The Feminist Rake and Other Bedtime StoriesFebruary 18th, 2014 at 12:26
So, here’s a thing. I’ve always considered myself a reformed ally of romance writers (having been thoroughly educated by friends that my teenage scorn of the genre was unwarranted and based on many false premises). I’ve read Beyond Heaving Bosoms. I’ve listened to almost every episode of the Will Write For Wine podcast. I know the correct and socially appropriate ways to use phrases like ‘Glittery Hoo-Ha’ and ‘Magical Wang.’
But until very recently, I would never have considered myself a romance reader. Yes, I’ve read most of Jane Austen, some of Georgette Heyer (I prefer her murder mysteries) and all of Jennifer Crusie, and maybe a couple of dozen random contemporary romance titles in my life. Normally my romance reading happens from the outside looking in, though. The occasional genre-crossover title, or books like those of Mary Robinette Kowal and Gail Carriger which starts out using the trappings of romance fiction but moves on further.
Ahem. All of which is a long round about way of saying, I started reading Courtney Milan novels two weeks ago, and now I’ve fallen into Regency Romance and I can’t get out. I don’t want to get out. This shit is PURE CORSETED CRACK and I can’t get enough of it.
I have read sixteen titles in the last fortnight. Seriously. Only about 3 of them were novellas. I have burned my Kindle Paperwhite red-hot. I have started ordering titles from the State Library without worrying if I’m going to read them within the prescribed three weeks because I can’t consume these things fast enough.
I am reading books instead of messing around on the internet. Nearly every day. I don’t recognise myself.
The last time I was this obsessively wild about reading… well, the time before last was that obsessive Harry Potter fanfic reading phase. And the most RECENT occasion was when I got hooked on George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
In fact, I thought about A Game of Thrones (Book 1 of ASOIAF, not the TV series) quite a bit while I tore through the first Courtney Milan series (The Brothers Sinister). The experience of reading both was so very similar.
I’ve isolated two factors which worked so well for me in both instances: intensity of characterisation, and technical brilliance.
In the SF world in particular, and life in general (for people who don’t generally read a lot of romance or fanfic) I see a lot of disparaging of emotional intensity or melodrama (or soapiness) in fiction. I’ve probably contributed to a lot of that myself over the years, because of general book snobbery. But when it’s done really, really well, that heightened emotion and intensity of character can make a reading experience very immersive. A Game of Thrones is unapologetically immersive, plunging you directly into the minds of characters, putting them through the emotional wringer, and then moving on to the next one. The really good historical romances I have been reading do the same thing.
The technical brilliance – well I should say from the outset that I’m not talking about prose skill. Books can have ordinary prose but great technical brilliance, others have wonderful, beautiful prose and struggle with the technical side. The best books (to my mind) usually have both.
Technical stuff is structure and pace, page-turnability, clever worldbuilding, all that stuff that as writers we want to get really good at and kind of don’t want anyone to see us doing deliberately. It’s the stuff that can be hidden behind layers of story and subtext, but it’s the stuff that makes a novel work the way it’s supposed to.
A Game of Thrones is a well written book, and it is technically brilliant. It’s particularly brilliant in its ability to sell a difficult-for-newbies genre to general readers. Martin achieves this with short, punchy chapters full of character intensity, in which something always happens to move the story forward significantly, and the reader is left wanting more. Reading it on my Kindle, I noted that I was never more than 6, usually 2-4 minutes away from the end of a chapter. Book 2 didn’t worry about that stuff so much – the chapters were almost twice as long. It didn’t matter by then – the reader was hooked or not and if they weren’t they probably weren’t reading Book 2.
There’s something about reading on the Kindle that makes me more aware of author technique, I think partly because of the meta information provided. Even with books I am loving but taking my time over (Nicola Griffith’s Hild, for instance) I tend to note things like how far I am through the book, how many minutes to the end of the chapter, that stuff. Which is probably how I came to notice how well structured Courtney Milan’s novels are.
I will now never ever read a romance novel on my Kindle without my brain coming alert at the 50% mark. Because without fail, that’s the turning point, the moment where the story changes substantially and moves into a second, different act. Sometimes it’s the point at which the characters have sex for the first time, or *good* sex for the first time, or realise their love for the person at their side, or start to *trust* the person at their side, or reveal their biggest secret. Sometimes, quite often, it’s the point at which the hero and heroine become a team.
The interesting thing about historical romance (I’m editing quite a few of these ‘regency’ references into ‘historical’ largely because Milan’s novels are mostly Victorian – but the Regency remains the most dominant period in the historical romance genre) as opposed to contemporaries or whatever is that marriage is not necessarily an Austenish completion to the novel. Sometimes it happens at the beginning of the book, sometimes around the middle, sometimes three quarters of the way through. This allows for many narrative options – including the use of unscandalous, within-wedlock sex as one option for our heroes. It also explores some of the social elements of the historical period – such as the fact that marrying for reasons other than a solid loving relationship were pretty common.
The other interesting thing about Regencies is the factor that is constant through all true romance fiction – you know the ending. You know that the story is going to resolve with Heroine A and Hero A in love. It’s how they get there, and what happens along the way, that causes the narrative tension. It also provides anticipation. I have to say, living in today’s spoiler-obsessed pop culture world, what a RELIEF to read books where I know the ending, but the author knows I know the ending, so they’re working really hard to make sure the book is as interesting as possible.
The Regencies where the hero and heroine marry early, often for the ‘wrong’ reasons, are interesting because of the power fantasy this provides for women – the idea that an arranged marriage is actually going to turn into a love story. A ‘realistic’ arranged marriage story, especially one in historical times, is actually something of a horror scenario (hence, Gothic novels). Your heroine is put into the complete control of a man she may not know. That’s TERRIFYING. But in the modern historical romance, it’s all going to be okay.
Romantic movies often frustrate me because they end at the point where, for me, the story should be beginning. It might be because I’m an old married lady, but seeing how the relationship works is far more interesting to me than seeing how it starts. I think that’s one of the reasons I am loving the Regency so much – many of them are not about catching a husband, or resisting the world of the spinsters, or the tensions around whether a couple will marry. Instead, many of them take the marriage as a starting point and devote huge amounts of their narrative to making the marriage *work*.
What I didn’t expect, and perhaps Courtney Milan has spoiled me a bit for this feature, though having gone on to inhale works by Tessa Dare, Sarah McLean and Eloisa James, I have reason to be hopeful she hasn’t, is how FEMINIST so many of these books are. Also, funny.
Bring me a witty novel about two crazy people trying to make their relationship work in a historical era with a feminist twist, and I’m all over it. I don’t care, I should say at this point about ‘realism.’ Realism has no place here, my last novel had a flying sheep in it. I want to read books that make my heart sing.
Which is why the fact that Courtney Milan is such a bestselling superhero of the romance genre makes me love the genre more than I ever thought I would. Because these books are sexy corseted feminist crack on a caboose.
Dukes are a thing in historical fiction. Dukes and Rakes. Some Rogues, Earls, Lords and the occasional saucy Marquess get looks in as well. There’s a lot of hot real estate trading back and forth in these novels. But what Courtney Milan gets so right is that it’s not quite enough of a fantasy these days to have Mr Darcy or Mr Wickham-without-commitment-issues sweep you off your feet. We also want these saucy aristocratic love heroes to think of the women in their lives (not just the ones they’re marrying) as being intelligent equals.
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present The Duchess War, in which our agraphobic heroine is hiding from the world so they don’t remember the great Gender Scandal of her past, and our hero is an attention-seeking Duke who is printing Workers’ Rights handbills as part of his campaign to bring down a great industrial injustice created by his late father.
It’s not a spoiler to say that they get together despite the genuine problems they have to overcome. But the passage I want to share, to explain the moment I fell in love with this author, this genre, and what they both had to teach me, is about what happens (at around the 66% mark) when Duke Robert explains to his two closest friends (evolution-theory scientist Sebastian, and Robert’s financial manager Oliver who is also his illegitimate brother) that he is getting married to a lady that the world is going to consider a most scandalous and irregular choice for a Duchess:
“Of course,” Sebastian said, turning away from Robert, “you know what this means, Oliver. The two of us must now organize a wild, debauched party for Robert on the eve of his leg-shackling.” He rubbed his hands together in glee.
Oliver met his gaze calmly. “Wild,” he repeated. “Debauched. I am in complete agreement.”
Robert felt a hint of apprehension. “You know,” he said, “this is kind, but not necessary.”
They ignored him, facing one another.
“Well, you know. Fit the punishment to the criminal, and all that sort of thing. It is Robert, after all.” Sebastian ran his hand through his hair, mussing it. “Now what will we do for women?”
“Really,” Robert said a little more forcefully. “I know I’ve not yet said my wedding vows, but I must insist that…”
But they weren’t paying him any attention. “I know just the thing,” Oliver said, brightening. “Mary Wollstonecraft. I have a copy of a Vindication of the Rights of Women in my room – I’ll be sure to bring that.”
“Excellent,” Sebastian said, rubbing his hands together. “And there’s this letter I received by this curious woman from the United States – one Antoinette Brown. She wrote the most extraordinary things about evolution and women’s rights. I’ll bring that.”
“I have a pamphlet by Emily Davies.”
Robert’s lips twisted upward despite himself.
“I was thinking I could bring a copy of Thomas Payne,” Oliver said, “but that would make our numbers uneven.”
“Violet,” Sebastian said, with a wave of his hand. “She can be surprisingly handy in an argument.”
“Ah, I suppose she’ll do in a pinch.” Oliver stood, and set his hand on Robert’s shoulder. “Let nobody say that the Brothers Sinister have no idea how to be depraved.”
“There shall be brandy!” Sebastian stood. “And we shall drink it, although Robert will stop after two glasses because he always does.”
“There will be food!” Oliver declaimed, mirroring Sebastian’s stance. “And we shan’t drink that, because then we would choke.”
Sebastian grinned. “On the eve of your wedding, Roberts, we shall offer you the sorts of female delights that you have always lusted after. Philosophical tracts upon philosophical tracts, all of them advocating political change that would result in an upheaval of the current social order. We shall set forth their essays, and then…” He paused, as if for dramatic emphasis. “Then, my friends, we shall argue about them!”
And yes, that was the moment that I knew I had to keep reading the series, to find out what kind of wacky and wonderful women would end up with Oliver and Sebastian. Not all the Regency/Victorian historical romances I’ve read have had ridiculously wonderful feminist heroes like these, or raised issues like abortion, mixed-race relationships, deliberate childlessness and the social limits of women the way Milan does across her many books, but I am loving the fresh modern take on this traditional genre that allows for powerful female friendships, powerful male friendships, and challenging the conservative views of historical “accuracy” by flinging caution to the wind and just telling great stories. Plus most if not all of them have seriously witty banter. Gateway drug acquired!
I have many more thoughts about romance fiction, and writing, and why reading Regency is making me think so much about writing technique, but I think that’s enough for now.
Recommended starting points for funny, self aware historical romance:
The Governess Affair, by Courtney Milan (free novella on the Kindle introducing the set up of The Duchess War etc. about the parents of Robert & Oliver)
One Dance With a Duke, by Tessa Dare
Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake, by Sarah McLean
More authors and books have been recommended in the comments. Add your favourites!