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DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan

Dear Ms.Cowan,

Your historical romance debut, Untamed, centers on Kit Sutherland, child of a fortune hunter and an earl’s daughter. Brought up in a shabby country manor, Kit lacks the manners of a well-born young lady.

UntamedBy contrast, Lydia, Kit’s younger sister, is poised, beautiful, and has made a successful entry into society thanks in large part to her marriage to the Earl of BenRuin. A marriage Lydia seems bent on throwing away. Lydia is rumored to be having an affair with the Duke of Darlington, a scandalous figure.

BenRuin has threatened to kill the Duke if this affair continues, and he is not the only one determined to put a stop to it. Kit too, has decided that if it’s the last thing she does, she will keep the Duke of Darlington away from her sister.

In the hopes of having a private word with the Duke, Kit attends Lady Marmotte’s ball. But when the Duke enters the room a crowd clusters around him. So before she approaches the Duke, Kit talks with a man she meets by the sidelines, a beautiful man dressed in black.

Their conversation is brief, but unsettling and memorable. And when the topic shifts to the Duke of Darlington, and neither the man in black nor Kit hide their contempt for him. Later, as she wanders the house, Kit observes the man in black playing the piano, and then seducing the hostess, Lady Marmotte. The sex is cold and clinical on his part, but his partner does not notice.

Kit is inexplicably devastated by the sight, and almost as upset to later learn that the man in black is in fact the Duke. One of his coterie of dandies, Crispin, passed for the Duke, while the Duke seduced Lady Marmotte under her husband’s nose.

The Duke’s purpose in doing so isn’t clear, but he has an elaborate scheme in the works, and seducing Lady Marmotte, and perhaps even seducing Kit’s sister Lydia, is part of it.

When Kit and the Duke meet again, at the park, it’s to state their demands. Kit’s is that the Duke leave her sister alone. She will offer him anything in return. But what the Duke asks of her takes her breath away: He wants her to return to the country, and to bring him there with her.

Despite a warning from BenRuin that if the Duke has approached Kit, it’s to get at BenRuin, his enemy, Kit gives in to the Duke’s demand. On the pretext of returning home to care for her mother, she leaves London. And when the Duke’s carriage comes to take her away, the duke is waiting within. But to her surprise, he is dressed as a woman.

Thus begins the Duke’s masquerade as Lady Rose, a “cousin” of his. In this disguise, he infiltrates Kit’s meager country home, where he learns that Kit’s mother is a frail recluse, that Kit’s brother is a vulnerable intellectual, and that Kit works alongside the one servant to provide for them.

If Kit, her family, and her home aren’t what the Duke imagined, than the Duke is not what Kit imagined either. As she guessed, he is scheming and destructive to others as well as to himself, but he too has weaknesses. When “Lady Rose” claims to be afraid of the dark and asks to sleep with Kit, Kit thinks the Duke has only ruining her in mind, as a chess move in his game with BenRuin. But that turns out not to be the case.

With the privacy sharing a room affords them, Kit and Jude (the Duke) peel away each other’s masks and grow closer, despite Kit’s reservations. In the guise of Lady Rose, the Duke charms Kit’s mother and brother, too. But what is the Duke’s plan for Kit? And what will happen when his true identity comes to light?

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it truly is something different, and deserves credit for taking a great many risks. On the other, significant aspects of it did not work for me, even as I was very impressed by some strengths.

One of the most interesting aspects of Untamed is the way it turns prescribed gender roles on their head. First, we have the cross-dressing duke. Then we have Kit, the figurative wearer of pants in her household. Not only is he more elegant and fond of dresses than she, but she is in many ways stronger.

The flipping of gender roles goes beyond possessing positive attributes traditionally associated with the opposite sex. Kit and Jude (even the names are androgynous) also possess some negative qualities traditionally associated with the other gender.

For her part, Kit is not only strong and courageous enough to bear the load her brother would normally be expected to shoulder, she is also rough-mannered, brusque, and even coarse at times.

Jude, meanwhile, is not only elegant, refined, and far more beautifully dressed, whether in male garb or female, he is also fastidious, persnickety, and deeply fearful.

In a genre where much of the time, attention and focus are on making heroes alpha, alpha and more alpha, it’s refreshing to see these kinds of risks being taken.

The relationship Kit and Jude develop is one where it’s unclear who, in terms of the balance of power, is on top, and who is on the bottom. At first it seems Jude is going to have the upper hand – after all, he forces Kit to accept his presence in her home and even her bed. But when Jude’s reasons for doing so become evident, the power shifts toward Kit.

Family relationships are also important in this book. Both Kit and Jude are children of abusive fathers, and bear scars from childhood. Kit’s siblings and her mother, and the relationships within their family, are equally affected by the trauma of abuse.

The way the setting of the family manor is used fascinated me. The book reminded me very much of a theatrical play, partly because there were few location changes. So much of the story is set in the manor, and the manor seems almost sealed off from the outside world.

It’s like its own little world where it becomes possible to accept the off-kilter reality of this family, a reality where a duke wears ladies’ dresses, a pig wears gentlemen’s clothes, and the Sutherland family wears away as they pretend their pain and dysfunction doesn’t exist.

But there are problems with this book, too. So much of the book is improbable or impenetrable. For example, I still don’t understand why the Duke’s scheme came into being. Even once his reason is revealed, it is never clarified what made that cause personal; why it mattered to him passionately enough that he put himself at such risk for it.

I still don’t understand, too, why the Duke’s father added windowless rooms to every house in his estate in order to lock up little Jude inside them and deprive him of light. Yeah, reasons are given, but no sane person would do such a thing even so.

And I don’t understand, still, how Crispin passes for the Duke at Lady Marmotte’s ball in the eyes of the ton. I don’t honestly understand how Kit’s rough manners came to be, despite the explanation.

Many of these things, when I step away from the reading experience to think about them, begin to seem like conceits. But somehow, the claustrophobia of the setting makes it possible to go along with them.

Sometimes though, conceits are stretced so far that suspending disbelief becomes impossible. For example, I could buy Lydia and Kit both being attracted to the Duke, but when a third member of their family admits to feeling similarly, I felt the Duke was slipping into Marty Stu territory.

I noticed some glaring anachronisms, too. There is no explanation, despite the Regency setting, for why a woman who being publicly divorced would wield tremendous social clout nonetheless. There is no explanation for why a gay couple can show affection to each other in front of others without fear at a time when men were hanged for being homosexual.

The language is thought-provoking and often beautiful, but it too contains anachronistic words and expressions like “git,” “hungover,” and “infinite space had nothing on his eyes.”

While the characters remained in the manor, I found it easier to ignore these issues. The family dysfunction created its own logic, as family dysfunction frequently does. Absorbed by the imagery and the metaphors, by the characters’ interesting ruminations, I was able to view the book as a kind of experiment, almost a work of avant-garde art.

But when the characters returned to London and the conflicts started wrapping up, the seams became more and more evident. A ballroom scene near the end of the book, in which Kit confronts an antagonist, was impossible for me to buy. And I can’t even say that I’m persuaded that Jude can cease his self-destructive ways enough that his companionship will enhance Kit’s life.

Perhaps these are pedestrian concerns. The book’s ambition and innovation makes them seem so, at times. I’m reminded of not entirely accessible but nonetheless admirable art house movies. Rarely have I been so torn about how to assess a book. It is not even a matter of my head going against my heart: my head and my heart are both in two places.

I’ve been wrestling with what to grade this book during the writing of this review, and my failure to come to a firm conclusion has brought me to a split grade. As a daring experiment that shows strong prose and impressive willingness to test the boundaries of convention, Untamed rates at least a B. But as a cohesive, clear, and cogent whole, I can’t really give it more than a C-.

Sincerely,

Janine

###

Dear Ms. Cowan:

Before I began this book, I read a scathingly negative review by another reviewer. Here at Dear Author, Janine and I have different opinions about Untamed. The novel is a book many will either love or hate.

Untamed by Anna CowanI loved it. It’s one of the most mesmerizing books I’ve read this year. It’s not perfect and yet I won’t be surprised if, come January, it’s on many a list as 2013′s best debut.

The book begins with the hero, the Duke of Darlington, sipping coffee and perusing silk handkerchiefs in the box window at Whites. In barrels a mammoth of a man, the Earl of BenRuin, seething with rage. BenRuin’s wife, Lydia, is one of Darlington’s lovers. BenRuin is stopped from slitting Darlington’s throat–he breaks a chair instead–and he leaves after telling Darlington that if he touches Lydia again, BenRuin will indeed kill him.

Lydia is at home, taking tea with her sister Kit who has recently come to London to have a belated (she’s 28) season.

‘I do wish you would leave the servants alone,’ said Lydia, Countess of BenRuin, graciously accepting a cup of tea from the footman. She and Kit sat in the upstairs parlour, squares of sunlight fat and warm on the carpet. ‘It makes them so uncomfortable.’

And your house and your friends and this fine dress make me uncomfortable. ‘Yes, my lady.’

Lydia, of the white-blonde hair and perfect figure, looked at Kit like she was a rat who had crept in and sat down for tea. Not scared of rats, Lydia, just deeply disdainful. ‘You only need to call me that in public,’ she said. ‘Lydia will do in private. I grow tired of telling you.’

‘Of course. Lydia.’

‘I suppose “sister” would be too much to manage.’

Kit resisted the urge to throw her hands up at her – a dreadful, base gesture. ‘We’ve not had cause to call each other sister these thirteen years, but the habit could be learned, if you wish it.’

Something interrupted Lydia’s smooth expression, then was gone. ‘Just a passing fancy,’ she said, her vowels as round as a line of marbles. Bored marbles. ‘Is the tea not to your taste? Fetch a new pot,’ she said to the footman. ‘And be sure it is hot when it arrives.’

You wouldn’t know by listening to them, Kit thought, that she was older than Lydia by seven years. The instant you laid eyes on them you’d not be confused, though. The fresh, fair-skinned Countess and her dark hobgoblin sister. Although perhaps she was too tall and strong for a hobgoblin. Perhaps the child of a hobgoblin and a tree.

BenRuin, a man deeply in love with a wife who seems not to care a whit for him, storms into the parlor.

The Earl fell to his knees before her sister, and though standing he was too large, too much for Kit, seeing him brought so low was awful.

‘I almost killed a man today,’ he said, his hands reaching for Lydia and finding no place they would be welcome. ‘I swear to you, I would have put my knife in his throat. Do not drive me further than this.’

Kit looked at her rough hands. Here was the part that was not so easy. She had given everything so that Lydia could marry well.

Lord BenRuin stood, as though he could no longer bear to be near his wife. ‘Do not see him again,’ he said. ‘I beg of you, do not see him again.’

That night, Kit goes to a ball and, as she always does in these social situations, slouches against a wall and thinks about her life at home, a place where she works hard–her family, the Sutherlands, are one step away from impoverished–but can be her true self. As she thinks about the pigs that need to be slaughtered, she listens to the way the ton talks about her sister and realizes Lydia’s affair with Darlington, the most scandalous man in town, is destroying Lydia’s reputation. Kit decides to make her business to end her sister’s liaison. When Darlington arrives at the ball, Kit sees him but before she can seek him out, the most beautiful man she’s ever seen strikes up a conversation with her. Their interchange is charged with the promise of emotional intimacy and, after he walks away from her, Kit feels that “something in her has been touched.” She goes and warns off Darlington who cheerfully tells her he and Lydia have “parted ways.” Darlington seems nothing like his reputation and Kit is bemused.

She wanders away from the social crush and follows the sound of a piano being played. As she stands on the edge of the room, she sees it’s the man she spoke with playing. Before she can speak to him, the hostess of the ball, the very married Lady Marmotte strolls in. As Kit watches the man, who Kit realizes is Darlington, begins to make love to Lady Marmotte. Kit is horrified to see the look on the Duke’s face.

…he was not engaged at all. He did not feel passion. His expression was calculated. His smiles, his voice, were deliberate. He used his body with as much dispassionate skill as the carpenter at Millcross used his lathe. He pushed her further back still, and then he leaned forward and licked her breasts, first one then the other. Methodical, contained.

The next day, Kit encounters Darlington while she is out with Lydia in the park. She asks him to leave Lydia alone. He agrees with the condition that Kit leave London, return home, and take him with her. She agrees despite being warned by BenRuin that if Darlington lays a finger on her, he’ll destroy the man. When the Duke’s carriage arrives to take Kit and Darlington back to the Manor (Kit’s name for her home), Darlington again shocks Kit.

…she was the most magnificent woman Kit had ever seen. She wore the rigid dress of the previous generation, but instead of looking outdated she made you long for the gorgeous, riotous colours of another age. Yellow poppies burst across the wine-red silk that bound her torso, chest and shoulders. They trailed down the skirts that waterfalled under their modest table. She was tightly corseted, her trim figure accentuated by the flare of small hoops beneath her skirts. She looked out the window, offering Kit her profile – the fine, straight nose, the smiling, expressive lips and heavy eyes. She wore a black wig, one thick coil falling over her shoulder on to the white linen tucked around her neck.

The woman turned away from the window and the Duke’s difficult blue eyes laughed out of her face.

What happens from here is complicated, routinely unexpected, and, depending on your perspective, either miraculous or mendacious. The Duke, whose name is Jude, settles into life at the Manor with Kit, her hazy mother, her beta brother, and their one servant Liza. Jude manipulates everyone–only Kit knows he’s a man–into living the lives he sees for them. In the time that the Duke takes over the Manor everyone changes, everything changes. Jude controls everyone but Kit. And it is that relationship with its every shifting power structure that makes this novel so extraordinary.

Let me say I don’t give a damn about this book’s sexual politics. Or rather I don’t give a damn about whether Untamed does justice to non-heteronormative lifestyles. It’s not that I don’t care about the cultural conundrums we ineptly struggle with as we try to define what it means to be a man, a woman, a person in 2013. But when I was reading this book, I was transported. It simply didn’t occur to me to analyze and parse. I just wanted to read.

The majority of this book details the time Jude and Kit spend living together at the Manor. Jude is a volatile chimera, shifting from entrancing to almost evil. Kit is, like so many of my favorite women in fiction, often unlikable. Their relationship is in every aspect–emotional, sexual, and social–constantly mutating. As I turned the pages, steadfastly ignoring the responsibilities of my life, I was, over and over again, surprised but never discomfited by their behavior. Together they are fascinating, sensual, and, in the way that great story-telling often is, fabulously unlikely.

The final chapters of Untamed don’t match the brilliance of the rest of the book. When Kit and Jude return to London–Jude is facing social and financial destruction, all of which has been engineered by a very pissed-off Lady Marmotte–the story falters. Kit and Jude become unlikely in ways that don’t work. The society they best is one that even I, who rarely cares about historical accuracy, found jarringly dubious. Had it not been for the deft and moving portrayal of Lydia’s and BenRuin’s relationship, I’d have felt bereft as I finished the novel.

Untamed is flawed. When, days later, I awoke from its spell, I became aware of its missteps. The novel is rather like an improved Icarus, that fabled dreamer whom Kit invokes near the end of the book’s, a literary “lunatic glory.”

Untamed falls short of its ambitions. But even as I contemplate its failings, I’m ready to read it again. It gets B+ from me.

Sincerely,

Dabney

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I loved romances when, back in the mid 70's, in junior high, I read every Barbara Cartland novel I could check out from the library. Then, thanks to a savvy babysitter, I got my hands on the hot stuff. To this day I can remember how astonishingly steamy I found Rosemary Rogers' Sweet Savage Love. I abandoned romance when I went to college and didn't pick one up again until 2007 when I got my first Kindle. Since then, I’ve read countless romances; loved many, liked more, hated some. Most of what I read is historical and contemporary romance, but I’m open to almost any genre. I like my books to have sizzle, wit, and plots that make sense. I’d take sexy over sweet any day. I’m a sucker for smart heroes and smart-mouthed heroines. When not reading or writing about reading, or wishing I could rule the world, I'm meddling in the lives of my kids--I have four, ages 17 to 21--, managing my husband's practice, doing bossy volunteer work, and hanging out with Dr. Feelgood.

55 Comments

  1. Christine M.
    May 14, 2013 @ 08:40:12

    Ok I’m super futile here, but please. Lady Marmotte? Lady frigging Ground Hog? I couldn’t even finish reading the reviews. There’s no way I could read an entire book of Lady Ground Hog. :/

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  2. Jane O
    May 14, 2013 @ 08:58:47

    “a daring experiment that shows strong prose and impressive willingness to test the boundaries of convention”

    You seem to think that this is self-evidently a good thing. I will grant the virtue of strong prose, but the rest of it? Perhaps I am just getting too old, but I have reached the point where “épater les bourgeois” strikes me as more childish than profound.

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  3. Maili
    May 14, 2013 @ 09:39:23

    Having read both reviews, it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever read this book. I’d however like to address the quoted comment below:

    There is no explanation for why a gay couple can show affection to each other in front of others without fear at a time when men were hanged for being homosexual.

    Men (and women) can and did show physical and emotional affection towards each other in public including sitting next to each other in a loose embrace, sharing a bed, dining together intimately and such. Not all men who did this were gay either. Anyroad, anti-homosexuality – or to be more accurate, anti-sodomite (including heterosexual sodomites) sentiments – changed in accordance with each social climate throughout history. The mid- and late-Georgian eras were one of ‘gay-friendly’ periods. FWIW, anyhow.

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  4. Ridley
    May 14, 2013 @ 11:05:05

    I don’t give a damn about whether Untamed does justice to non-heteronormative lifestyles.

    Let’s rewrite this sentence for a thought experiment.

    I don’t give a damn about whether Untamed does justice to portrayals of racial minorities.

    Fair or unfair?

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  5. Patricia Eimer
    May 14, 2013 @ 11:14:06

    I’m with Christine… LAdy Ground Hog. I’d be done right there.

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  6. Janine
    May 14, 2013 @ 11:28:10

    @Maili: Just to avoid confusion, are you including the Regency within the late Georgian era? With regard to the book, I thought it was pretty clear to the other characters that the gay relationship was romantic in nature, and not just a friendship. Were male same sex romances accepted at that time, despite sex between men being a hanging offense?

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  7. leslie
    May 14, 2013 @ 11:31:43

    Oh Ridley…..You’re a star!

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  8. Kim
    May 14, 2013 @ 11:38:28

    I agree that most of these names are distractions. After reading both reviews, there’s nothing that really induces me to want to read the book. The main reason is that it’s hard to believe that everyone at the Manor would be fooled by the duke’s disguise. Perhaps for a day or two, but how do you keeping masking his height and build?

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  9. Janine
    May 14, 2013 @ 11:43:48

    @Jane O: I put down unfinished so many books that have a sameness to them that yes, when a book does something different, I at least want to give it points for that. But you are correct that if the experiment doesn’t work, the results are no less dissatisfying for the daring.

    I got into a discussion of this book with Sunita, who liked it less than I did, and she made some great points about it, such that there is a lot of telling but not that much showing in this book. (We are told for example that the Duke has a lot of charm, but he doesn’t show that much of it. We see others responding to said charm, but we don’t see very little of the charm itself. )

    I had to ask myself, after talking with her, whether the fact that I am a writer made it easier for me to be blinded by the risk taking and the prose. A lot of well-regarded authors are recommending this book and I wonder if Cowan will turn out to be a writer’s writer, one of those authors that people immersed in the craft respond to out of respect for what she is trying to do. I say that because there are things I can’t help but admire about the book, even though I didn’t enjoy it much.

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  10. Janine
    May 14, 2013 @ 11:54:09

    @Kim: He’s not that tall — the same height as Kit. He wears dresses from the previous era, with large hoop skirts and some kind of workaround designed to disguise his build underneath them, too. I still found it stretched my ability to suspend disbelief. Why would “Lady Rose” be considered fashionable if she dresses out of decades earlier? And what about five o’clock shadow?

    But to the degree that I bought it, it was because of the way the manor setting was so isolated and the family was haunted by their pasts. They were in such deep denial about their own feelings and desires, that it was possible to believe that they would look at the Duke and see what they wanted to see.

    I grant it was far fetched, and the longer it went on, the more it became so. Especially with Kit’s mother, who remained blind even after everyone else knew, and even when others occasionally alluded to it in her presence.

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  11. Ros
    May 14, 2013 @ 12:09:35

    @Janine: I basically judge all cross-dressers who intend to pass for the other gender by the standard of Robin in The Masqueraders. He made me believe he could convince anyone, absolutely. But he also showed that it is incredibly hard and exhausting to do so for lengthy periods of time. It seems like the guy in this book doesn’t quite have Robin’s expertise or commitment to the endeavour.

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  12. Janine
    May 14, 2013 @ 12:30:32

    @Ros: I haven’t read The Masqueraders. Maybe I should look that up. Or Painted Faces, which Jayne recommended not that long ago. I haven’t come across other male cross-dresser books in the romance genre.

    ETA: My favorite book with a cross-dressing heroine is Kinsale’s The Dream Hunter.

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  13. leftcoaster
    May 14, 2013 @ 12:40:27

    ‘Painted Faces’ is worth a read, the author has a very engaging voice. It’s a little different from what is discussed here in that he doesn’t try to “pass” as female, he’s a cabaret performing drag queen and pretty much keeps the cross-dressing to the stage. The book was less then perfect for me due to two things. One, I hate it when a female protagonist spends a lot of a book whining about her looks and being too fat but she’s actually hot, and two I really dislike sexual abuse as plot device. Those might be deal breakers for other people.

    I’m totally going to read ‘Untamed’, even if it can’t pull off its premise. I enjoy seeing authorial effort around gender, it’s mind candy for me.

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  14. Dabney
    May 14, 2013 @ 12:46:10

    @Ridley: @Ridley: Well, first let’s take the quote in context, shall we?

    Let me say I don’t give a damn about this book’s sexual politics. Or rather I don’t give a damn about whether Untamed does justice to non-heteronormative lifestyles. It’s not that I don’t care about the cultural conundrums we ineptly struggle with as we try to define what it means to be a man, a woman, a person in 2013. But when I was reading this book, I was transported. It simply didn’t occur to me to analyze and parse. I just wanted to read.

    The paragraph conveys my sense that while reading Ms. Cowan’s book, I was so caught up in the magic of my reading experience, I didn’t think about much of anything at all, including sexual stereotypes.

    Next, what if I said

    “I don’t give a damn about whether Untamed does justice to portrayals of racial minorities.”

    That’s tougher to answer. I doubt I’d have been transported by such a book although at one point in my life I understood why Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer for Gone with the Wind. Today, I’d find the book’s portrayal of the South horrifying. I wouldn’t be swept into its story. So, I don’t think I’d ever make that statement today.

    That said, your connection between the two statements is a false equivalence.

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  15. Sunita
    May 14, 2013 @ 12:49:50

    @Janine:

    A lot of well-regarded authors are recommending this book and I wonder if Cowan will turn out to be a writer’s writer, one of those authors that people immersed in the craft respond to out of respect for what she is trying to do.

    This makes sense to me. I approached it purely as a reader, and the suspension of disbelief requirements were so high (and so frequent) that I kept being pulled out of the reading experience. There were some lovely phrases, and there were times where the relationship was depicted in a very moving and compelling way, but it was hard to stay focused on that part for me. When the last part (when they come back to London) went so thoroughly off the rails, there was no recovery.

    I was also disappointed in the characterizations, which reinforced several different stereotypes in troubling ways.

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  16. hapax
    May 14, 2013 @ 12:53:46

    @Janine — THE MASQUERADERS is one of my favorite Heyers, although it’s not without its problematic issues. I confess that I re-read it mostly for my lord Barham.

    It’s interesting in the terms of the the dichotomy that I was trying (badly) to get at on t’other thread. In MY reading (emphasis intentional, I kind of doubt that it was what Heyer had in mind), Robin reads as “transvestite” — he transgresses gender binaries, and does it very well, and probably enjoys it (although isn’t sorry to give it up).

    Whereas Prudence reads as, if not “transgender”, certainly “genderqueer” — she transcends gender binaries, which is why she isn’t as good at “passing” as either male or female as Robin, and why she is discomfited when she finds herself responding within prescribed gender roles (male or female).

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  17. Ridley
    May 14, 2013 @ 12:57:53

    @Dabney: That’s nice, but saying “I don’t give a damn” is not the same as saying “It didn’t bother me.” The latter says you didn’t notice the problems while you were reading. The former says you don’t care about the problems and don’t think they’re important.

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  18. Dabney
    May 14, 2013 @ 13:00:46

    @Ridley: I’m pretty sure I limited by not giving a damn to the sexual politics in this book. I still don’t. My problems with this book aren’t about its sexual politics.

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  19. Maili
    May 14, 2013 @ 13:08:19

    @Janine:

    Just to avoid confusion, are you including the Regency within the late Georgian era?

    Yes, I am. I generally don’t recognise Regency as an era in its own right except in fashion, architecture and the arts.

    With regard to the book, I thought it was pretty clear to the other characters that the gay relationship was romantic in nature, and not just a friendship. Were male same sex romances accepted at that time, despite sex between men being a hanging offense?

    Firstly, “sex between men” wasn’t a hanging offence at the time. Homosexuality wasn’t criminalised until roughly late Victorian era (1880s), which was done due to racism, e.g. the British Raj (there was a growing alarm over British soldiers and officers taking on male lovers in British India).

    Sodomy, on the other hand, was a hanging offence. That’s as in, sodomy between men *and* between men and women. Both men and women were hanged or, mostly, imprisoned when found guilty. According to the trial records, almost all these people were caught doing it outside, e.g. in a street, alley or corner. Of course, most were prostitutes and customers, e.g. working class men. Those from better classes were let off with a caution.

    Secondly, I’m treading with care because it’s tough for me to articulate how it was without being painfully long-winded. Basically, Georgians’ perspective of homosexuality is fundamentally different from ours today. Most didn’t recognise homosexuality as an orientation as, in spite of history, it was still an abstract thing. Lovers, yes, but homosexual lovers, no. Sodomy was a different ballpark altogether as it carries different history, meaning and baggage. So most at the time, and before, didn’t associate sodomy with homosexuality or gay men. They associated sodomy with sinners or ‘evil doers’. Amoral sodomites. So when men were openly affectionate or living with each other, most didn’t think “Ooh, gay guys/homosexuals/sodomites!”

    So in one sense, gay couples from this period (and some earlier periods) had a lot more freedom than Victorian-era gay couples, but only because it wasn’t recognised in its own right. Most gay men didn’t see themselves as gay men either. It didn’t have an identity of its own. (It’s hard for me to imagine that, but apparently that’s how it was.)

    However, there were some who were seen as oddballs, e.g. had a harem of effeminate boys following in tow, spent money on them, and kissed their cheeks and cuddled them whilst dining with the others. Those guys were tolerated, mostly I suspect as part of entertainment or class loyalty – until it wasn’t fashionable any more. Sorry that this response is so messy, but hope it makes sense anyhow.

    Edit: I should say that I agree with you if the gay couple in the story act as a couple, though, which is different from two friends who deeply love each other. Having them as a couple wouldn’t work for me either.

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  20. Janine
    May 14, 2013 @ 13:49:19

    @Sunita: Can you elaborate on the stereotyping? I picked up on some of it, such as the gay characters being ineffectual, but I would like to hear your perspective on that.

    @hapax: The Masqueraders sounds like a fascinating book, esp. since you and Ros have such different readings of it. Now, if I can just get over my fear of Heyer’s prejudices.

    @Maili: Thanks for that explanation. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the lack of identity too. That certainly wasn’t portrayed in the book. And yeah, the couple in the book act as a couple. Sorry I wasn’t clear on that earlier.

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  21. Sunita
    May 14, 2013 @ 14:22:06

    @Janine: Everyone who was not straight was described and portrayed in ways that reinforce a certain stereotype of homosexual men. They were all effeminate, some were devious, some were immature, fearful, and/or naive. Tom, the brother, comes across as very young for his age (he’s 26, by which point he is clearly well into adulthood in that era). By contrast, BenRuin was hulking, angry, inarticulate, and oddly ineffectual (it’s a theme for the men). He was almost a parody of the Highland Scot who is not the hero in a Scottish Historical, and he is described as “large and brutish” early on.

    Finally, Kit’s hair is repeatedly described as “coarse” and even once as a “pelt.” This is a key part of what makes her ugly. There is a long history of denigrating the attractiveness of women whose hair is rough or kinky, and it crosses many cultures. Wasn’t it enough to give her a broken nose, crushed fingers, and rough hands from her daily labor?

    I was surprised that in book in which language was clearly a central concern, words that invoke invidious stereotypes were so casually and frequently used.

    ETA: I understand that the opposition of Kit (supposedly ugly) and Jude (unbearably beautiful) is part of the setup. I didn’t have a problem with that, it was the language used to convey her lack of beauty that I found problematic.

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  22. Isobel Carr
    May 14, 2013 @ 14:22:41

    @Janine:

    Just to avoid confusion, are you including the Regency within the late Georgian era?

    The Regency IS part of the Georgian era. It’s only in America (specifically American Romanlandia) that it gets treated as its own “thing”. Hence all the fights about what “the Regency” *is* (1788 [1st Regency crisis]-1837 [Victoria becomes queen] being the usual maximal outliers, but with dozens of other subsets that people will go the mattresses about as the correct dates). The English genrally think we’re nuts to try and carve it out like we do.

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  23. Janine
    May 14, 2013 @ 14:42:55

    @Sunita: Thanks, you make a lot of good points. I picked up on some of those, but not all of them.

    @Isobel Carr: I see.

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  24. AJH
    May 14, 2013 @ 15:22:48

    I’ve read this now and I’m sort of … troubled by it, though in quite a nebulous way, so please forgive me while I ramble.

    There’s a lot I really liked about it – I think the relationship between Kit and Darlington is often quite striking, and I found it tremendously engagingly written, overall (I’m not usually bothered by anachronisms unless they’re utterly jarring). I was also, just on principle, excited that it was a bit out of the common way.

    Also, I can completely see why any individual could read this book and not be remotely interested in / troubled by the sexual politics, and that’s fine. I just feel it’s important to recognise that not everybody has that luxury. And, again, purely personally, the sexual politics kinda bothered me. I didn’t feel it really deconstructed gender roles so much as, uh, move them about a bit and then reinforce them. I just think masculinity isn’t defined in opposition to vulnerability and vulnerability is not the same as weakness.

    I know Ms Cowan has said explicitly Darlington is “fairly queer-gendered” and he’s living in a world full of binaries so it’s not like he has the option to understand himself as anything other than an unmanly man, but his ‘unmanly’ traits appear to be: passivity, weakness, powerlessness, fearfulness, and frigidity. That’s just kind of, um, depressing to me. I don’t particularly see those traits as gendered, I just see them as negative. Also if you’re going to assign your genderqueer characters traits, which for better or worse, code as female, why choose such stereotypically feeble ones? I’m not disdaining or condemning Darlington for all the time he spends cowering and weeping on the floor (truthfully, I could see why someone might be into it) but he seems to walk into the text, be briefly intriguing, have unhealthy, self-destructive sex on a piano, jump into a frock for no reason and then commence falling apart.

    Incidentally, I’ve also read Painted Faces, which people have mentioned, where there’s a lot of “he drags up but he’s totally manly really!” rhetoric (though, again, very different set-up – the hero is a straight drag artist, not genderqueer), so I appreciated that the text didn’t attempt to reinforce or define Darlington’s masculinity in other ways. However, I just feel pretty strongly that non-masculine, or non-stereotypically-masculine, shouldn’t mean, y’know, rubbish :)

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  25. Ros
    May 14, 2013 @ 16:45:33

    @Janine: I don’t think I particularly read The Masqueraders any differently from hapax, at least not where Robin is concerned. His cross-dressing doesn’t challenge any gender binaries. It’s an act, plain and simple. Prudence is more complex and I probably wouldn’t go quite as far as hapax. It’s a great book, though, and you should definitely read it!

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  26. Diana
    May 14, 2013 @ 16:47:37

    Great reviews. Personally, I enjoyed the book. I thought it was a breath of fresh air. In a genre where every single book seems basically interchangeable, I’m kind of applauding someone — anyone!! — who dares to walk off the beaten path of “uber alpha male loves either (a) bluestocking spinster or (b) impossibly beautiful young woman”. We need more authors who do some cool and subvert-y and interesting things with the genre — if we don’t get those authors, the genre stagnates (pretty much has already). And, to be honest, I was willing to overlook some of the problems I had with the book because it wasn’t like any of the romance novels I’ve read recently.

    As for suspension of disbelief… I didn’t think it required all that much extra. I mean, most of the popular Regency romances out there have incredibly super outlandish plots whose whole “historical” source research seems to have been Georgette Heyer. So, my bar for suspension of disbelief is already pretty high when reading hist rom.

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  27. Kay
    May 14, 2013 @ 17:04:57

    I’m still reading this book & my comments are nothing more than first impressions. They are raw & reactive, but I find that most books confirm these initial reactions & so I’ll risk making them in the spirit of debate. From page one, my reaction was “I don’t like it” & “Can I get through it?” Already, creeping doubts like these never bode well. However, I’ve come to see that my reaction was discomfort & not dislike. As I’ve read further, I’ve tried to identify the source of the discomfort & it’s not necessarily the content. It’s the execution & the flouting of the romance reader’s expectations.

    I disagree that the book is well-written. There is some good writing, but overall, the prose is strained. There is a lot of telling & not showing, yes, & this does not work well in third person narration. There is also some truly peculiar phrasing, such as “her hand involuntarily turned white.” This is a writer rife with ideas, but not in control of her material.

    I don’t know if I’ll finish the book, even though I think it is a serious book, a considered book. It a book whose ideas I can discern & find interesting, one that questions the conventions of the genre. On the level of the reading experience, difficult books can challenge a reader, but they shouldn’t frustrate the reader. I’m frustrated.

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  28. wikkidsexycool
    May 14, 2013 @ 17:09:53

    Forgive me, but I’m having a hard time understanding how this novel is somehow breaking the mold, when it appears to reinforce the stereotype of the effeminate male?

    There are a bit more problems I’m having with the book, along the lines of AJH’s and Sunita’s observations. I mean, yes, the alpha hole is a tired trope. but exchanging one trope for another isn’t breaking any new ground.

    And yes, I’m reading the novel, having just finished Raybourn’s. My eyeballs are burning, after finishing True, A Spear of Summer Grass and now working on this one.

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  29. Diana
    May 14, 2013 @ 17:47:38

    @Kay: “This is a writer rife with ideas, but not in control of her material.”

    I love that. I think your whole comment is 100% accurate (although I seem to have been less frustrated than you). I agree that it’s an interesting and considered novel, though…problematic in terms of some of the characterizations and ideas (Sunita brings up great points). And the writing style definitely would have benefitted from more polish and more showing.

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  30. Ann
    May 14, 2013 @ 18:36:23

    I am in the process of reading this book, but I do not think I am going to like it. I guess I am the “urber alpha male” type.

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  31. Janine
    May 14, 2013 @ 19:41:59

    @AJH: Good points. I think the duke was also supposed to be charming, politically driven and dangerous, and these aspects could have served to flesh out the character more if they had been explored in greater depth.

    My review may not have been that well articulated. On further thought, my feeling isn’t so much that the book deconstructed gender roles but rather, that it played with the prescribed roles of heroine and hero in a romance novel. In a less risk taking book, the hero would be a dominant alpha type, a pillar of strength next to the heroine’s quivering vulnerability. Also, in a less risk taking book, the characters would have more positive traits and fewer negative ones.

    So I was not looking at so much through the prism of types and stereotypes (which you and Sunita are correct about) as through the prism of “romance hero” and “romance heroine” — the common templates for those roles that many authors seem to use.

    Whatever else we say about it, just putting the hero of a m/f romance in dresses for over half the book is a risk for an author writing in that genre.

    I love your comment that the Duke “seems to walk into the text, be briefly intriguing, have unhealthy, self-destructive sex on a piano, jump into a frock for no reason and then commence falling apart,” because I thought his introduction was also his most shining moment. His thrilling to BenRuin’s killing rage had so much potential, and I was disappointed when the reason behind it was revealed.

    @Ros: Thanks for clarifying. Your earlier comment about Robin being exhausted by cross-dressing didn’t give me the same sense that he enjoyed it that Hapax’s comment did.

    @Diana: Thanks. Re. suspension of disbelief, this is far from the only historical romance I’ve had that issue with. So I hear you but for me it did require some effort to believe that the Duke would fool all the people he fooled as much as he did, as well as to believe some of the other goings on in the book.

    @Kay: Thanks so much for adding your perspective. Despite the positive things I’ve said about Cowan’s writing, I also found myself nodding along with everything you say. I think her style of prose has considerable strengths, but I don’t disagree with the weaknesses you note.

    @wikkidsexycool: Good points. I don’t think the novel breaks the mold, but I think it makes an attempt to do so. See my reply to AJH. Also, it is hard for me to articulate, but the there were places in the book that reminded me of surrealist literary works, theater and cinema. The suspension of reality (for example, “Lady Rose” taking one of the Sutherlands’ pigs as a pet, dressing it in clothing, and providing a castle shaped pigpen for it) was supported by the moody atmosphere of the novel and the general family dysfunction.

    Ultimately, this aspect of the book did not work IMO. It didn’t fit well with the genre elements. But it did seem interesting, and risk taking to me, to take the reader so far away from realism and rely almost exclusively on mood and atmosphere to make this work, instead of on more conventional techniques like worldbuilding and developing the characters’ motivations. In this way, through technique, I feel that the author did test the boundaries of genre conventions, though I found the results unsuccessful.

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  32. Mary
    May 14, 2013 @ 20:32:00

    I’m throwing out a cross-dressing romance novel here, since that seems to be a theme in the comments. It’s an older Anne Stuart (one of the ones that was recently released as an ebook) called Shadow Dance. There are two romances, one with a male and a cross-dressing woman, where he knows from the beginning that she’s a woman, and one with a cross-dressing man and a woman, where the woman doesn’t know he’s a man for a VERY long time. I liked how it played on the different relationships men and women can have, especially in the time period (it was 1700 or 1800s, can’t really remember).
    This book doesn’t sound like my thing. I’m all for having non-stereotypical characters, and I applaud that, but at the same time just giving your heroine the stereotypical male characteristics and vice versa isn’t something that strikes me as really playing with gender roles, especially if its reinforced that “oh he’s behaving like a woman”. But, it is nice to see people at least trying to break the mold or do something different. I’d be interested in what she does next, even if this book doesn’t sound like my cuppa tea.

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  33. hapax
    May 14, 2013 @ 21:04:08

    @Mary comment 32:
    I didn’t think I had read that Anne Stuart, so I looked up the reviews, which referenced “comedy of errors” and “dainty humor.”

    Anne Stuart writing with dainty humor? That’s even odder than a cross-dressing duke. Sold!

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  34. wikkidsexycool
    May 14, 2013 @ 22:19:17

    @Janine,

    Thanks for your response. I’m afraid Untamed is a DNF for me, as it was less of an exploration of gender roles than I expected, but more of “as you know, I’m not a manly man.” (Darlington’s line from the book).

    I stopped after Kit’s oh so sensitive brother Tom spoke of the pig, which the reader finds out is called “Porkie”

    I’ll probably pick up where I left off at a later date, and while Darlington isn’t an alpha male, he’s still dazzlingly alpha handsome, yet able to appear feminine at the most opportune times simply by shaving, putting on a dress and a wig. Now that’s some serious mojo.

    The beginning was the best part for me. After that, the story appeared to ask the reader for much in suspension of belief. But I do plan on finishing it. I just don’t know when.

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  35. Kaetrin
    May 15, 2013 @ 03:05:24

    @Janine: I agree with you Janine about the romance hero/romance heroine being what’s turned on it’s head. Kit is the coarse, rough one (more often seen in the romance hero), Jude is the weaker, vulnerable, prettier one (more often seen in the romance heroine).

    I’ve participated in some Twitter discussions about this book, read Growly Cub’s review, written my own review (which was favourable – gave it a B-) and read all of this and I must say I agree with almost everything that’s been said.

    When I read the book I was caught up in the complicated puzzle of putting the pieces together, of holding them in my mind and matching them later one. I felt like I was watching some kind of pattern evolve and my focus was on that. Some of the language was just beautiful IMO and I liked that Jude was not your usual romance hero. That’s what I was responding to when I wrote my review. But, having seen these comments and other perspectives on the book, I really can’t disagree with most of it. It’s just that when I was reading it, that’s not what caught my attention.

    Whatever else it is, it is a book which invites robust and rich discussion and I can’t help but be glad of that.

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  36. Kaetrin
    May 15, 2013 @ 03:10:41

    @Maili: I’m having trouble getting my head around this. I freely admit that everything I know about the Regency (and the entire Georgian) I learned from romance novels. I know that homosexuality wasn’t an identity then (and, as I understand it, this is even the case in some cultures now) but then I get a bit lost after that. What I’ve read (set in that period in the UK) has always been that men who loved men were called “sodomites” or “catamites” and that anal sex was the first conclusion jumped to (forgive the bad grammar please). So that’s all wrong? This makes me feel guilty somehow but I can’t articulate why at present.

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  37. AJH
    May 15, 2013 @ 05:21:27

    @Janine:

    No, no, I thought both reviews were great, I very much enjoyed reading them and I love the duelling review format (although it leaves me even less sure what I think than usual ;) ). I very much agree that the if the supposedly charming, ruthless and intellectually-driven aspects of his character had received as much play as his shattered, lonely vulnerable side it would have worked a lot better for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a dude has to be a pillar of strength to be attractive / a romance hero / a man but it was a balance thing.

    And I’m not a particularly genre savvy reader so but I do very much see your point about it playing with prescribed romance roles, rather than gender roles, but I’m not sure how far they’re extricable for me. This has nothing to do with the book itself, more the general context?

    And I definitely agree that his introduction is bloody marvellous – I even loved the conversation they have at the very first ball (I mean, before he wanders off to, err, self-violate with some woman on a piano) where they have this sort of battle of wits which really showcases their oppositional-yet-compatible personalities : it’s kind of like watching someone with a rapier fight someone with a broadsword, it was awesome.

    Also I’m belatedly aware that I probably sound way critical of this poor book – it didn’t work for me overall but there was a lot I did really like about it. I kind of agree with Jane O that risk-taking is not *inherently* valuable by itself, but I think what this text *tries* to do is admirable and interesting; though whether it succeeds or not, is a personal call :)

    Oh ps – sorry (shut up, AJH, shut up) but I just wanted to say – for me – I didn’t have any issues suspending disbelief. I absolutely see the value in lovingly rendered period detail but I don’t necessarily think it’s an automatic requirement for texts set in the past. I mean, yes, you don’t want Beau Brummel tweeting from the ballroom (except, he totally would, you know he would – that man would be fucking King of the subtweet “Wellington’s friend is looking especially fat tonight”) but I don’t mind characters / situations who strain the edges of credulity for the sake of being engaging to me as a 21st century reader. I’m not saying this is *better* than texts that prioritise realism, I’m just saying its a meaningful choice writers and readers can make. As Sunita says, I found lots of the non-straight characters stereotypical (feminised, whatever that means, and inept) but that’s the more relevant issue to me than the fact it was not an accurate portrayal of early 19th century attitudes to sodomy / masculinity.

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  38. Sunita
    May 15, 2013 @ 07:31:28

    @AJH: I was uncomfortable using the word “effeminate” too, because not only do I not know what that means, it’s not a bad thing to be. But it is definitely a stereotype (not telling you anything you don’t know, obviously) of a certain kind of behavior that men are not supposed to engage in because it signals a lack of masculinity (whatever THAT means). The behaviors felt like signals that these were certain types. I’ve run across similar characterizations in historical m/m, so maybe they jumped out at me more because of that.

    This is not specifically to AJH, but I wanted to say a bit on the historical errors. I’m definitely one of the Historical Authenticity police (I believe a popular term is nitpicker), and I totally understand that not everyone cares about this or notices them the way I do. But the issues in this book were really egregious, both in their level of inaccuracy and their importance to the story. Major plot points turned on events that did not or could not have occurred. There were also highly improbable situations, but those one can make an argument for in fiction. But the divorce plot, on which the seduction of Lady Marmotte was predicated, was not possible. The three-step process for getting a divorce made it impossible to use divorce as a short-time-frame, political bargaining chip, and the fact that she was caught in an adulterous situation would at best have started the divorce, not created the circumstances for it to be dealt with in Parliament in the following week or two. (Parliament was the last stage of a very long divorce proceeding).

    The plot role played by the reform of the Corn Laws was equally inaccurate but probably only of interest to me and about two other people on the planet, so I won’t go into details about that. But if you believe that the PM, Lord Liverpool, was scheming to reform a set of laws that were passed by his own government the year before, I’ve got several bridges I can sell you.

    There are two problems for me with errors of this magnitude. First, it pulls the reader who does know what was historically possible or what historical events occurred out of the story. This is fatal when the story’s effectiveness turns in part on creating and sustaining a strong atmosphere and intense reader engagement. Second, they are completely avoidable. There is a wealth of information on marriage and divorce in Georgian England, some of it easily found online at historical romance author sites. And the wikipedia entry on the Corn Laws is actually pretty good in terms of accuracy and depth of explanation.

    A few days ago we discussed the anachronisms in Grace Burrowes’ books. Those bother me too, but I’ll take iced tea over plots that have me sitting and trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with the wrong pieces.

    It’s one thing to ask me to suspend disbelief, or to accept what is in essence an AU version of a historical era. But I don’t think I should have to empty my brain of knowledge it has previously acquired in order to enjoy a historical romance.

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  39. Five Things Make a Post: It Came from the TBR! — Radish Reviews
    May 15, 2013 @ 07:32:34

    [...] Anna Cowan. Holy crap has there ever been a lot of discussion about this book in Romancelandia. People seem to either love it (with caveats) or loathe it (I [...]

  40. Kay
    May 15, 2013 @ 09:47:37

    @Diana: Diana! Thank you for your response. In the light of day, though with no less clarity on my part, UNTAMED has moved into my WNF (I like “will not finish” better than “did not finish”) pile. I cannot comment, with authority, on the historical accuracy, or whether it successfully, or unsuccessfully, “pushed the genre’s boundaries.” However, I can say what moved it into WNF territory for me. In the end, whether your hero is alpha, beta, or gamma, whether he growls, croons, or simpers … whether your heroine wilts, or stabs, whether you write within the conventions or outside of them, doesn’t make that much of a difference. What does make a difference is whether the novel strikes a balance between being cerebral and moving the reader. UNTAMED, one can say, is cerebral, whether you think that quality is muddy, or clear. But it did not move me; it is, for me, a cold novel. The best romance novels, heck, the best novels I’ve read, do strike this balance. Even within the genre, without pulling out obvious choices like Crusie’s and Chase’s, take a more recent effort like Grant’s A Lady Awakened … there’s some genre-bending there, the writing is lovely, it made me think, and it engaged me emotionally. I think UNTAMED had potential; a lot of thought went into it. I just wish the editor had recognized this & asked Ms Cowan to go back & put some heart in it too. I wish the editor had nurtured it better, form & style. Maybe it would be better to say that we read a WIP. I’d like to see what she does next, though.

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  41. Maili
    May 15, 2013 @ 12:38:46

    @Kaetrin: I can’t blame you for not be able to wrap your head around it. I couldn’t for a long time. :D In fact, it’s still an ongoing lesson for me to understand some concepts in historical context. Especially where traditional rites of passages are concerned. I apologise in advance that my response will be quite shallow as I’m trying to keep other issues out of this, because otherwise you’ll bash my head in for being so long-winded. :D

    As far as I can understand, ‘sodomite’ in that period was a slur, which was used to deem the person as amoral or morally corrupted. The nearest modern thing to calling a man (or a woman) ‘sodomite’ is calling a woman ‘slut/whore’ or a man ‘rapist’ today. A list of sodomy-related slurs had been around since the 1400s if not before. They show up in Shakespeare’s works. It was more about morality than sexuality if that makes sense.

    Sodomy didn’t necessarily go hand in hand with homosexuality because as you noted, homosexuality itself was still abstract. When the concept of homosexuality solidified over a period of time (and finally identified and recognised during roughly the 1860s), the association between sodomy and homosexuality solidified in parallel as well.

    Public love between men was socially acceptable in sense of friendship or (platonic) romantic love until the mid-Victorian era. In Britain, PDAs and big displays of emotions were heavily discouraged. Our emotions can only be displayed through writing, arts, music and so on. They however did think about sex, engaged in sexual activities and such, but pretty much everyone understood that all were born to marry, reproduce and uphold Christian values. They didn’t associate what they enjoyed with what they were duty-bound to do, which probably explained why so many in the upper class had adulterous affairs, usually after they had children. In a way, sex was a toy that one can play with in private. No boundaries as long as it was kept private. Very British! :D The very fact that this was kept private is what most unaware of sodomy and similar. Physicians had, for instance, examined their female patients without even seeing their bodies. They asked careful questions and made guesses at what may be wrong with their patients. Some knew their lovers’ bodies better than physicians (and in some cases, spouses) did in most cases.

    When one fell in love with someone outside marriage, they accepted they could never leave their spouse for that person. This mentality applied to wo/men who preferred wo/men. LGBT love affairs usually started in boarding schools or at home, but almost recognised it as part of youth. Something to grow out of. Similar to the way people see kids in love with pop stars and actors. Those who didn’t want to stop usually accepted marriage in return of having fe/male lovers on side. So with this mentality firmly in place, there was no formal recognition of difference between men, women and men/women where love, respect and devotion were concerned. Romantic love between two men through poetry was seen as a gesture of a lasting friendship. No more, no less.

    When some became aware of it as an identity (in sense of recognising it as a possible basis of an actual relationship) during roughly mid Victorian era, they became confirmed bachelors. That’s when some started to get upset. A rising number of confirmed bachelors (and spinsters) was upsetting the national campaign of the Victorian Family, an iconic symbol of the British Empire. This is when people started demonising/describing semi-openly homosexual lovers as sodomites, morally corrupted, unnatural, etc. while men learnt to distance themselves from each other in all respects when in public. During this oppressive period, there were gay men who were protected by some in their social circles while gay working-class men were punished via hard-labour prisons or death, but it was understood that the protection of the gay elite would only last as long as they kept it discreet. So yeah, issues around homosexuality were very much to do with the class system (and in some respects, colonialism under the British Empire). Upper class Victorians were pretty good at embracing double standards, class snobbery and hypocrisy, though, but I digress.

    Sorry if it’s confusing as feck, and so long-winded, but I hope it gives you a decent glimpse in how the attitude and perspective evolved with time from the Georgian period (from 1710s to 1830s) to the Victorian period (from 1830s to 1900s).

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  42. Janine
    May 15, 2013 @ 14:14:55

    @Kaetrin:

    When I read the book I was caught up in the complicated puzzle of putting the pieces together, of holding them in my mind and matching them later one. I felt like I was watching some kind of pattern evolve and my focus was on that.

    The book starts out with a lot of things murky and unclear and while a some “puzzle pieces” come together over the course of the story, I feel that others never do. Do you understand why the Corn Laws mattered so much to Jude that he would knowingly expose himself to personal harm to the degree he did? I still don’t.

    Also, the inaccuracies made it hard for me to work out some of the puzzle pieces. For example, I think we’re meant to think that Jude’s father locked him up partly because he was “not a manly man,” but this baffled me, since Jude was a little boy at the time, not a man, and also since I have the sense that the concept of “manly” wasn’t the same as it is today.

    Some of the language was just beautiful IMO

    I agree and said the same in my review. I bookmarked some of the pretty language to quote in my review, but didn’t end up with room for it, so I was glad that Dabney quoted as much as she did.

    @AJH:

    I very much agree that the if the supposedly charming, ruthless and intellectually-driven aspects of his character had received as much play as his shattered, lonely vulnerable side it would have worked a lot better for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a dude has to be a pillar of strength to be attractive / a romance hero / a man but it was a balance thing.

    I think we’re on the same page about this.

    And I’m not a particularly genre savvy reader so but I do very much see your point about it playing with prescribed romance roles, rather than gender roles, but I’m not sure how far they’re extricable for me. This has nothing to do with the book itself, more the general context?

    Sorry, I don’t understand your question — is it rhetorical or are you asking me? If it’s the latter, can you elaborate?

    I kind of agree with Jane O that risk-taking is not *inherently* valuable by itself, but I think what this text *tries* to do is admirable and interesting; though whether it succeeds or not, is a personal call :)

    Agree with this too.

    Oh ps – sorry (shut up, AJH, shut up) but I just wanted to say – for me – I didn’t have any issues suspending disbelief. I absolutely see the value in lovingly rendered period detail but I don’t necessarily think it’s an automatic requirement for texts set in the past. I mean, yes, you don’t want Beau Brummel tweeting from the ballroom (except, he totally would, you know he would – that man would be fucking King of the subtweet “Wellington’s friend is looking especially fat tonight”) but I don’t mind characters / situations who strain the edges of credulity for the sake of being engaging to me as a 21st century reader. I’m not saying this is *better* than texts that prioritise realism, I’m just saying its a meaningful choice writers and readers can make.

    Up to a point, I agree with you. I have loved some books I would label “mistorical,” like a few of Julie Anne Long’s (What I Did for a Duke is the one that most often comes up in these discussions, but I felt similarly about I Kissed an Earl, Beauty and the Spy and The Secret to Seduction), which disregard history to a large degree. I just feel that not every book can pull away from historical fact and still maintain the “fictional dream” that is the reading experience — some such choices puncture the bubble.

    Sunita spoke about the plot-related errors, but for me it is often the anachronistic detail that bursts the bubble. For example, with this book, the repetitive use of the word “git” (which OED dates back to 1946) in the dialogue. Even more jarring, though, was the scene where

    [spoiler]Kit shows up at the ball wearing trousers and people respond as they do[/spoiler]

    That was so far out there that I couldn’t reconcile it to anything.

    Also, my issues with suspending disbelief weren’t strictly about historical inaccuracies, but also had to do with the absence of understandable character motivations. See my question to Kaetrin above — if you understand why the Duke was so passionate and committed to that particular political cause, tell me. I would like to know.

    @Sunita: Thanks for the historical background.

    The three-step process for getting a divorce made it impossible to use divorce as a short-time-frame, political bargaining chip, and the fact that she was caught in an adulterous situation would at best have started the divorce, not created the circumstances for it to be dealt with in Parliament in the following week or two. (Parliament was the last stage of a very long divorce proceeding).

    I think I must have been so focused on the goings on at the manor that I didn’t pay sufficient attention to that. I thought her husband had announced he was divorcing her and that that was supposed to weaken her, but I didn’t really take in the fact that her divorce proceedings were going to be dealt with in parliament that soon afterward. What I never did understand was how she retained all that power and clout after her husband’s intention to divorce her became public knowledge.

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  43. Janine
    May 15, 2013 @ 14:21:54

    @Maili: That was fab. Thanks so much for posting it!

    ReplyReply

  44. Angela
    May 15, 2013 @ 14:54:53

    Not having read the book, and I’m not sure I’m going to as my likes tend to align more closely with Janine and Sunita, I’ve still been following the discussion – which I’ve found absolutely fascinating and interesting. I’m especially glad I did so I caught that fabulous breakdown from Maili. Thank you :)

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  45. Lynne Connolly
    May 15, 2013 @ 15:03:13

    @Maili: @Isobel Carr:
    Yup. The Regency was 1811-1820, and describes the period when the future George IV took over government on behalf of his father, who was unfit to rule. But it’s all Georgian to me!
    Most of what Maili says I can confirm, and the bits I’m doubtful about are more a matter of opinion than any factual discussion. Sodomy was illegal and men (although not usually women) were hanged for it. However, the “big” cases, the ones that hit the headlines of the day were usually connected with some other concern, like the big scandal of 1729 (definitely not Regency but still Georgian) when they were worried that the house where men were bonking men was a centre for Jacobite activities.
    There was also a big raid on Mother Clapp’s Molly House in 1726, but molly houses were a bit different. However the hero of this book would probably fit right in there, hooped skirts and all.
    Women couldn’t commit sodomy on women, which was why lesbianism was never illegal and not usually looked on as A Bad Thing.
    And don’t forget Hervey who loved a man and a woman and was loved by both. “There are men, women and Herveys.”

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  46. Isobel Carr
    May 15, 2013 @ 15:19:10

    @Lynne Connolly: Have you read AMPHIBIOUS THING? Wonderful biography of Hervey.

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  47. Dabney
    May 15, 2013 @ 19:21:57

    Reading this thread hasn’t made me question my enjoyment of Untamed. I loved it and I’d recommend it to friends. This thread has made me think hard about what I look for in literature and how capacious my realm of enjoyment is. I feel a bit like an somewhat unrepentant hedonist: if it makes me happy, well, it makes me happy. But, after reading this and the May Recommended Reads thread, I’m giving more thought to whether or not my reviewer’s perspective needs to encompass more than just enjoyment. I haven’t decided. But I have appreciated the insight and knowledge shared here.

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  48. Kaetrin
    May 16, 2013 @ 00:47:54

    @Maili: Thank you Maili. That was very helpful. I think most of the (Regency, UK, set) m/m historicals I’ve seen are anachronistic then… :(

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  49. KayToo
    May 16, 2013 @ 14:23:58

    Add this book to the list of those who appear to owe a debt to Francis Crawford of Lymond (all of whom, IMHO, should publicly acknowledge it).

    I felt the book was immersive; if it was cerebral, I found it neither solely nor soullessly so, and visceral at the very same time. I loved the turnabouts that put Kit and Lady Marmotte at odds (and did not resign the latter to Bad Woman-dom, and actually acknowledged within the text partway through that Kit likely would not have been set against her if it weren’t for Jude).

    It was disappointing to learn here that divorce and Corn Laws, and so forth, weren’t actually handled that way; I’m glad to have learned that, though, and will consign the book to an alternate universe in my head. There were other aspects that could have been handled better, also as above, but it was worth it to me. (Also, though the queer men were similar in respects beyond the obvious, at least they were positively and individually depicted, and they had family too.)

    I really appreciated the sense of family and the secondary romances, and in the end the book had so much to do with family as well as Kit and Jude. Kit was a woman who gained agency and used it, not lost it, for love.

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  50. Moriah Jovan
    May 17, 2013 @ 16:59:19

    Well, so I’m reading this right now (about halfway through). I have mixed feelings. But I must say, the duke (other than the dress) reads remarkably like Lestat.

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  51. Mary Beth
    May 22, 2013 @ 10:28:37

    I read this discussion with real enjoyment and I learned so much. I love history, I love both historical fiction and historical romance and I loved this book. I am beginning to have a suspicion that I am a literary hedonist. I would like it if authors did their research and got their story’s history correct, however unless the mistakes are egregious beyond belief, if the story is good, if it holds my attention, if I find the characters interesting, if I remember and think about it after the book has been read, then I count it a good read. Finally, I would like to thank the people who posted and shared their knowledge and expertise – what a joy Dear Author is to read!

    ReplyReply

  52. Imperfect? Unruly? UNTAMED? A Subversive Regency | Badass Romance
    Jun 04, 2013 @ 22:14:49

    [...] experiment demands a strong response — people are either loving it or hating on it, with dueling reviews appearing on release day a few weeks ago, and many, many thoughtful comments. I sat up and listened [...]

  53. REVIEW: Untamed by Anna Cowan – Book Thingo
    Jun 25, 2013 @ 19:55:02

    [...] one that has inspired spirited debate among romance readers. (You can read some of them at Dear Author, Kaetrin’s Musings and GrowlyCub’s LJ.) Whether or not it works for you will depend [...]

  54. Anatomy of A Polarizing Book — Radish Reviews
    Jun 26, 2013 @ 07:30:40

    [...] somewhat unusual and well-realized, of the early nineteenth century rural manor house. Similarly, over at Dear Author, Janine says it is “something different, and deserves credit for taking a great many risks, especially [...]

  55. a review: Untamed by Anna Cowan | the passionate reader
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 09:27:17

    […] Here’s the review I wrote for Dear Author. Though I now would give the book a B, it’s still one I recommend. […]

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