Dec 3 2007
The following is a guest review offered as part of our “Favorite Things” series wherein readers provide a review of one of their favorite books. Please consider writing your own “favorite things” review to share with the Dear Author readership. Send it to jane at dearauthor.com
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I’ve always been fascinated by the late 19th century. I admit it. It was a period in which two very different cultures-agrarian and rural-came crashing into each other, with uneven and dynamic results. The major social changes that occurred in this era-old mores going head to head with the new ones–are mind-boggling.
When I was teaching history, I used to compare the late 19th century to the late 20th century. Both periods experienced rapid technological change–not just improvements on technology, but entirely new things that completely transformed people’s lives. The impact of electricity and refrigeration in the 19th century can be compared to the invention of computers and cell phones in the 20th-all things that made major changes in the way that people worked and lived. Plus, you have two completely different, yet eerily similar women’s liberation movements. The late 19th century was an exciting time to live in, and also an awful one–read anything on American immigration in that period and it doesn’t even begin to touch upon how terrible some people’s lives were.
Of course, the other thing that characterizes the late 19th century, especially in England, is the sheer repression of men and women emotionally and sexually. The fact that Victorians called a chicken breast a “bosom” because “breast” was obscene. I always got a kick out of the idea that Queen Victoria never made female/female sexual conduct a crime, simply because she could not conceive of it ever happening in her world view.
I’ve read a lot of books on this time period, both fictional and romance, and Robin Schone’s “Scandalous Lovers” is one that just resonates with me. It’s rare that a romance novel raises questions that you think about for days afterward.
The story is loosely based on a real club that existed in England at about that time, called the Men’s and Women’s club. The purpose of the club was to discuss sexuality (love the term “sexology” that Schone uses) in a rational and empirical manner. I can just imagine the real meeting in my head: suffragettes, Malthusians (proponents of birth-control), and other forward-minded thinkers discussing sex in a time when sex was completely taboo. A time when discussing condoms got you thrown in jail for obscenity. And a time when relations between a man and a woman were supposed to take place fully clothed, in the dark.
One of the things I love about Robin Schone is that her characters are significantly older than those in a typical romance novel. Francis, the heroine, is forty-nine, a grandmother and post-menopausal, and James, the hero, is forty-seven. Both are recently widowed. There is a sad dearth of older romance novel hero/heroines, and every time I read another historical with a 22-year old heroine, I think fondly of Schone’s older lovers.
The story begins when Francis, a country widow visiting London, accidentally walks into a meeting of the Men’s and Women’s club. James, a member, asks her a simple question: What do women desire?
God love her, Francis answers. But not in a way that James expects. Let’s just say that her presence changes everything about the club, and about James.
It’s a very sweet love story, very tender, but also very sexual. (Very, very sexual. This book has what I usually call “The Full Monty”–not to put too plain a point on it, anything I consider “The Full Monty” has sexual contact in ALL its configurations. That may make some people uncomfortable. Sometimes it made me uncomfortable, because James and Francis have a sexual relationship that I think is unlike any other in romance novel land today.) James is the kind of character that stays with you for a long time afterwards, someone who has made terrible mistakes in his past and clearly takes responsibility for them. It’s pretty obvious he’s in love with Frances from the get-go, but like most of Schone’s books, there’s no build up to the happy ending where he loves her and she loves him and they get married and live happily ever after. (In many of Schone’s books, no one ever even says the words “I love you.” This is one of my few complaints about her books, but given the time period, this is probably more realistic than the effusive love proclamations of other historical romances.) It’s not a perfect story by any means: Schone’s writing style isn’t for everyone (I happen to like it, but I know it’s an issue for many readers) and the ending is abrupt and a little disappointing, in the sense that it does not live up to the long buildup that preceded it. But you are drawn into the story of James and Frances, both as a couple and as individuals, as well as the stories of the supporting characters, and I was rooting for all of them to find love, or at least an acceptance of their sexuality.
From a historical perspective the book is fascinating. Certainly the history of sexuality isn’t a topic any history major comes across in school, but I learned a lot from this book I didn’t know before: that all condoms came in tins with Queen Victoria’s face on them, that bookstores within bookstores sold everything and anything you could possibly imagine–and the various definitions of “French Postcards” (including Billiards, Renters, and Mothers and Fathers, and I’m not telling you what those are-you’ll just have to read and find out.).
Most importantly, the story is really about freedom, and Schone is an unabashed feminist, which comes through in all her books. It would be so easy for James to marry Francis and take care of her forever, but Francis resists, and for good reasons, ones that made me think about some of my own personal choices, and how different her options were from my own. Some of Schone’s observations on the nature of male/female relations and especially husbands/wives are so insightful that I had to put the book down and think about them before continuing. Schone nails squarely on the head why women wanted true liberation, and why women’s sexuality was an inherent part of that struggle. Frances’s relationship with her son is heartbreaking, but although I can see both sides, what he does to “protect her” is absolutely terrifying. As a woman, I think it’s safe to say that all of us females should thank the powers that be every day that we live in this century and not that one. My fellow history majors used to joke in college about what we think we would have been like if we’d lived in different times in history, and I’ve forever stated that I would be the old spinster lady with 20 cats; but this book reminds me that I would not even be the person I am if today I lived in that time. Everything liberated about me, everything I grew up believing about women, would have been beaten (either literally or figuratively) out of me. Maybe I would have been that good wife with six kids who never even thought that life could have been different, who would never have questioned my life’s path.
One of the things this book leaves you with is the natural comparison of Francis’s struggle and our own as women in the 21st century. I sometimes wonder if Americans, real Americans (not the ones you see on TV) are as repressed as the Victorians were? Not this sloppy, slutty girl culture that has no respect for women’s real feelings, but the culture where talking about sex–really, really talking about it–is still not done. This is one of the things I think is so vital and important about romance novels as a genre: it’s one of the few places where women’s sexuality is accepted, celebrated, and encouraged. It’s something to think about next time another person questions your reading choices. I know its something I think about when people give me-and my sometimes questionable romance novel covers-condescending looks on the train.
This book can be purchased in trade paperbackformat. No ebook format as far as I know.