What Janet Mullany has written here is a romp. A textbook romp. And certainly, there is a time and a place for literary romps. And that time is summer, that place is the beach. So here I find myself, in Waikiki, reviewing The Rules of Gentility in all its rollicking breeziness. And no guilt shall I feel! This is hardly the time to feel queasy about not making my way forward in reading Proust. Right?
(I am sure my anxiety has nothing to do with the fact that the other day, as we were waiting to be seated at dinner in Waikiki, I was reading a book called My Lord and Spymaster, which may or may not have featured some bodice-ripping on its cover. D turns to me and says, "Sometime I wish I carried a sign around with an arrow, pointing at you, saying, 'Ivy League Ph.D! In Literature!". This is just the latest salvo is his continuing war on what he sees as a pernicious book addiction. The other day I was weeping over a particularly sad passage of my latest read, and he said, rather stormily, "Can you blame me for seeing your books as my natural nemeses? They make you cry!!". Of course, this stance is rather undercut by the fact that he just finished reading the 700-page epic Game of Thrones and is now embarking on the minimalist masterpiece of Jim the Boy. When I interrupt him to ask how his book is, he scowls at me: "It's a book. It has pages and words. Look, are we reading or are we having a conversation?". I give him a sparkling smile.)
So here it is: Miss Philomena Wellesley-Clegg is making her charmed way through a life of eternal husband-hunting and bonnet-coveting. For bonnets, you know, are the Jimmy Choos of the early nineteenth century. And husbands - well, let's just say that our Philomena loves making lists as much as any chick-lit heroine of the computer age:
Her more virtuous moments she devotes to harebrained schemes to save loose women with the Association for the Rescue and Succor of those in Extremis (make an acronym out of that, will you?). And then into her life comes her closest friend's brother-in-law, the only man who could ever equal her name in dashing pomp: Mr. Inigo Linsley. From their first encounter (she has just returned from a very rewarding shopping excursion), an abundance of saucy double entendres is promised:My current list of Possible Husbands is as follows: [...] 3. The Mad Poet, although I am not sure he writes poetry, or at least gets much beyond the first line, of which he seems to have many. He is excessively handsome. It is such a shame his real name is Mr. Hengest Carrotte. (2)
He bends to pick something from the stone flags. 'I believe this is yours, Miss Wellesley-Clegg.'
Oh, heavens. It is a stocking, fallen from one of my parcels. I snatch it from him, my face heating up.
'I assure you, madam, my thoughts were far above it.' He bows and ushers us into the house ahead of him, and by the time I realize what he has just said, Julia has taken my arm and led me upstairs to her private sitting room for serious talk about good works and bonnets. (6)
The plot romps off from here, told in passages that alternate between the hero's voice and the heroine's (this is not a convention I find nearly as irritating as some do, and I think it works fairly well here). Inigo and Philomena find themselves entangled in the classic fake betrothal (this one agreed between them in a water closet). They fight against their growing attraction, since a real marriage doesn't seem to be in either's best interest. He introduces her to his mistress (an actress named, of course, Fanny) and their child, leaving her in some perplexity as to the current status of that relationship. They frolic off to a brothel with the Association to offer a lady of the night the salvation of a position as Philomena's maid, only to discover that many harlots make a better and more dignified living than a lady's maid ever could.
In other words, like in every good romp (a near cousin to the farce, and of course the sex farce), the plot becomes increasingly ludicrous and implausible as the tale unfolds. It is only a matter of time before we find Inigo declaring his undying love for Philomena while they both lie in his mistress's enormous bed next to Fanny and the baby.
And the thing is, all this ludicrous plotting was lively, but oddly unsatisfying. Mullany writes with such wit and verbal ingenuity that I found myself almost wishing it had all been in the service of a more realistic world-building - something more along the lines of a traditional Regency. A Jane Austen. Not every romance is best served by those conventions, but I couldn't shake the feeling that Mullany would do it very, very well.
There is an additional problem of characterization, one that may be particular to me or may be endemic to the tone of books like these: these characters were often silly to the point of alienating my sympathy. There are early traces of the hero as a humorless rooster:
Luckily he loosens up considerably in the pages that follow.The stranger seizes my hand. 'Good God!' he exclaims. 'You must be young Inigo.'
Young Inigo? Who the devil is this man to address me so?
'I see you don't remember me. But how could you?' He pumps my hand up and down with manly vigor. 'Well, well.'
His hands are rough and his face is pleasant enough, square and weather-beaten, lines at his eyes. Soberly if well dressed, he must be a well-off farmer or sailor, at a guess. Certainly not a gentleman.
'Of course, you were still in petticoats,' he continues.
I've had enough and withdraw my hand. 'Insult me again, sir, and I shall demand satisfaction.' (8)
But Philomena herself seems largely to be based on some of the most delightfully hateable characters from Austen - Kitty and Lydia Bennet, with their bonnet obsessions and rampant flirtations. Lydia in particular is the culprit in one of two literary moments that consistently make me fling a book across the room, even when I have gone to some lengths to prepare myself for them, psychologically. The first is when Laurie falls in love with Amy after having been rejected by Jo in Little Women. The second is the incident in which Lydia claims precedence from her elder sister Jane, because she is now a married woman, despite the fact that her elopement has nearly ruined the rest of the family. Rage. Endless, righteous outrage. This bodes very ill for my sympathetic identification with her.
The long and the short of it? A fast read, and a fun one, but I look forward to a richer world from Mullany's pen.
The Rules of Gentility (2007)