A Romance for Mr Flanagan

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 North and 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?

Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker prize winning historical fiction, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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.

Clockwise from top left: The Narrow Riad to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan; A Kingdom of Dreams by Judith McNaught; How to Love a Duke in Ten Days by Kerrigan Byrne; Mr Cavendish, I Presume by Julia Quinn; Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas ; central illustration – inside cover art by Morgan Kane for A Kingdom of Dreams

Poor darling….

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.

1. Sarah Maclean’s Daring and the Duke (2020)

Cover’ of Sarah Maclean’s Daring and the Duke

Redemption, redemption, redemption! Flawed character healed by love after years of suffering and searching for his lost love.

The fanciful world building in this one makes it potentially more of an enjoyable book for women than men. Ewan, Duke of Marwick and Doriego Evans have a lot of suffering in common.

Cover: Kerigan Byrne’s How to Love a Duke in Ten Days

2. Kerrigan Byrne’s How to Love a Duke in 10 Days (2019)

Melodrama-flawed characters healed by love – abuse of power by person of responsibility leading to years of disempowerment and grief – healed by love – mateship between the three friends

Classic blend of historical romance and old fashioned melodrama.

Cover: Julia Quinn’s Mr Cavendish, I Presume

3.Julia Quinn’s Mr Cavendish, I Presume (2008)

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.

Cover: Lisa Kleypas’ Dreaming of You

4. Lisa KleypasDreaming of You (1994)

Irrational love, a power unto itself – melodrama – a strong sense of mateship among the club workers that’s sentimental and sweet in its own way – suffering, brooding hero – pathos- forgiveness.

Another classic blend of historical romance and old fashioned melodrama.

Inside cover art by Morgan Kane for Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams

5. Judith McNaught’s A Kingdom of Dreams (1989)

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.

All with HEAs. Happy reading!

Top 9 Masked-Mistaken Identity Lovers

The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband by Julia Quinn, Roman Holiday, The Desert Song, BBC’s Scarlet Pimpernel, Some Like it Hot, Sommersby, Cyrano de Bergerac with Jose Ferrer, Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ A Rose in Winter, Shakespeare in Love

What’s with masks and hidden identity? A false sense of confidence? A glamour? To be who we can be when no one knows our face? To force people to reckon with our deeds (or words) without the prejudice of sight? Without the limitations of pigeonholes?

I’ve always loved a masked man – Robin Hood, Zorro, The Lone Ranger, Superman – and even the idea of Ned Kelly holds romantic appeal. There’s something about an underestimated no-one-in-particular doing the extraordinary and continuing to do so under the ignorant noses of the judgmental.

The masked hero is even more enticing when amour is entangled in deceit. Here are my top 9 Masked- Mistaken Identity Lover stories from theatre, film and books.

Playbill for the 1908 tour of Australia and New Zealand of Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel starring Julius Knight and Ola Humphrey

1.The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1903, 1905)

Beginning life as a play, this classic tale became the first story of a series of books, movies, BBC tv series and musical theatre adaptions, AND has been credited with kick-starting the whole masked crusader genre. Think Zorro,The Desert Song, Batman, Iron Man– even Daffy Duck did a send up of the Scarlet Pumpernickel.

The original story is the tale of Marguerite, a French revolutionary actress (c.1792) who marries an exceedingly tall and wealthy Englishman with lazy eyes and aristocratic pursuits. To his credit he is very witty, well connected and knows how to tie his own cravat. The marriage founders.

She is approached by an old acquaintance to help capture the leader of a league of English spies who are smuggling condemned French aristocrats away from the guillotine. She’s placed in a quandary – she would dearly like to know the identity of the leader, the Scarlet Pimpernel, as his exploits have been romanticized by all of London – and she’s fallen in love with the man she doesn’t know. However, to help his enemies would compromise not only her fantasies but the scraps of a relationship she shares with her proud English husband, and her standing as a former revolutionary and a French actress in the English nobility. To induce her to comply she is told that her brother has been found guilty of working with the anonymous league and is condemned to die. If she were to help capture the leader, her brother’s safety may be assured.

When she realizes who the elusive pimpernel is she…

2.Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand

Set in 1640, Paris, the classic premise is that Cyrano is hopelessly in love with the beautiful Roxanna, whom he has grown up with. Despite his wit,intelligence and expert swordsmanship, this brave poet-chevalier hasn’t the courage to speak to her of his affection. What holds him back? His nose. Enter Christian, a handsome man of no wit. Cyrano in his overflowing desire to convey his love to Roxanna suggests Christian learn his lines of poetry and seduction to serenade her with and then conducts a letter exchange with her in the guise of Christian.

The original story was performed as a play in 1897 and still is. You might better know it from its various movie adaptions, including Steve Martin’s 1987 Roxanne or the way the concept of Cyrano has been used within other stories eg., the 2006 episode of Charmed where the beautiful Phoebe is courted by a Cupid.

3.Roman Holiday (1953)

Starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck this classic movie tells the tale of Princess Anne, a young royal whose life is dictated by protocol, tight schedules, diplomatic engagements and public duty. Towards the end of her diplomatic tour of Europe she runs away and spends the day with an American reporter in Rome.

They both assume different identities: she as a boarding school runaway, he as a manure salesman. She gains a day off, he has the chance of a lifetime story with $5000 and money enough to finally return home to the States.

He ropes in a photographer and together they see her enjoying the small liberties they have taken for granted – like strolling freely before tourist attractions, eating ice-cream and deciding how to wear her own hair. They also document her in compromising situations – causing traffic mayhem, getting arrested and donging a secret service man over the head with a guitar.

She also falls in love. At the end of the movie the reporter has a choice to make – take the money and write the article or honour their affection and stay silent. Their love can go nowhere due to her position, however will he respect her and allow them both to cherish the memory of it?

This classic movie has echoes in others like Chasing Liberty (2004).

4.Some Like it Hot (1959)

This hilarious classic set in 1929 prohibition America features the cross-dressing antics of Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in their guises of Daphne and Josephine as they hide from the mob in an all girl band. Along the way they find love interests in Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe) and the billionaire, Osgood Fielding (Joe E. Brown).

Once voted the funniest American movie ever made, Tony Curtis effects two different personas outside of his character’s “true” self, Joe. He also sends up Cary Grant in his personification of the billionaire of Sugar Cane’s dreams.

Jack Lemmon’s Gerald in the guise of Daphne immerses himself in being a woman to the point where he sympathizes more with Sugar Cane than he does with his partner in crimes of the heart, Joe. In the way Daphne falls for Osgood and in the way Osgood doesn’t mind that Daphne is actually a man, this masked comedy has a message that has been played out with disguises since at least Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night – that love transcends sexual identity.

Echoes of this message told between changes of costume and sexes can be seen in treatments of Shakespeare’s classic in She’s the Man (2006) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).

5.Sommersby (1993)

Starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, Sommersby is the transposition of a true tale of 16th Century France into post Civil War America. This adaption is beautifully romantic with a message to tell.

Laurel was married to an abusive man and has a son by him. He goes off to war and is presumed dead when 6 years later a man claiming to be him – with his look but not his manner arrives on the family farm. In his absence Laurel has presumed her husband dead and has quietly pursued a relationship with a much kinder man, Orin.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

With the return of Jack Sommersby, Laurel has to break off her plans to marry Orin and rebuild her life with her husband. But is he her husband – in his manner, kindness, intimacy he is nothing as she remembers him. She never loved her husband but she is falling in love with this man who claims to be him and has a daughter with him.

In time Jack is accused of murder and deserting the army. He is brought to trial – to save his life he has to choose between admitting to being a dishonorable man who not only is guilty of identity theft but also common theft and desertion – which will reflect on Laurel for taking up with him and will question her right to own the farm.The man Laurel loves must now choose between his reputation on one hand and Laurel’s financial security and his life on the other.

The question the movie asks is, is it possible for a person to change? Can we become good because those around us believe we are good? A very moving story.

6. Shrek by William Steig (1990)

Beginning life as a picture book by William Steig, once it had been animated by Dreamworks in 2001 this story became 21st mythology.

It’s a coming of age story for Princess Fiona who learns to accept herself before she can accept true love. Shrek learns not to underestimate himself.

Absolutely wonderful message in a non-preachy fun story. Love it

Cover the Girl with the Make-Believe Husband by Julia Quinn

7.The Girl With The Make-Believe Husband (2017) by Julia Quinn

Miss Cecilia Harcourt likes writing letters. She’s witty, observant, warm and devoted. Edward Rokesby likes reading her letters – that are addressed mainly to her brother, Thomas. Thomas has become his closest friend and although they belong to different social classes, the American revolutionary war has made them thick as brothers.

When Cecilia learns that her brother is missing in action she buys passage to America to see if she can find him or determine what has happened. On arrival her inquiries as Miss Harcourt fall on deaf ears.When she hears by chance that Edward Rokesby has been brought to hospital unconscious, she takes herself there to see him.

She is denied access due to his being an officer and an earl’s son, so Cecilia fibs, telling them she’s his wife. She knows an awful lot about him as he has been sending her notes with her brother’s letters. She’s convincing and gains his bedside and the privilege of his name. Now her inquiries about her brother are taken more seriously. Then he wakes up… with memory loss and Cecilia decides to …

With echoes of While You Were Sleeping (1995) this masquerade deals with a different matter – class politics and prejudice. It’s a gorgeous love story with a HEA.

8.The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (1909)

This gothic tale has been retold many times on film and most poignantly in Andrew Loyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical (1986).Between the book, the movie adaptations and the muscial there are some variations but they are limited – what changes is the motivation of the Phantom.

*** Spoiler Alert ***

Christine Daae is an up and coming young opera singer. The Phantom is a composer (in versions after the initial novel) whose face has been disfigured (in one version) or is disfigured from a congenital birth defect, so that he wears a mask and lives in the sewers beneath the Paris Opera House. He is referred to as the Angel of Music by Christine who sees him as a supernatural figure helping to shape her voice into maturity.

In the stage musical he is obsessed with two things – his music and Christine. He courts her through music. By wearing a mask she is forced to see him beyond the visuals. Unfortunately, he has no qualms with committing murder and abduction to get what he wants.

It’s an interesting study in the allure of music, the glamour of performers and sexual/romantic desire.

And the music, it… shall possess you.

9. A Rose In Winter (1983) by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss

This gothic tale is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast where the Beauty struggles to remain loyal and virtuous to her disfigured and morose husband while struggling with her desire for a willing, dashing, light-hearted suitor.

Lord Saxton buys the beautiful Erienne Fleming off the block in an antiquated English practice, saving her from the lascivious clutches of his rivals. The problem is that no one really knows who he is. Wasn’t he burnt alive in his mansion years ago? His face is covered by a mask and his body hidden in leather and cape. His voice rasps out through a hole in the mask he wears. He lives a reclusive life in his secluded mansion.

Erienne’s father made the decision to auction her off to pay off his gambling debts, including a sum owed to the visiting American trader, Christopher Seton. Seton is handsome, virile, arrogant and charming, when he chooses. He had offered to marry Erienne to save her from the block but she refused due to his attitude and her own sense of pride.

Now, although she has Lord Saxton’s warm regard, abiding patience and tenderness, she can’t lust for him even though she tries to will herself to. It’s not organic like it is with Seton. Regardless that Seton taunts her with her desire for him she can’t help wanting him.

The canny Seton has a plan – he will seduce her or failing that, send her running into her husband’s bed. Will she choose the scoundrel over the good man – will she give in to temptation or go honor-bound to her marital duty instead?

I hope you’ve enjoyed my list. It’s not exhaustive as this trope has been around since antiquity – Zeus transformed into various creatures to effect his seductions, and of course there was mistaken identity in the plays of Plautus, Terence, Shakespeare, Moliere, and the stories of writers like Gogol, the Grimm Brothers (Cinderella, Briar Rose), Hans Christian Andersen (The Little Mermaid) and films like the Nutty Professor, Mrs Doubtfire, etc. Often needing to break through socially imposed strictures that no longer hold sway, these stories are set in the past or in fantasy worlds where, unlike today, the nom de guerre seems as easy to affect as the nom de plume.