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REVIEW: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

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Dear Ms. Milan:

It seems very apt that the last book in the Brothers Sinister series is being promoted with a funny tumblr written by one of its characters, because it feels like a book that sprang from the Internet. I’m honestly not sure if that’s a complaint or a compliment. I’ve admired how previous Milan books work still current themes into historical fiction in a plausible way — the bullying in Unlocked, for example — yet  at times I’ve felt like I’m seeing behind the curtain too much. That definitely happened here, yet I was so utterly charmed with the book overall, I’m trying to work out a way in which I can rationalize my discomfort.

If I recall correctly, we first met Frederica Marshall — Free — in The Heiress Effect. Through her brother Oliver’s eyes, she was depicted as young, idealistic and naively fearless, liable to get herself into serious trouble. Then it became clear that she has educated herself well, knows what she’s doing as a champion for social justice, and is perfectly willing to get into trouble for the good of her cause. The Free of this story, set ten years later, hasn’t changed much: she’s now the editor of the Women’s Free Press, and a investigate reporter. (She’s in a privileged position to do this, as the sister of an MP who’s the brother of a Duke: her undercover work is certainly dangerous and traumatic, but she can count on rescue when she needs it.) Her visibility makes her a constant target for hate, and she’s no longer fearless, but she conquers her fear by thinking about the agoraphobic woman she was named for. (See The Governess Affair.)

Free is approached by Edward Clark who, unbeknownst to her, is the presumed-dead brother of a ruling class man who’s been harassing her. Edward’s primary goal is to watch out for an old friend also targeted by his brother, Free’s employee Stephen Shaugnessy. (Author of the satirical “Ask a Man” column.) But he’s also very attracted to Free, and soon discovers she needs his specialized assistance even more than Stephen does. The traditional hero for an idealistic heroine is a cynical bad boy, and unusually for this series, that’s what we get in Edward. He’s a liar, a forger, and a thief; as he pointedly comments to Free’s brother Oliver, “Keep your brotherhood of left-handed do-gooders, Marshall. Your sister needs a man who is actually sinister.” Free, who is very much nobody’s fool, takes some time to trust Edward, but once she does, her trust is absolute and warranted:

His mouth was hard and desperate, lips opening to hers. The unshaven stubble on his cheeks brushed her. It made the kiss all that more complex — so sweet, so lovely. She’d wanted this — wanted him — for weeks, and now she didn’t need to hold back.

Still, she set one hand on his chest and gave a light push. “Wait.”

He stopped instantly, pulling away. “What is it?”

She laugh and dropped her voice to mimic his. “‘A trustworthy man would never do this.’ Oh, yes, Mr. Clark. Look how untrustworthy you are. You stopped kissing me the instant I asked you to do it.”

Edward’s cynicism is based on a very hard life, and he’s particularly contemptuous of do-gooders, because his own attempts in that line failed so spectacularly.

“… you’re delusional if you think you can accomplish anything. You’re pitting yourself against an institution that is older than our country, Miss Marshall. It’s so old that we rarely even need speak of it. Rage all you want, Miss Marshall, but you’ll have more success emptying the Thames with a thimble.”

He touched a finger to his forehead in mock salute, as if tipping a hat. As if she’d just departed the land of reality, and he wished her a pleasant journey.

[…]

“You’re right about all of that. If history is any guide, it will take years — decades, perhaps — before women get the vote. As for the rest of it, I imagine that any woman who manages to stand out will be a target for abuse. She always is.”

His eyes crinkled in confusion.

“What I don’t understand it why you think you need to lecture me about this all. I run a newspaper for women. Do you imagine that nobody has ever written to me to explain precisely what you just said? […] Do you suppose I’ve never been told that I’m upset because I am menstruating? That I would calm down if only some man would put a child in my belly? Usually, the person writing offers to help out with that very task. […] Do you think I don’t know that the only tool I have is my thimble? I’m the one wielding it. I know.”

Free explains to Edward that her work is about women, not about men, and that what he sees as a futile emptying of the Thames, she sees as watering flowers and making them bloom. I wish I could quote this entire scene, because it’s so wise and lovely. And it sets the stage for a tender romance. Free is too smart to give in to her initial attraction to the unscrupulous Edward, but as time goes on she realizes that he always, always has her back, and she sees that he’s her match:

She could see herself with Mr. Clark at some point in the future — an old married couple sitting on a porch in summer, holding hands and reminiscing over past times.

Do you remember the time you blackmailed me?

Yes, dear. You blackmailed me right back. It was the sweetest thing. I knew then we were meant for each other.

The con-man in Edward is equally thrilled by Free’s intelligence, and the caring person beneath his cynicism is drawn to her positive insights:

“…every time you talk you turn my world upside down.” His smile was tight and weary.
“You’re wrong again. The world started out upside down. I’m just trying to set it right side up.”
“Either way gives me the most astonishing vertigo.”

I loved seeing the experience, intelligence, and bravery of a genuine social activist, a role usually treated with, at best, condescension in romance. Edward is a bit more of a type — the tortured man who doesn’t feel good enough for the heroine — but he’s so sweetly drawn, he doesn’t feel like a cliche. They’re both very appealing, and the yearning between them is a delicious, bittersweet ache. I felt that both begun to act out of character in the second half of the book — Free doing something outrageously foolish, Edward feeling cowed — but I suppose it can be justified as the effects of love. (Though I did find the lack of any discussion about birth control or disease prevention just wrong; Free would be very much aware of these issues.)

I was more bothered by moments that really took me out of the story, like Free’s suggestion for an article, “Won’t someone think of the dukes?” I think the book is very deliberately drawing on current issues for women, particularly online — such as the letters Free mentions above, and the fact that a man has a vicious vendetta against her simply because she refused to be his mistress. This all seems quite plausible. But there are a few places in which the book reads to me like its tumblr account — that is, a modern element being jokingly forced into a Victorian mold. And as with A Kiss for Midwinter and its long discourse on the true nature of the hymen, the story sometimes felt self-conscious. One of Free’s assistants helps by telling them when their writing is “condescending to women who knew the confines of their station better than they did” –I may be wrong, but from what I know of the history of feminism, this seems like wishful thinking.

I did find a rationalization: the book may be a bit of a historical fantasy, but in a genre so filled with disturbing fantasy elements, why not embrace those with a deliberately subversive and feminist slant? But the real truth is, I just liked it tremendously, and so am willing to overlook the parts that I found jarring.

Although there’s still a novella coming — an interracial romance featuring the charming Stephen Shaugnessy (Actual Man) — this has the feel of a series wrap up. Robert finally gets to know his half-brother Oliver’s other family, long a heartfelt wish, and there’s a secondary romance for Jane’s friend Genevieve (now her secretary) and Violet’s lonely niece Amanda (one of Free’s assistants.) The end is a sentimental treat for readers of the series, so although this could stand alone, you’ll probably enjoy it even more if you’ve followed the others. B+

Sincerely,
Willaful

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Willaful

Willaful fell in love with romance novels at an early age, but ruthlessly suppressed the passion for years, while grabbing onto any crumbs of romance to be found in other genres. She finally gave in and started reading romance again in 2006, and has been trying to catch up with the entire genre ever since. Look for her on twitter or at her blog at www.willaful.wordpress.com

27 Comments

  1. Ros
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 11:20:30

    “I did find a rationalization: the book may be a bit of a historical fantasy, but in a genre so filled with disturbing fantasy elements, why not embrace those with a deliberately subversive and feminist slant? But the real truth is, I just liked it tremendously, and so am willing to overlook the parts that I found jarring.”

    That’s where I am with it. There’s a bit in the Author’s Note which talks about the series as a little bit of an alternative history – one where the things that happen in the books do make a difference. And I want to buy into that fantasy so much that I’m willing to suspend disbelief over it being historically accurate. I’d rather Free’s feminist colleagues than yet another Duchess going round saying ‘Just call me Sarah’, by a country mile.

  2. Willaful
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 11:47:38

    @Ros: Oh, I completely missed the author’s note! Which is bizarre because I was hoping for one, but I guess I didn’t look for it past the “other books” section.

  3. Sunita
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 12:14:41

    @Ros: “Alternate history” (which is the term used in the author’s note) is a particular genre (or subgenre), though, and it has a logic that is pretty much the opposite of what you’re talking about here. Alternate history books take the different historical outcome as a starting point and then explore the ramifications of that difference. The entire point of the book is to work out what might happen if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, or the Germans had won WW2, or the American revolution had failed and the colonies had remained colonies. That doesn’t sound like what is happening here. Of course authors should absolutely write whatever their interests and passions motivate them to write, but if you call something an alternate history then readers are going to expect it to have the minimal foundational attributes.

    Historical fantasy sounds more on target, especially since the “inaccuracies” seem to be deliberately adopted for specific ideological and analytical reasons, not just for convenience or without forethought.

  4. Ros
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 12:20:53

    @Sunita: Yes, that’s true. I just remember noticing the phrase and thinking it was interesting.

  5. Sunita
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 13:00:15

    I forgot to say, thanks for the review, Willaful! I can see how it was a mixed bag for you and there’s plenty of material on both sides so that readers can get of sense of whether (and how) it might work or not work for them.

  6. Rose
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 13:51:28

    The entire series to me has read as a sort of historical fantasy (and not, as Sunita has already pointed out, alternate history), far more so than some of Milan’s earlier books. I agree that it is a more enjoyable form of historical fantasy than most, but at times I too felt like the modern sentiments were distracting and did not serve the story or the characters.

  7. Willaful
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 14:30:40

    @Sunita: Hmmm. I’m thinking now of Jo Walton’s _My Real Children_, which is set in two alternate universes. It’s suggested — warning, this could be considered a spoiler — that one of the universes is the way it is because of the main character’s activism. So you *could* argue that the alternate universe of TSS started with Free’s activism and that’s its defining difference.

    Not that I’m particularly attached to calling it an alternate history, just pondering.

  8. Interrobanged
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 15:55:39

    I wasn’t sure about this book because I really did not enjoy Violet’s story, and then I read the review on Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. The review was so positive that I ended up buying the book. But I just didn’t enjoy it because the elements were so modern and unbelievable that I couldn’t get into the story. Yes, I know women’s suffrage was something that actually occurred both in the UK and in America, and I am a huge, big, massive feminist. And yet I could not get into this book because there were so many modern elements dispersed through what was supposed to be a period romance. Usually I like Milan, but her previous two books have been big duds for me, which is unfortunate.

  9. Sunita
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 16:34:02

    @Willaful: I haven’t read that book by Walton; the reviews make it sound like a Sliding Doors type story but with world-level consequences. I suppose you could call TSS that kind of book, but it still seems like a stretch, since it doesn’t really explore the ramifications of that alternate universe, or at least that’s not a major part of it. Building on Rose’s point about the series overall, the books I’ve read seem more in line with utopian fantasies. Which is fine, but I think of those as quite different from alternate histories.

    ETA: On reflection, utopian fantasy doesn’t sound right either, although the author’s note talks about how if these fictional suffragists had succeeded, the abuses that women suffragists experienced could have been avoided. I think I’ll stick to historical fantasy.

  10. Willaful
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 16:50:53

    @Sunita: Yes, they’re hard to classify, since they’re definitely *close* to reality. Historical fantasy is probably the most reasonable classification, though really no more so than the mistorical sort Ros mentions above.

  11. Cecilia Grant
    Aug 08, 2014 @ 20:52:30

    I remember a blog post Milan did around the time Unveiled was published; she described it as a “fairytale of meritocracy” and said that was basically what she aimed to write (as opposed to aiming for strict historical fidelity).

    I don’t know if she’d still say that’s her aim, but maybe it’s a useful term to throw into this discussion.

    Ah, I found the post: http://www.courtneymilan.com/ramblings/2010/12/15/fairytales-of-meritocracy/

  12. Willaful
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 01:17:45

    @Cecilia Grant: That’s a very interesting post, and the subsequent discussion is even more interesting. I definitely fall in the category of the historical reader who wants a particular kind of atmosphere more than meticulous accuracy. I think a large part of what tripped me up here is that I think of Milan as the kind of author who *does* provide that atmosphere, and so running into modern jokes just felt so wrong.

  13. Jeannie
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 06:23:32

    I’ve had this debate many a time with one of my trusted critique partners — do I really write historical romance or do I write historical fantasy? Every single time she’s talked me off the ledge, “Calm down. You write historical romance.” Her explanation of why I shouldn’t jump is wrapped up in the bit below and it’s provided me with a lot of clarity in terms of the genre and my place within it as well as some of the authors I love.

    I think there are huge elements of fantasy typically accepted in historical romance — i.e. “Just call me Sarah!”, Prinny becomes a match-maker, gentlemen go running over rooftops as masked vigilantes, just the very often lampooned fact that there are so many dukes and earls and they’re all so young and dashing and every one of them has a chip on their shoulder and is socially conscious unlike their cold parents — oh, and possess some extremely useful and sexy skill like being a spy.

    Courtney Milan’s books don’t feel any less “historically accurate” to me than the rest of the genre where each book creates a fantasy world where there’s a bit of fluidity in characterization and events and social norms. (How many “clubs” do we have of five noblemen who are all alpha, who are all rakes, who are all supermen? Is THAT any more realistic than a group of feminist colleagues?) But the fantasy she’s created is one that’s outside of the norm of what’s become accepted in the genre, and that’s potentially jarring to readers. I might even venture that she empowers her females whereas the genre absolutely embraces empowering and even super-empowering the hero.

    I’m reading Sherry Thomas’ Hidden Blade/Beautiful Enemy duet now and that’s my take on the story choices she’s making there. These are not fantasies that are outside the realm of historical romance, but they are fantasies historical romance readers may not have seen before. (Once I’m done reading, I might take a moment to ruminate on the reception of Beautiful Enemy vs. Shadow and the Star or more recent Duke of Midnight. )

  14. cleo
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 07:12:27

    @Jeannie

    the fantasy she’s created is one that’s outside of the norm of what’s become accepted in the genre, and that’s potentially jarring to readers. I might even venture that she empowers her females whereas the genre absolutely embraces empowering and even super-empowering the hero.

    That makes a lot of sense to me.

  15. lawless
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 10:11:56

    @Jeannie

    I might even venture that she empowers her females whereas the genre absolutely embraces empowering and even super-empowering the hero.

    That’s my sense too.

    Considering how much Milan’s books are based on historical facts and happenings, no matter how exceptional, and how she documents where she’s veered from reality, I think “alternate history” is a more accurate and less pejorative description than historical fantasy. “Historical fantasy” to me connotes something fun or that plays more fast and loose with historical fact than Milan’s books do — something on the order of Tessa Dare’s books or (though it’s not genre romance) Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart.

    Every historical romance written these days is inaccurate or exaggerated to some extent as to personalities and period attitudes and very few use period diction of any authenticity; if they weren’t, they’d be unpalatable to us and unreadable. With their attention to the details of social movements and their consequences, her books are imo far less fantastic than most of genre romance. In general, it’s only the wrap-up at the end that falls in the realm of wish-fulfillment fantasy.

    Milan writes from a consciously feminist viewpoint and is not everyone’s cup of tea, either stylistically or in content, but I am so glad her books exist. Hers were the first works of modern genre romance I read that I actually liked.

    Full disclosure: I have this book on my ereader but have not read it yet.

  16. Willaful
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 11:17:49

    @Jeannie: Yes, you’re absolutely right. I probably should have put less emphasis on what I found implausible in my review and more on what I found out of place, like the “won’t someone think of the dukes?” line.

    Really, it was mostly the feeling of seeing the gears work that bothered me, and perhaps that’s always going to happen when someone is deliberately trying to push against the dominant norm.

  17. Sunita
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 11:27:42

    @Jeannie: I agree with much of what you say, but I disagree that these authors are empowering heroines whereas the rest of romance empowers the hero. I’ve read strong, empowered heroines in category romance, trad Regency romance, and every other subgenre. I think there are a LOT of writers who are writing from a feminist perspective, whether it’s self-conscious or not.

    What you’re talking about, I think, is writing a specific type of feminist motivation and action, using 21stC discourse and cultural references, and these resonate for a lot of readers today. It’s a very different enterprise, however, from illuminating how actions and motivations in earlier times were analogous to (or even more powerful than) the way we do feminism now.

  18. Brie
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 12:41:20

    What @Sunita said.

  19. Jeannie Lin
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 12:47:44

    Sunita,
    I actually feel there are many, many feminist heroines and feminist fairy tales in romance, which is why romance is a fitting genre for this type of book. My thoughts were that, looking within the traditional feminine fantasy–love and marriage–we readers of historical romance seem much more willing to accept embellishments in our heroes than in our heroines. To the point where a super Duke is accepted as, oh yeah, this is historical romance. He is just as fantasy or alt history to me, but he is more accepted as a romance norm and does not challenge us as much. Of course, this is all off the top of my head. Personally, I think the feminist fairy tale–empowerment and agency– is a natural extension of a feminine fairy tale–love,security,etc which is why I’ve always loved this type of book and why I think Courtney’s books have found a nice readership.

  20. Elizabeth Cole
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 12:55:07

    @Interrobanged:

    That’s a GREAT handle, btw.

  21. Sunita
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 15:52:44

    @Jeannie Lin: You may be right about the overall willingness to accept ridiculous Dukes. I know that I push back against them and I see others pushing back, but they obviously sell. But I don’t feel challenged by a 21stC heroine in a 19thC-set book, I feel disoriented. And I lament the lost opportunity to read a romance that links a believable 19thC woman to the 21stC reader. Clearly there are many readers who enjoy the former and do feel a sense of fulfillment reading about her, and I’m glad for them. But I’m sad for the stories that aren’t being told, or that are being told but not being read.

    I just reviewed a book in which the heroine agreed to marry in large part so that she could keep a job that she felt was important, that helped her educate children and adults who had been denied the opportunity until she came along. That feels like an empowered, feminist heroine to me. And it was in an inspirational, which is not where I would have gone looking for that kind of a heroine. That’s my prejudice and one I’m glad was shown to be wrong. Looking back on my reviews, I’d say I I’ve read a number of historically believable heroines who have agency and strength, so I do think they’re out there.

  22. Willaful
    Aug 09, 2014 @ 19:59:40

    Just wanted to note that this is now a Recommended Read — not because I changed my mind, but because after not having reviewed for a month, I completely forgot to do it in the first place.

  23. Marguerite Kaye
    Aug 10, 2014 @ 04:03:12

    Coming very late to a fascinating discussion. I really admire Courtney Milan’s books because she puts real, historical issues to the forefront. I don’t really mind whether what she does is labelled alternate (I was taught the term counterfactual) history, or fantasy, what I enjoy about them is that they really make you think – and get angry – about way women were treated. And how very exceptional you had to be to break away from the norm. For me, that’s the most important feminist aspect in historical romance, bringing to a modern reader’s attention just how unfair, unjust and simply incredibly hard it was to be a woman, and to retain any sort of integrity or independence without being cast out of society. Without getting too much on my soapbox, historical romance reminds us of how far we’ve come, and how much more determined we should be not to let it slide.

    It is a fine line though, walking between keeping the reader on board with both the story and the romance, and making a political point in a way that really jars or seems anachronistic, but personally, I’m much more willing to forgive that sort of thing than actual historical inaccuracies or ridiculously modern behaviour in a historical heroine. I haven’t read this one of Courtney Milan’s yet, but I’m definitely going to.

  24. Jane
    Aug 10, 2014 @ 10:00:16

    So Sunita, I think I finally understand this argument. There were empowered feminists in history but by writing caricatures, those individuals are somehow are either diminished or written out of history. With the Super Duke it matters less because he’s an obvious caricature and because men are so widely and varied represented anyway whereas empowered females are few and far between?

  25. Sunita
    Aug 10, 2014 @ 10:59:19

    @Jane: Yes, that’s pretty much it. Although I would say these modern-type heroines are not necessarily caricatures. They can be nuanced. But they are recognizably *like us,* and oftentimes more like us than they are like the women they supposedly portray back in that era. That’s why the time-travel comparison occurred to me (on Twitter). It gives us a way into understanding and thinking about the differences. But we don’t think of them as time-travel books, we think of them as regular historicals. That’s where the diminishment/erasure comes in.

    If we constructed a 19thC Englishwoman with the same psychological strengths, ambitions, and interests of someone living today, she’d still behave in a different way because of the way she was socialized and the culture in which she lived. Understanding those differences (as well as the similarities) is important to me. It’s not important to all readers, and for some readers it’s something they don’t care about getting in historical romance even though they might look for it in historical fiction or nonfiction about the era. I just want us to understand that it’s going on. Not that authors shouldn’t write it or that readers shouldn’t read and enjoy it. Historical romance can and should be a really big tent, in my opinion.

    And I agree with Marguerite Kaye that this is not a “historical accuracy” issue. Relocating the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race, or putting a heat wave in the Year Without A Summer is an inaccuracy. This is a different type of change. And it’s not a mistorical, either, because it often has a purposeful, thoughtful, intellectual/ideological motivation.

    Ms. Kaye, I do disagree with you that “historical romance reminds us of how far we’ve come, and how much more determined we should be not to let it slide,” or at least I disagree with that rather Whiggish view of history. We’ve come a long way in many senses, absolutely. But portraying it as a linear, upward-sloping line erases a lot of complexity and I don’t think we want to lose all of it.

  26. Willaful
    Aug 10, 2014 @ 11:25:41

    @Sunita: “But portraying it as a linear, upward-sloping line erases a lot of complexity and I don’t think we want to lose all of it. ”

    Always an important point.

  27. Marguerite Kaye
    Aug 11, 2014 @ 03:42:19

    Sunita, I agree, history is way too complex to be so simply portrayed, which is one of the reasons I’m not a huge fan of the historical conceit of the counterfactual/alternate approach – in history. In fiction though, I think we have to simplify and we have to be selective about what history we use as an example – and yes, that does then lead to some element of generalism (if there’s such a word). Plus, I think, using specifics, and perhaps as a result taking them out of context, stick in people’s minds more effectively . So, to use an example I’ve written about, we could take the laws of divorce in England in the 19th Century, and show how women were basically treated as property, and show how incredibly difficult it was to escape a bad marriage, and how society was complicit with that. That’s not to say that the English divorce laws are unbiased now, or that society isn’t complicit now in enforcing prejudice, but it’s the contrast, for me, that’s important – the length of the journey, if you like – even if it also ignores all the different tracks and side routes the divorce law took on the way from 19th Century to now.

    I’m not sure if that makes me more Whiggish or less, but I hope it makes what I was trying to say a bit clearer.

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