he wanted nevertheless. A woman who wanted him. A woman he now stood before in the grimy, blood splattered rags that once were his uniform.
In this moment he wanted them both to forget all the trappings and stand before each other in the equality of the darkness – a man and a woman- nothing more. He extinguished the torch.
“You draw my breath, “ he said as he exhaled. “Do you remember that day in the palace gardens when your marriage was still being negotiated?”
“I saw you in the Hall.”
“And afterwards in the garden.”
“No, you have me mistaken. You were with another.”
“I was. But you were there too, on the porch, watching.”
Evdokia paled and was glad for the darkness.
“You were so curious. You blushed every time I looked at you. Regardless of the crowd in the hall that day my eyes found yours each time I turned to look at you. I wanted you, but you were beyond my grasp. You saw me leave the hall and you walked out onto the porch. I was stealing kisses and caresses from another but it was you I wanted. Through half closed lids I saw you spying. I wanted you to feel what you were missing. So I spoke of the desire I was experiencing with another, step by step so that you would want what I was giving away. So that you would know you were losing me”
Evdokia sucked in her breath. Romanus brushed his lips against hers.
“It started with a kiss,” he continued, prodding her lips.
Her head felt light. She reached for his arm to steady her stance. Coyly, she kissed him back. Gratified, he continued to narrate the seduction of the past, his hands and his lips demonstrating his memory. Evdokia quaked with the erotic allure. She had one marriage of political expediency and was looking forward to her next as one of her own making. The contract this time would not negate her desires as a woman and it would serve the Empire. She would rule from the polis while he policed the boarders.
She was gratified. His lips and his hands travelled down her body, belatedly reaching her feet. When he bent to kiss them his obeisance was to her as a woman and monarch.
For the blogpost: Historical notes on The Empress and the Prison Rat, click here.
[i] Michael Psellus in translation refers to the invading Seljuk Turks as Persians in the Penguin Classics translation by E.R.A. Sewter,Fourteen Byzantine Rulers.
As Harri plodded through the family plantation towards the boundary of the estate, she couldn’t believe that things could have come to this. Surely her father would relent and come to her wedding- at least allow her sisters to attend. He had robbed her of the joy of planning the day – opening her letters from James – ranting and raving about him – embarking on a campaign to discredit him before the literary and antiquarian societies to which he belonged, to whom he relied for his livelihood – attempting to have his readership status at the British Museum Library revoked – and planning his own wedding within the fortnight before her own. Not that her widowed Papa loved the bride – her new step-mother, so few years older than herself, was young enough to be her sister- but that he needed money, and that her family would benefit from his title. Even that wasn’t putting the sparkle in his eye when he thought of his own impending marriage. No, it was the entail on the estate and how he could hurt James by having a son.
The details of the passing down of the estate and title didn’t preclude them both coming to Henrietta indirectly, on the death on her father – nothing so archaic. In the year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and forty -two, they precluded them going to anyone whose surname wasn’t Phillipps. Of course, had she a brother, estate and title would pass to him. So her father hastened to secure a bride.
Harri kept trudging, determined not to let her thoughts mar her day. Her younger sisters behind her carried her overnight bag and flowers. She was struggling to keep the dirt from the hem of her gown. She had to get to the other side of the plantation before her father noticed her absence. Her sisters would help her to get to the meeting point but they would turn back not willing to risk their father’s ire.
Sir Thomas leaned back in his chair at the breakfast table. He knew today was his daughter’s wedding day but was comfortable in the fact that Henrietta had never crossed him before. The girl didn’t have the backbone. The day would come and go. She would get over it.
Harri laboured to stay positive as another splotch of dirt sploshed on her petticoat. Her nuptials weren’t exactly an elopement. Her father had half consented to the match until negotiations broke down with James’ father.
Papa thought it inconceivable that the daughter of Sir Thomas Phillipps, Baronet, would deign to marry the son of a linen draper, the grandson of a publican, the brother-in-law of an illegitimate woman whose mother was a milliner and dressmaker! A man who engaged in shady borrowings and loan giving, he said. He demanded mollification.
Sir Thomas required a dower price from James’s father as recompense for such an association. Fancy his daughter marrying a mere mister of no fortune of his own and such low origins!
James’s father was agog. He refused to pay. Sir Thomas recanted his permission and although he didn’t force Harri’s hand he exerted every pressure imaginable to get her to change her mind or to get James to withdraw his offer.
Sir Thomas was neither myopic nor charitable in his calculations of James’ motives for wanting to marry his shy, withdrawing, bookish daughter. The flamboyant James was a bibliophile – of limited resources – who would benefit immensely from the use of his library, a collection that left the British Museum’s Collection wanting. Not to mention that in marrying his daughter James was wresting from him, his most adept and devoted library keeper – and his most cost effective one.
But Jamie didn’t offer for her to get access to her father’s library, he lost access to it as a consequence, Henrietta huffed.
Jamie wanted her all the same.
Her father’s low estimation of her hurt as much as his opposition to her choice.
Her fiancé’s and father’s relationship wasn’t always hostile. In the first three years of their acquaintance they exchanged letters affably – each having a healthy respect for the other. They were both collectors.
James took pride in his stash of rare books. He began collecting as a teenager and sold his first lot at auction when he was only eighteen.
Sir Thomas’ Collection was more of a menagerie built by his voracious, unfettered obsession. His stated intention was to own a copy of every single book that had ever been printed. He pursued this goal to the detriment of his purse, family home and the socialisation of his daughters.
When James accepted Sir Thomas’ invitation to use his private library he offered to help him implement a cataloguing system, for his number of books and rare manuscripts had gotten out of hand. Not only out of hand but out of their designated presses, out of the library room, throughout the guest rooms, along the hallways and competed with the crockery and table settings on the dining table.
James first visited Middle Hill in February, just six months ago. Harri treasured the image he cut standing in the drive as the chaise drove off, his trim figure dusty from the trip with his mussed up hair playing over his forehead in the breeze; his clear blue eyes translucent, mesmerising under the blanketing glare of the overcast sky. Clean shaven with a cleft chin and generous sideburns that reached his jaw he was younger than most of the scholars who visited the library. He threw a glance her way as he approached her father but quickly focussed on his host. The wobble in his step as he shifted his gaze echoed a tremor in her chest. Harri held her breath as the air around them condensed with anticipation. When he extended his hand to her his smile reached his eyes and held hers a moment beyond propriety. His cheeks filled with colour. She lowered her lashes and looked away. They hadn’t yet said hello.
In the week that followed while James and Sir Thomas made notes, Henrietta was charged with locating and sorting the books that were being described and coded for the catalogue. Occasionally, when she extended out a volume to James their hands would brush, their eyes would meet and their cheeks would flush at the intimacy. Excitement bubbled in the pit of her stomach and built its way up, tying her tongue. She wanted to say something. She waited for him to say something. There was little opportunity to speak, Sir Thomas was an immovable presence. Presently an opportunity opened.
“Henslowe’s Diary!” James looked up in astonishment as Henrietta placed the bound volume before him.
Henrietta smiled. “I take it you’re acquainted with the Shakespearean stage, Mr Halliwell?”
James cleared his throat. “This is Henslowe’s Diary,” he repeated, trying to compose himself. “1590s…Henslowe, the owner of the Rose Theatre. This is his diary!” Gingerly, he turned one page after another. “He has recorded payments for costumes…to actors…plays.” He was dumbfounded. Henrietta was delighted. Her father called her aside and sent her off to locate another manuscript.
She bode her time. When an opportunity next presented itself, she retrieved a handful of early quartos and placed before him an edition of Romeo and Juliet from 1609. She held the rest in the grasp of her fingers, separating their title pages. He thought he spied an early Hamlet. Did it actually say 1602? He could definitely see a 1609 Pericles, another Hamlet, 1611. He couldn’t read the other titles, she was waving them all above the Romeo and Juliet.
Tongue-tied, Henrietta willed words to come to her as she swirled the quartos before him.
“Have you read it?” he asked her softly, referring to the Romeo and Juliet she’d placed before him.
“Oh yes,” she said finding her tongue, “I much prefer the Shakespeare quartos to the folio editions.”
“No, the folios are far too heavy to tote around the garden.” She smiled timidly.
“You read the quartos in the garden?”
“Sometimes. The garden has solitary nooks…” Her eyes delved into his.
“Wonderful for contemplation, I imagine.” His eyes crinkled at the corners.
“Wonderful,“ she murmured.
“Perhaps there’ll be time for a stroll before dinner?”
“Mary and Kate know the garden just as well. They can accompany you,” Sir Thomas barked, unamused. “Harriet, I asked for Bacon’s works.”
Harri lay a 1609 edition of Marlowe’s Faustus, before James, tilted her head towards her father and suppressed a giggle.
That evening James sent a note to his brother requesting clean collars and handkerchiefs. Henrietta was a most welcome surprise to his stay at Middle Hill. By the end of the James’ first weeklong stint at Middle Hill, the catalogue was nowhere near completion. It would take several more weeklong stays before he would gain an idea of the enormity of the task. The collection was so large Sir Thomas would need a small room dedicated just to the catalogue, he speculated. And an enormous amount of time to complete and organise the entries and the books and manuscripts themselves. It was something he didn’t have the time nor inclination to do and would probably have to leave it in Henrietta’s capable hands. Only that he didn’t want to leave it to Henrietta.
He didn’t want to tie her down.
He wanted her to be free.
Free to marry him.
He knew after the first week and two strolls in the garden that she was the one.
She was smitten too.
Before he left that week he asked Sir Thomas for his permission to court his daughter. Sir Thomas tentatively agreed with the stipulation that he had to come to an arrangement with James’ father. By April things had soured between her father and her fiance’s family. Her father not only opened her letters but would dictate her replies to James and mail them. He confiscated her diary. She had to secret notes away to James and feared he would be put off by her father’s responses to him in her handwriting. But James was true. He could see through the ruse even though he knew her for only a short time. He was steadfast. He didn’t underestimate her. He risked his reputation to be with her. He would marry her regardless of anything her father slung at him. He loved her.
A door slammed. Their father had noticed their absence. He wasn’t calling for Henrietta, but for Mary and Kate. For one of his daughters to have skipped breakfast on this day was conceivable, but not all three. He sounded as if he was heading to the plantation through the garden. She had to hurry. Mary and Kate handed her, her wedding things. Henrietta ran. Jamie was waiting.
James and Henrietta were married, and enjoyed a happy marriage filled with children and professional success. James and Sir Thomas never reconciled. Sir Thomas never sired a male child and upon his death, James appended his wife’s maiden name to his surname to enable them to receive the benefit of the entail – the house and baronetage without the library. As J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps, James is remembered today as perhaps the greatest Shakespearean scholar of the 19th Century. To this day factual accounts of the life of the man from Stratford reference documents he found and research he did. The backbone of the Folger Shakespeare library is composed of the accumulation of documents he unearthed.
After a 25 year hiatus from the genre, I recently returned to reading romance. The hook to get me back was Judith McNaught. After rereading my favourites, I wondered whether she was still writing and searched for her online. How shocked was I to see that Whitney, My Love was considered controversial? Apparently there was a rape scene in it and a beating with a riding crop. What rape scene? I’d read the book back in the 80s and I couldn’t remember it being controversial. I remember thinking even back then that Whitney was annoying and that I really liked Clayton. Did he rape her? Wouldn’t I have remembered that? i never thought of it as your stock-standard bodice-ripper.
What shocked me to the core was that Judith Mc Naught was compelled to rewrite it after it had already presided over the best-selling lists. Maybe that’s why I didn’t remember the rape scene. Perhaps I hadn’t read it. I checked the date of publication of my copy – 1987 – 2 years after the initial publication. The rewrite? 14 years after its first release. I had read the original.
I went back and re-read it. It wasn’t my favourite JM novel. In fact, I much prefer her other Regencies – Almost Heaven and Something Wonderful. Rereading Whitney, I found it compelling – particularly after the controversial rape scene.
Why did she rewrite?
While I haven’t read the rewrite of 1999-2000, it’s been written about here and there and curiously enough some write-ups, for and against it, have been removed from the internet. Goodreads shows the honest response of many of its readers and they are polarized.
The rewrite included stronger hooks to the related novels, A Kingdom of Dreams and Until You.It also tried to lessen the impact of the rape scene and the beating. It failed to silence critics who thought it hadn’t addressed the underlying issues. Shockingly, Whitney immediately comforted Clayton when he realized too late that she was a virgin, and so could not have played him false – and by implication deserved what she got – and then she apologized to him!
The Problem of Character
Their actions taken away from the context of their characters and the historic era to which they belong (and also the socialization of its target market at the time of its first publication) are absolutely shocking. Placing them back within the confines of character development and the truth of their relationship they depict a valid psychological relationship.
Whitney was an impetuous, headstrong, self-centred, gutsy and immature heroine. She was stubborn and loyal and a dreamer. Her dream was to marry her true love, Paul, even if she had to endure an enforced separation, his indifference and concoct schemes to separate him from the girl he wanted. She is incredibly passionate and won’t be constrained by society’s dictates, her father’s rule or the bombastic way Clayton has made himself her intended husband – unbeknownst to her, her father betrothed her to him.
As she was growing up, she often acted up in the heat of her emotions and left reason behind only to regret her actions afterwards. She is used to feeling remorse – justified or not. Her father sent her to Paris with her Uncle and Aunt because of her outlandish behaviour.
Clayton, Duke of Westmoreland, is a prisoner of his time, wealth and social class. He falls for the beautiful young Whitney at a masquerade ball in Paris. She’s a breath of fresh air – honest, direct and daring. Easily a target for money hungry, title-hungry husband hunters, he prefers all of her spirit, independence, wit and ingenuity. But he can’t force her to love him – although he tries. He sees what she cannot: that they are well matched – he doesn’t expect her to change and indulges her sense of rebellion against society’s strictures by pandering to her – offering her brandy (a gentleman’s drink) and cigars, playing chess with her and racing his horse against her. As a male and an aristocrat of inordinate wealth, he expects to be respected and obeyed. The opposite is something he could never imagine.
“Whitney’s smile was full of confident amusement. ‘I told you, I will never call any man my lord. When I marry, I shall be a good and dutiful wife- but a full partner, not an obedient servant.’ In the doorway of the salon he glanced down at her with an odd combination of humorous skepticism and absolute certainty. ‘A good and dutiful wife? No, little one, I’m afraid not.” – Chap 13 *
While Whitney flirts and schemes to capture Paul’s heart he doesn’t interfere but presses his own suit with her. He takes greater liberties with her, kissing her privately while courting her incognito as Mr Westland. JM takes us on quite a ride until Whitney finally sees Paul for who he is rather than the knight-in-shining-armour her girlhood dreams have made him out to be. By the time she accepts that Clayton is the man for her, Clayton has gone through more than he expected to and more than he can deal with. He doesn’t know if he can trust her. It’s clear that he loves her. At the idea that she may be playing him false with Paul he loses reason and wants to punish her.
It’s got to be said that a big part of JM’s novels and romance genre in general is reconciliation after a grand act of forgiveness. The greater the sin, the greater the pathos, the more moving the Happily Ever After.
After the rape, Clayton’s remorse and self-loathing are meant to redeem him. Whitney knows that in her relationship with him she has pushed all his buttons. She is not apologizing for being his victim. She’s apologizing that her behaviour has brought their relationship to this point. When she realizes that he didn’t act out of jealousy but anger, to hurt her, she does a turn around and becomes very angry herself.
Not that jealousy should justify rape. In terms of the relationship, the forgiveness that followed the rape was necessary for the turnaround – that he had been so cruel to her broke him. It’s catharsis on a grand scale. Had JM ended the novel where they reconciled it would have been a more satisfying read. Instead, she shows a Whitney who has come of age and a Clayton who has regressed in that he still can’t trust her and we suffer another reversal in their relationship.
Whitney, My Love, is a product of the time in which it was written. It’s a classic in that it kick-started a whole sub-genre – long form erotic Regency romance. How big is this sub-genre? There is an entire podcast dedicated to it.**
Readers’ responses to Whitney tell another story. The rewrite is 20 years old. Was it necessary? What is obvious is that romance readers have changed. What they want from the genre and why they read it has changed.
Whitney, My Love is a plot driven melodrama with plenty of reversals and game-play with high emotional stakes. Judith Mc Naught’s novels made us laugh, cry, aroused us, angered us and cleansed us. They were cathartic. The characters were flawed: they sinned and forgave and grew. Everything you needed to know or feel was in the text. You didn’t have to analyse the plot, just read along and you’d be treated to a rollercoaster ride that purged the heebie-jeebies left over from your real life.
Readers since then mightn’t appreciate it, at best, or find Whitney repugnant because they see in Romance a safe escape. The huge emotional downs have been removed from a lot of historical romances and they are now more often a feel good romp through an imagined historic landscape that has been whitewashed of the nasty bits. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what Whitney is about.
Before you read Whitney, My Love or judge it, may I suggest you read Hardy’s 1891, Tess of D’Ubervilles first? Yes, one is pulp fiction and the other literature, but I’m sure you get my point.
*Chapter 13 is a charming one of courtship that’s just gorgeous.
**If you like Romance you don’t need to be a Regency fan to like the Tea’n’Strumpets podcast. The girls’ joy in the genre and what they do is infectious. They give you the plot of the featured novel and then analyse it. Their opinions and concerns have given my eyeballs occasion to roll back in their sockets,however, I look forward to listening to their show every Friday. They are lots of fun AND safe. I can’t imagine them ever reviewing a novel like Whitney.
The romances of my adolescence were historical epics defined by physical perils and misunderstandings and teenage heroines surely more stupid than I was – indignant, I would never have made the decisions those 17 year old heroines made when I was reading about them at age 14 – and randy males unable to curtail the lust stoked in their loins by those ravish-worthy ingénues.
These stories were plot driven historical melodramas where emotional loss and suffering was occasioned by physical separation – abduction, transportation, imprisonment or parental/guardian interference. Misunderstandings, prejudice, pig-headedness and a failure to stop and think actions through led the heroine into a den of thieves, a hold of pirates, enslavement by Vikings etc., until the hero, against his better judgement but guided by the allure of his lissome lover saved her from the lascivious clutches of alpha men that she detested only to succumb to his own alpha-bump and grind seduction.
Adventure and sexual awakening were key. The world building of the novels provided a structure with restraints its readership could relate to despite the 200 year or more displacement. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s when these stories were written, women didn’t feel as free to engage with their own sexuality as the readers of novels today. Scenes enacted in the bedroom, while conveying meaning, still held something back.
The restraints of the historical time period were written into encounters. Women were set upon by lustful heroes and were often seduced or cajoled, coerced or forced before succumbing to their own desires. This would lead to the awakening. Women didn’t go looking for the initial encounter. Considering the importance of reputation, they made sense from a historical point of view. Repetitive? Yep. Did it seem to perpetuate a “when-no-means-yes” mentality? To an outsider, possibly. Did the reader engage in the romance? Book sales tell the story – in the millions.
Flash forward to 2019. The women are older (than 17), smarter, independent, assertive and unabashedly curious and perhaps even demanding. The stories are shorter. The cohesiveness and truth of a character’s actions are important to the plot. Banter has taken the place of physical adventure. The concerns over reputation are given a nod but written around so the heroine can be found in a compromising situation or even demand to be “ruined” in a brothel and get away with it. And the sex scenes are often more explicitly drawn. Did I mention the language?
Historic Romances today are charming for different reasons than those early novels. The language and constraints of society in the sense in which Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontes and Tolstoy wrote about are missing. If you want to read a Regency romance that rings true to the world depicted in the 19th Century classics, better go back and read a classic. These stories are uplifting and entertaining but despite the accuracy in historical detail the world they depict is more 21st Century than 19th.
My fellow 1970s-80s romance bookworms can’t get into today’s historic romances. Today’s stories don’t pack the same punch, they bemoan. The emotional rollercoaster is missing. Why? Shorter length? The emotional stakes are lessened when the sins committed aren’t as vile? There is less to forgive and absolve by the end? While the sex scenes can be more daring the relationships are safer? The heroines are strong to begin with and so seem not to risk their emotional security as much?
On the other hand, I’ve been listening to various podcasts and reading about the genre and trying to understand what the… ahem… new… ahem, ahem… readers of romance enjoy. It seems they can’t enjoy the old stuff. Didn’t the men fall out of the trees in those old stories? And the women? Where is the entrepreneur? The secret author? The gainfully occupied aristocratic lady? And not a bluestocking among them! Why? What kind of feminist recap can you make out of those old heroines? Where’s the banter? The laughs? The mature-minded heroine?
It left me wondering who romance novels are targeted towards today. Is it possible for romance to have true historic integrity and satisfy the needs of all generations of readers? And what about contemporary romance?
I love to think that I’m an indiscriminate reader: I’ll read anything that crosses my sight, particularly if it’s soft bound. Give me history, religion, biography, science, mystery, and fiction in all of its genres. My tastes have moved, either as I have exhausted a genre of its tropes – at one stage I could predict an Agatha Christie ending – or got hooked on something else.
As a teenager I could toss-up between mystery and romance for being my favourite, but romance would always edge out Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I was such an avid romance reader that as I read Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Du Maurier, Twain, Ruth M. Arthur, Ruth Park, L.M. Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, S.E. Hinton, I also snuck away to read Kathleen Woodiwiss, Johanna Lindsay and Judith McNaught.
Reading Historical Romance was a guilty pleasure that I savoured. I loved the flouncy dresses; the adventure – those early historical romances were plot driven and improbable like an Errol Flynn movie. I gushed with the adulation of the heroic male protagonist. I could well relate to the framework of a less permissive society than the broader community I grew up in the margins of. And, of course there was the sex.
Sometime in my early 20s I stopped reading romance. Did I have to go to university to suddenly come to the realisation that the ending was always predictable? No, I read them because they were safe and titillating at once. Why stop? I think life got too busy and once I had a car I had a lot less time to read. When I did read for pleasure it was in a variety of genres.
About a year and a half ago I was in a place where I needed respite from the cares plaguing my head. I found myself standing before a long forgotten collection of Judith McNaught novels. It had been twenty-five years since I read the genre. Would I enjoy it again? She was my favourite author. I started with Paradise, a contemporary, then Perfect, another contemporary, then Kingdom of Dreams– the absolute favourite historical romance of my adolescence. I was hooked. I picked up her classic Regencies, Something Wonderful and Almost Heaven and they were. I laughed, I cried (in Kingdom Of Dreams) and I fell in love like a teenager again.
Returning the books (not Kingdom of Dreams) I revisited the collection and gambled on Kathleen Woodiwiss. Even as a teenager I didn’t have a lot of luck rereading her books – it was hit and miss. Unable to resist a story of mistaken identity and masked men, I had to read A Rose in Winter. Still magic. I tried a few other authors. Johanna Lindsay was hit and miss, while Shirlee Busbee was a definite, no.
It was time to read something new, but where to start?
“Don’t bother. Kathleen Woodiwiss, Janelle Taylor – they knew how to write.”
“They don’t write them like they used to.”
“Weak, very weak.”
“Too short. The great passion isn’t there. Have you re-read the Wolf and The Dove. No comparison.”
Was the advice I was given by the readers of that classic collection. Tentatively I went online to see what was out there, what I’d missed, whether Judith McNaught was still writing and if not, if I could find another author I enjoyed as much…