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DUAL REVIEW: In the Arms of the Marquess by Katherine Ashe

This is a Dual Review instead of Dueling because Sunita and I came away feeling the same about the book but for slightly different reasons.

Dear Ms. Ashe,

I read less historical romance than I used to, but I was intrigued by the description of your book, as well as by your bio. I approach books set partly or wholly in British India with trepidation but I am still drawn to them. And I was hopeful that your day job as a history professor would improve my chances of reading a sensitively rendered, well-contextualized story. Unfortunately, my hopes were not entirely fulfilled.

In the Arms of the Marquess	Katherine AsheThe book focuses on the romance between Octavia (Tavy) Pierce, an intelligent, imaginative and lovely spinster of twenty-five who has recently returned to England from India, and Benjirou, the Earl of Dorée, a half-Indian aristocrat who first met Tavy when she landed in Madras at the age of fifteen. Ben rescued Tavy from villains upon her arrival, and they fell in love but were driven apart by Tavy’s aunt and uncle. This break was the first of several Big Misunderstandings that occur over the course of the novel.

When Tavy and Ben fell in love in India, Tavy was a coltish teenager and Ben was the youngest, half-Indian son of the Marquess of Dorée’s second marriage. The Marquess soon abandoned his high-caste Indian wife and returned to England and his older sons, but he and his heir perished in a hunting-box fire and Ben inherited the Marquessate. Ben added this title to his existing assets, which include his inheritance from his mother’s brother (a fortune described as so vast that it dwarfs all Indian and many British fortunes).

When they meet again in London, Tavy and Ben are irresistibly drawn to each other, and their passions flair as strongly as they did seven years before. Unfortunately, so does their complete inability to talk to each other, and after a beautifully written love scene, they are back to assuming the worst. Their on-again, off-again passion is obstructed by a plot that involves Ben’s eldest brother’s erstwhile fiancée, the suspicious fire that killed his father and brother, Tavy’s self-declared fiancé and his blackmail problems, and a plot that involves aristocratic villains, innocent women, and trading ships carrying illicit cargo.

If this sounds complicated, it’s because it is. The central focus should be the romance, which is lovely and compelling when Tavy and Ben are front and center. But all too often we are treated to scenes with Tavy’s pallid would-be-fiancé, the Baron (of?) Crispin; her sister and sundry other relatives; Crispin’s business partners; and Ben’s associates. These scenes are less effective and quite confusing. It was refreshing to read a storyline that deals with the seamier side of English society and that takes political and economic issues seriously, but it would have been easier to follow with fewer twists and turns and about half as many characters.

Most problematic  for me, however, is the setting. You begin the novel with fifteen-year-old Tavy arriving in Madras and becoming enchanted by the sounds and colors of exotic India. Wonderful! But then I’m repeatedly pulled out of the story by the details. Why does everyone in Madras speak Hindi? Aside from the fact that Hindi wasn’t a distinct language until much later in the 19th Century, why are Tamils speaking it at all? Why is no one in the cradle of Tamil linguistic and cultural hegemony, speaking his or her own language?

And why is Ben described as forging alliances with “Mughal princes,” when by 1820 the Mughal Emperor was essentially a puppet of British India whose reach did not extend outside the north? It would make more sense to namecheck Tipu Sultan here, and even he had succumbed to the British before the prologue takes place.

Historically contested stereotypes are reproduced here as if they are fact. Ben’s aunt begs him not to offer for Tavy because

The potential for disaster was too great so soon after his uncle’s death. According to her husband’s last wish, she had not thrown herself upon the funeral pyre as customary, and many of his native business associates were unhappy with this breach of tradition. They claimed that the family had become too western and could not be trusted. (emphasis added)

Let’s skip over the depiction of wealthy Brahmins in South India as traders (Hindu doctrine made that quite difficult for a variety of reasons). But sati as customary? Um, no. Sati did occur, and the British were understandably appalled by it. But as a historian, you should appreciate that the British obsession with sati did not reflect widespread practice, especially in South India. It would have been one thing to have British characters embracing this stereotype, but to have Indians acting as if it was done as a matter of course is, to put it mildly, problematic. And if this isn’t enough, you revive another old canard:

“And I have heard that dusky men have enormous –“

“Prissy Nathans, control your tongue,” Lady Gosworth hissed. “There is an unmarried lady present.”

Tavy’s eyes widened. Lady Gosworth stared back.

“Well.” The diminutive countess seemed to recollect herself. “He is not all that exotic.”

It’s bad enough to read “dusky” and “enormous,” although, to be fair, you put the words in the mouth of an unsympathetic character. But it’s the wrong stereotype. Indian men were dismissed as effeminate by the British, and their masculinity was regularly impugned. On top of that, south Indians were on average quite short and slight, so it’s extremely unlikely that British women would have attributed any masculine prowess to that particular exotic background.

Next to these examples, the rest are positively minor.  Ben utters Sanskrit words during sex (which is analogous to an English Catholic calling out bits of the Latin Mass). Tavy’s pet monkey is imported from America despite the fact that India is positively overrun with the creatures. And Ben’s motley array of “native” servants  (comprising a half-Japanese cousin, a Sikh apparently rescued from a pirate/slave ship, and Tavy’s large and imposing Indian servant who is unaccountably endowed with a woman’s name) seem to be drawn from a traveling show.

Every time I was swept up in the pleasure of the romance, something in the context came along to yank me right out. I really appreciate the attempt to extend the Regency trope by incorporating non-English settings. I just wish it could have been executed in a way that didn’t have me reaching for paste to glue the wallpaper back into place.

My grade: C

~Sunita

Dear Ms.  Ashe:

As Sunita notes above, you have quite the lovely writing style but my overall enjoyment of the story was marred, not by the cultural or historical inaccuracies, but the machinations of the plot itself.  The entirety of the conflict of Ben and Tavy was the result of Ben’s stubborn adherence to the belief that Tavy had somehow wronged him when she did not accept his unspoken marriage proposal when she was 18.

Sunita describes the scene a bit above where Ben comes to offer for Tavy but is turned away by her aunt.  Ben decides that Tavy is just like all the other women who have ever wanted him –  one who wanted the taste of an exotic.

But she had a penchant for the exotic, her aunt had said. He should have guessed that. Even at that young age he had already had more than his share of women who took an extra thrill in being with him, believing themselves especially wicked. Women who wanted to feel and appear wicked even more than they wanted pleasure. He had used that to his uncle’s advantage, and the pleasure he got from those encounters was great. The pain was greater still.

There were some sly intimations at the end of a few POVs from Ben that he was forcing himself to view Tavy as a faithless whore so that it justified his decision to not pursue her so many years ago.  But I got the impression that Ben rather liked his hair shirt and his martyr position.

Because he could not then and still could not believe in her deceit, although he had tried to convince himself of it again and again. To absolve himself of guilt.

I suppose I could have read this as Ben lying to himself the entire book but he carries on as if he does believe in her guilt, treating her half with scorn and disdain and half with mad want.

“You are being unfaithful to your betrothed,” he murmured.
She did not respond immediately.
“It is you,” she finally whispered.
He went still, only his heartbeats battering a quick tempo. “Because of who I am.”
“Of course.”
Ben’s chest constricted. He released her and stepped back.
“It is unfortunate for you then, madam, that I have had enough women like you to last me a lifetime.”

I couldn’t figure out his motivations.   Did he set her away from him emotionally because he felt he could not carry on his secret activities if Tavy were his wife?  The things that would have kept them apart when he was in his early twenties did not appear to exist now that he had ascended to the Marquessate.  The only thing that seemed to keep them apart was Ben’s own desire to want to view Tavy in a poor light.  He goes about making sure that she is just what he always suspected – a manipulative liar who just wants to bed him because he’s exotic.  It was frustrating that he would continually view Tavy in such a manner when she hadn’t ever exhibited such behaviors previously.  Of course, after he seduces her while she is on the cusp of a betrothal with another man gives him all the evidence he needs that she is the faithless woman he’s always thought.

Ben’s self-deception carries forth far into the end of the book. Instead of confiding in Tavy what he has confided in everyone else he withhold the truth of her so that she ends up  in danger causing him much alarm. Damn her for not reading his mind.

Compounding this was the shaded way in which you wrote about Ben’s secret activities.  It was quite obvious what the secret activities were even from the first intimation of them in Chapter 2, yet, the activities are constantly alluded to rather than explicitly stated and I felt that subterfuge (much like the emotional conflict) was unnecessarily drawn out.

I felt saddened that these overt manipulations were what drove the emotional conflict because the writing is beautiful but I felt the authorial intrusion keenly. C

Best regards,

Jane

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Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

21 Comments

  1. cayenne
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 11:16:31

    I’ve also been looking forward to this book because of the non-standard Regency setting, but I think I probably don’t have enough understanding of Indian history or culture to call out some of the accuracy problems in the book. @Sunita, do you have any recommended starter readings for an India newbie with an otherwise very strong history background?

  2. Jane
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 11:19:31

    @cayenne Not Sunita of couse but very little of this book takes place in India. 90% of it is in Regency England.

  3. Sunita
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 11:27:28

    @cayenne: Jane is right, and I think that people without the relevant historical or cultural background will not notice the stuff I did in the England-set section.

    Meredith Duran’s first book does a wonderful job of evoking the feel of India in the first half. I wrote a column here at DA a while ago on Eileen Dreyer’s last book, in which the English heroine grows up in India. Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite A Husband is set in the Northwest Frontier Province and she does a terrific job on the setting.

    Generally, it’s easier for an author to evoke the setting well than to create authentically “Indian” characters, since they have to be both culturally and historically grounded (which can be distinct issues when you’re writing about the 19th century).

    I’ll try to come up with more.

  4. Kim in Hawaii
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 12:57:52

    Sunita, as always, interesting to read your comments.

    You wrote “Baron (of?) Crispin”. The title is styled as Baron X (last name). For example, the last female Prime Minster is formally referred to as Baroness Thatcher (she holds the title herself). In less formal affairs, she is called Lady Thatcher. As best I can tell from the quick research I conducted, there is no “of” associated with Baron.

  5. Kim
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 13:18:42

    It’s interesting that you had the same grade, but totally different reasons. I tried this author’s debut book and had problems with it, so I’m not sure if I’ll try this one.

  6. Maili
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 13:20:41

    This is utterly trivial, I’m sorry – but does the story explain why/how the hero has a Japanese name when he’s half Indian and half Anglo?

    You also mention “a half-Japanese cousin”. I’m guessing the hero’s uncle/aunt is married to or involved with a Japanese woman/man? If so, how? Bearing in mind that – since Jane says it’s set in Regency England – Japan was closed to the world (except for a selection of Portuguese, Korean and Dutch traders at Japan’s four heavily-monitored ports) from roughly 17th century to roughly 1860s. So I’m wondering how a Japanese person managed to have a child with (I assume) an Anglo? An ambassador who went rogue? Or is this where the Regency era is extended to the 1860s? Not important, obviously, but my curiosity is dying to know. :D

    Shame that it’s set mostly in England because I’d buy if half or more of the story was set in India as a heads-up to publisher.

  7. Janine
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 13:57:24

    Great reviews. It’s so interesting to contrast them and see how you looked at the book from such different angles and yet arrived at the same grade.

    I know very little about India so I would not catch the inaccuracies Sunita did, but I’m grateful to know about them nonetheless. Otherwise, if I had read the book, I might have absorbed the inaccurate information and thought, for example, that sati was customary.

    Incidentally I remember the spelling as “suttee” — is that no longer used?

  8. etv13
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 16:35:59

    @Sunita, Kim in Hawaii:

    Accoding to Adam in A Civil Contract, nobody under the rank of earl gets an “of” with his title. Some earls (Lord Spencer, e.g.) don’t have an “of” either. (I think they are all ones where their title and their surname are the same.)

  9. Sunita
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 16:43:51

    @Kim in Hawaii: @etv13: The “of?” came from the text, because at one point Tavy thinks to herself about her life as “baroness of Crispin.” Baron and Baroness were generally not capitalized in the text, but this is an ARC, so both of these blips could have been corrected in the final copy.

    In addition, Scottish baronies did take an “of” in formal address at various times, so if Crispin’s title were Scottish it would not necessarily be incorrect.

    ETA: Sorry, I should have put the ? in brackets rather than the whole thing in parentheses, then it would have been clearer.

  10. Sunita
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 16:55:11

    @Maili: The half-Japanese thing is complicated and odd (I had the same question about where a Japanese person would have come from at that time). Ben’s uncle had a son with a Japanese woman who either was at the time or later became Ben’s nurse. How a Japanese woman wound up as a nurse to a South Indian Brahmin family is another mystery.

    That is also the explanation for his name:

    “His nurse was Japanese.” She filled the silence. “The family quite adored her. Her son saved his life when they were children, and Lady Doreé named him in her honor. They are an extraordinary family.”

    I conclude from this passage that Abha saved Ben’s life and then Ben’s name was changed to Benjirou. Apparently the nurse’s illegitimate child (by the uncle) was allowed to play with the uncle’s heir. Extraordinary indeed. These are all supposed to be Brahmins who worry about their caste and social status.

  11. Sunita
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 17:00:36

    @Janine: Suttee is the old British transliteration of the Indian word. Sati is the contemporary transliteration. Unfortunately, there is no universally accepted system of transliteration (as there was/is for Chinese languages, for example), so you get various spellings for the same word even today.

  12. Janine
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 17:42:31

    @Sunita: Thanks for explaining.

  13. dri
    Sep 02, 2011 @ 22:58:18

    Ha! Sunita, you rock. I’ll add this one to my list of Novels I Must Avoid For Their Wonderful Depiction Of My Birth Country. :p

    As I say rather too often, thank christ for Meredith Duran.

  14. SR
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 01:12:11

    Sanskrit during sex? Talk about mood killer! I’ll give this one a miss

  15. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 10:32:14

    Most British titles were awarded with land, and the title comes from the land, not the person. So typically, the title is “Peter Surname, Earl of Somewhere.” And the title holder treats the “Somewhere” as his surname, but his brothers, sisters, and all his children but his eldest son do the same.
    There is no “of” below the title of earl. Only dukes, marquises and earls have an “of.”
    I can’t think of anyone other than Earl Spencer who does it like that, but I’d bet there is one, lurking with a tripwire. Still, it’s unusual, to say the least, as is the Spencer title.
    But there were more than title errors in this book. References to cities in England having “blocks” and “sidewalks” and the startlingly modern exclamation “We’re through,” kept me from getting really involved in this one. The author did the big, sweeping research okay, but the social niceties and the details weren’t really given as much attention.
    But really, I wanted less plot and more character.

  16. dick
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 13:18:21

    I didn’t like the book. In my opinion, the writing was not very good, the plot was unnecessarily dense, the characters inconsistent and puzzling. By the end, I wondered why I had persevered to that point. IMO, it was sub-average.

  17. jmc
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 16:26:07

    A monkey imported from America? South America, I hope, since I don’t believe monkeys are native to North America.

  18. Sunita
    Sep 06, 2011 @ 17:25:45

    @jmc: It’s described as a capuchin monkey, so it would have to be from central or south America. I would have thought the native monkey handlers would have seen it as competition, but anything is possible.

  19. Mala
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 11:26:21

    It was an exceedingly well-traveled monkey! Because it had been brought from South America to North America… and then taken to India and sold in a bazaar (seriously, they have PLENTY of their own monkeys there!)… and then brought to England.

    Every time I pick up a book set partially in India, I get excited and hopeful. More often than not, I end up head-desking.

  20. What Jane Has Been Reading, Week of August 29 - Dear Author
    Sep 13, 2011 @ 07:08:23

    […] DUAL REVIEW: In the Arms of the Marquess by Katherine Ashe […]

  21. About the Author: what’s the point? | Shuffling Through A Bookless Desert
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 21:17:06

    […] for me.  (Of course, that can always backfire; see Sunita’s portion of the joint review of  In the Arms of the Marquess and subsequent post on “mistoricals“.) Otherwise, eh, not so […]

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