OK: effort to be more completist in my reviewing, despite the fact that a more complete account of my reading will only reveal how very many identically plotted romances I read in a month. What can I say? Every one of the Top Ten Signs You Have Been Reading Too Much Historical Romance applies to me, but especially number 2:
You know all the titles in the British monarchy’s peerage, in order, and have already decided which one you would be willing to settle for if you were sent back to the early nineteenth century, a fantasy you have at least twice a week.
This, by the by, is from the brilliant Racy Romance Reviews, my favorite new blog. (No, ye academics who read Sycorax Pine, I am not lacing this sentence with irony. This is an irony free sentence. But - and I don't want to make any promises- Racy Romance Reviews may not be an irony free blog title. The author is a professor of ethics who addresses the ideological and philosophical underpinnings and narrative workings of the romance genre in all kinds of fascinating ways. My favorite so far? Her analysis of the representation of menstruation in romances. In other words, that event that only happens when you are waiting to see whether you are pregnant but otherwise doesn't disrupt your life at all even in an era with much less convenient, ahem, hygienic technologies than our own.). RRR was recommended to me by Sherry, whose suggestions are always omnisciently, uncannily delightful.
The most recent landmark in my Year of a Thousand Romances (as I have decided to call my first year in Halifax, which really seems to bring the romantic out in me) is Mary Jo Putney's The Wild Child.
This is my third novel by Putney after Silk and Shadows and Silk and Secrets, two novels of tormented exoticism that had an odd effect on me that romance novels sometime have: I was gripped enough to want to know what happened to the principal characters (who are often British aristocrats or aristocratic wannabees masquerading as magnetically sultry adventurers from or in faraway lands), but not gripped enough to wade through the nitty gritty of plot details to get there. So I would skim.
I know this, I really do, even as I start to skim, but every single time I have to learn anew that there are few things as satisfying as a skimmed romance novel. After all, you already know what is going to happen to the characters at the end. There is only one possible outcome. Sadly, my attempts to reason with myself about this only yield the surly response of a teenager being forbidden to do something. "You're not the boss of me, genre-fiction superego!", the impulsive plot addict in me cries.
And after I have skimmed, I don't feel like I've actually read the book (because I haven't), but nor can I go back to the state of narrative unfallenness with which I began the book. Instead I have to bury it deep in Mt. TBR, hoping that months or a year later, when I finally work my way back round to it, I will have forgotten everything I ever knew about it. Sadly, I am now performing this questionably effective bit of self-trickery on Silk and Secrets for the second time.
At any rate, in The Wild Child the guilty pleasures of exoticism lurk only at the edges of the plot. (Is it just me, or is that phrase something of a summary of the nature of empire? Or perhaps it is quite the opposite: despite the wishes of imperialists, the guilty pleasures - and threats - of exoticism refuse to lurk conveniently in the margins. See, by the way, the seventh sign that you are reading too much historical romance: "You are aware that British Imperialism was exploitative, unjust and dehumanizing. You’ve even read Fanon, Narayan, and Coetzee. But still, somewhere in the dark recesses of your heart, you have found yourself with your hero and heroine in some place like India or the West Indies thinking, 'Good times, man. Good times.'")
As a child, the otherworldly Meriel was ensnared in a brutal raid-turned-massacre while visiting India with her doting parents. The sole survivor of the attack, she is whisked away to a maharajah's zenana to live among the women there for a year, and it is only when she is about to be married off (still a child, mind you) that she comes back to the attention of her British family.
But from the moment of the attack she has never spoken a word or looked her companions in the eye. Her uncles (one maternal, one paternal) bundle her back to the unentailed estate that she has inherited in England, where she whiles away the years bonding with furry animals, trimming topiary hedges into giant chessboards, and arranging clumps of weeds in rusted cans to grace the mahogany dining table. This, by the way, is how I am planning to spend my retirement.
Meriel's avuncular guardians argue incessantly about how to cure her "madness." Her paternal uncle wants her committed to a "progressive" asylum for regular sessions in the ice baths and restraints. Her maternal uncle, obviously a paragon of benevolent feminism, abhors the cruelty of this, and thinks the only solution is to marry her off and get her reproducing. (He seems particularly - and creepily - insistent that the genetic tradition of fey beauties in his family not die off with Meriel, and to her credit, Putney makes a point early in the novel about how, well, deeply troubling this is. Almost like using your niece's womb as a genetic monument to the dead.)
Meanwhile (and there's always a meanwhile), Dominic Renbourne is languishing in the purposeless life of a younger son when his twin brother, Kyle (the elder by ten minutes, as we are frequently reminded, and thus the heir), approaches him with a proposition. He has some vital business to take care of that necessitates his absence, but he has been approached by Meriel's maternal uncle as a potential husband/impregnator, and sees the appeal of the match. Would Dominic mind nipping over to meet the madwoman and pretending to be his twin? He would make it worth his while....
I want to pause for a moment and note that the names Dominic and Kyle rankled with me. (Let's not even start with Meriel.) To me, they evoke the Jersey Shore more than 19th C England. But who knows? Perhaps they were quite common among the aristocracy of the period. I haven't done the research. But I always wonder why there aren't more Johns and Williams and Edwards and Maries and Janes in historical romances. Or, like my ancestors in the American (post-)colonies, more Mercies and Trueloves.)
I think you know what happens when Dominic runs off to the countryside to impersonate Kyle. He is struck by Meriel's unique (but somehow endlessly reproducible across the generations) beauty, captivated by her unconventional attention to the details of life, moved by her complexity to treat her as a sane equal. She is struck by his way with animals (mais bien sur), and abruptly convinced by her long (silent) study of nature that he is her mate. Why does he insist on resisting the call of nature? Fie.
Oh, and along the way we have a rescue from the "progressive" asylum (which is like something out of the opening scenes of Amadeus), the attempt to seduce (literally) Meriel back into speech, the tale of what the elder twin is up to while Dominic is trying with desperate simultaneity to woo and keep his hands off Kyle's bride, and maybe even the story of Meriel's Indian bodyguard who-is-rumored-to-be-a-eunuch-but-really-who's-going-to-check.
Lots of potential for silliness here, of course, and I have to tell you that I am taking a definite stand against fey, otherworldly heroines. This is a persona I have tried to pull off at various times in my life, and let me tell you: it isn't very empowering. Oh, the endless irritation I feel with heroines who (the authors insist) are fantastically accomplished in some unquantifiable, unconventional way, but in practice are too delicate and unworldly to survive a single day outside of the Biosphere of their father/husband's protection. Butterfly heroines who end up pinned and displayed by the genre of romance. Ick.
And that was what I feared I would get here. But in fact, both Dominic and Meriel turned out to be more fully formed and sympathetic than I had anticipated. When they are working through a potential marriage contract meant to protect her - as a woman of even more than usually weak mind and thus vulnerable pockets - from the exploitation of a gold-digging husband, Dominic wants to sign away all rights to the property and money to her, since it was originally hers. No, she insists firmly, they will have equal access to all property, and neither will have the ability to make drastic changes without the other's permission. If she dies, everything will be his. If they both die without heirs, it will all revert back to her family.
Dominic stammered, "B-but you wanted to have all of your holdings in trust, so that I would not be able to misuse your fortune."
"Your idea, not mine," she said coolly. "I said I would rather be your mistress than your wife, but I have never distrusted your honesty." She inclined her head. "Gentlemen." Then she turned and left the study, her long flaxen braid swaying gently.Now I love a good romance of financial negotiation. It gets at the saucy Restoration heroine just beneath my modern exterior. And until we reach the flaxen braid, this gave me all the economic convention-flouting I could desire. To put it another way, what I like about this book wasn't the twee unearthliness of its heroine beauty - this is guaranteed to put me off. Rather, I like it when Meriel is unexpectedly earthly: practical about finance and dictatorial about gardening. But, of course, the novel and the men writing the contract can't leave her with her great exit line: "You're marrying a sylph of steel," one of them remarks, "One can see the blood of Norman conquerors in her veins." Hmm.
Almost as much as I love a good romance of finance, I adore an asylum melodrama. (The best in my recent memory of historical romance, broadly defined: Sarah Waters's exceptional Fingersmith.) Putney hints at both of these enough to keep me in thrall to the novel, although more of each would certainly have suited my tastes better. At the final reckoning, The Wild Child did nothing particularly innovative, but it did knock up against some of my favorite narrative touchstones, and the conventions it chose to embody, it embodied fully, putting a fair amount of flesh on the skeleton of formula.
Mary Jo Putney
The Wild Child (1999, USA)
* To my friend JP, who may have hoped that this post was about Kaspar Hauser or something similar: apologies. And I'm reading our trilogy of Beckett novels preparatory to posting about them. I promise. I don't know what happened. This romance novel just sort of slipped in under the radar, in the guise of a Rousseauvian parable about the effect of culture and society on the natural state of, um, woman. And, in fact, that's what it was. Sort of.