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How to Do “Exotic” Right: Eileen Dreyer’s Never A Gentleman

funny-pictures-your-cat-is-an-exotic-dancer

People who know me know I’m hyper-sensitive to the portrayal of India and Indians in romance novels, especially British India in European historicals. Eileen Dreyer has a new trilogy, the second volume of which features an English heroine who accompanied her military officer father around the world, including campaigns in India in the early 1800s. Last year I wound up in a conversation with Ms. Dreyer in the comments to a negative  review here at DA of the first book, Barely A Lady. I liked it better than Jayne did, but I agreed with many of her criticisms. In a spinoff discussion in the comments, I made some unflattering remarks about western women who wear native garb out of context. Ms. Dreyer chimed in and participated, and rather than upbraiding me for my ignorance and rudeness (which she would have been well within her rights to do), she explained the situation. Long story short (you can read the long story here), she not only displayed tremendous sensitivity to the issues I was raising, but she looked awesome in her made-to-order sari.

Nevertheless, I approached Never A Gentleman with some trepidation, because I’ve found that even authors with some background in Indian history or culture can set off my radar. I spent my childhood in India as a member of my Indian father’s extended family, and then I studied Indian history and politics from college through graduate school and in my academic career. For more than 25 years I’ve spent between three and eight weeks there almost every year, and I’ve traveled through many of the Indian states. I’ve spent many months researching archival materials from the 18th and early 20th centuries. So you could say I’m pretty invested in the material.

I’ve learned in part to control my tendency to rush to judgement when reading romance novels. After all, I happily read books set in periods and places about which I’m pretty ignorant, so why should the poor authors who wander into my bailiwick get skewered? And I am still drawn to see how they write about places and eras near and dear to me even though my expectations are fairly low. Therefore, given my willingness to criticize any and all mistakes, when I come across what I think is a good portrayal of Indian history, culture, fashion, etc., the least I can do is flag it and say why I think it works.

In Never A Gentleman, Grace Fairchild has spent more time abroad with her General father than she has in her native land. When he is killed at Waterloo, Grace decides that she can finally go home to England, bury herself in Longbridge, her country estate, and breed horses. Grace is not pretty, she is extremely tall and thin, and she has a lame leg, so she has no expectation of marrying. Nevertheless, the machinations of conspirators against the British Crown cause her to wind up in a Marriage of Convenience with the gorgeous, rakish Diccan Hilliard. When Grace accepts this outcome, it becomes apparent to her that being a good wife means jettisoning not only her interest in horse breeding, but her attachment to the colors, textures, and practices of the vibrant worlds of the Mediterranean and South Asia. She leaves her faithful Indian retainers at Longbridge and decorates the new London townhouse in muted pastels and clean lines. Back at Longbridge, her Indian treasures, which include silks, embroidered Kashmiri shawls, and a golden Ganesha statue, stay packed away in crates. The description of these treasures is lovely:

He grabbed the first thing he felt and pulled it out.

A pillow.

An emerald green silk pillow with gold tassels and an ornate gold needlwork peacock. Diccan stared at it as if would explain itself. He threw it down and reached into the crate again, only to come out with more of the same: pillows in jewel tones, a sinfully soft gold paisley Kashmiri throw, seemingly endless lengths of silks in hot colors: orange, pink, chartreuse, yellow. He walked to the next crate, and the next, only to find them precisely packed with more pillows, more fabric, glints of brass and beads and bangles. He even saw a girdle worn for belly dancing.

"What the hell?"

He recognized it all, of course. The booty of an oriental merchantman. The interior of a vizier's tent. The color and texture and sounds of exotic lands most people could never even hope to see.

In addition to her interests in fashion and furnishings, Grace has learned quite a bit about sex and sexual pleasure from her time abroad. In the novel, the explanation for why she was mixing with sequestered Muslim women is that she was in a zenana during a siege; this sounds sufficiently plausible that I didn’t rush to look it up. In addition, she spent her childhood years in Calcutta, so she spent a lot of time with native Indians. This also rings true to me, since the servants would be Indian and even British children would be mostly in their company. Grace’s mother abandoned her and her father didn’t seem to be hugely anti-Indian (besides being busy Generalling), so she could easily have seen a side of Indian culture that was warm and welcoming to a lonely, neglected child. Similarly, her attachment to her Indian retainers make sense given how excluded she feels (and often is) from English society.

It’s not quite clear where Grace came across tantric temples, carvings, and paintings, although there are several temples with tantric influences in Bengal, and Grace spent time in several places across the subcontinent. Certainly they wouldn’t have been in the zenana (since Islam doesn’t allow figurative representations of divinities and Muslim invaders repeatedly destroyed figurative temple art in India). So when it comes to Grace’s understanding of sexual practices and Hindu art, there seems to be some mashing together of Muslim and Hindu influences. This could be an error on Ms. Dreyer’s part, or it could be an accurate reflection of the way people in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would have come into contact with cultural material from both religions. More important to me is that these experiences are part of Grace’s personal development and help shape her desires, rather than being used as ooh-isn’t-this-exotic interludes to spice up the sex scenes.

The final marriage scene is almost over the top, but by that point I trust Ms. Dreyer enough that I buy it happily. And I can see the two of them living in their colorful, texturally rich, very un-English home.

In comments to Lazaraspaste’s  review, a reader expressed dissatisfaction with the West-as-muted, East-as-colorful metaphor, and I can understand that reaction, because it feels like a stereotypical shortcut. But in my experience the metaphor is on target. India is an unbelievably vibrant, colorful place, to the point of overstimulation. Black and white are traditional indicators of isolation and mourning rather than sophistication. Everything is colorful, even the poorest villages. When people have a little bit of money, they dress themselves, their houses, and their animals up in bright, shimmering shades. It’s not that Western art and fashion isn’t colorful, it’s that it doesn’t combine colors and textures in the same way, or across all social classes. For example, here is a snapshot of my cosmetics case:

It’s just a normal, everyday product, but it mixes a number of colors and dresses them up in gold-thread embroidery. To me, that is what Ms. Dreyer captured about India and showed Grace responding to.

Finally, and perhaps best of all, she gave Grace a fount of sexual understanding based on her experiences in the Exotic East without invoking those two dreaded words:

Kama. Sutra.

Brava, Ms. Dreyer, and thanks.

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

29 Comments

  1. ritu
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 05:04:53

    Ah, just wanted to chime in about books set in India/Indian culture. I am an Indian and now I’m working abroad. At first, I wanted to see more books set in India. But for historical novels, I’m highly skeptical. I couldn’t enjoy Duke of Shadows by Meredith Duran. I kept reviewing my history lessons (and dang it, that same lessons failed to appear during my exams!) and other books I read during that period.

    Coming to the contemporary ones, I haven’t found that many authors I enjoy, especially those chick lit types. I believe they try to westernize the Indian culture. Given what I know of NRI (Non-Resident Indians) and Indians who have settled abroad, all those books don’t seem real. I’m not sure who constitute the market for those books (americans?) because I couldn’t read without getting jolted out of the book due to the scenarios.

    And please, don’t get me started on India, the land of the Kama Sutra book. OK, here ends my rant.

    After reading the article (it did make most of my points), I will probably add the book to list of books to check in library. I’d love to read a good book set in India. I want other people to see India as I see it. The rich culture, different languages, religion and yes, all the caste and inter-religion issues too. And I can’t even say I know how all the regions in India celebrate the same festival. Despite all the highs and the lows (admittedly many), I’d still like people to know about them. My search will continue for that book.

    P.S I love your cosmetics case. My grandmother has one like this and she loves it!

  2. Danielle D
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 05:27:32

    Love your cosmetics bag!

  3. Jayne
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 06:15:14

    I love the cosmetics bag and exotic dancer kitteh – was she at the RT convention this past weekend? ;)

    Can anyone recommend authors who get India “right” while writing a good book?

  4. Lynnd
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 08:04:38

    I am not South Asian, but have many friends who are and I completely understand what you mean about the colours. When I am invited to weddings or other events, I am always amazed by the bright and rich colours of the saris and suits and all of the beautiful jewellery. Sometimes I think many of our “Western” events look more like funerals with so many people dressed up in black dresses and suits :-).

  5. Janet W
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 08:43:33

    Isn’t it odd how reviews can trigger that urge to read: negative ones too. Everything I read in the review of Eileen Dreyer’s current novel triggered, hmmm, sounds interesting buttons and now this seals the deal. Should I read the first one in the series to start with? Thanks!

  6. Jaclyn
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 09:15:22

    “I happily read books set in periods and places about which I'm pretty ignorant, so why should the poor authors who wander into my bailiwick get skewered?”

    Yes! This is how I read, too. If I know little about a place or time period I’m far less critical about the description of it. When I have more than a passing knowledge of a people, place, or time period, I become more critical of how it is represented in fiction.

    My knowledge of India is an odd mash-up with some dubious sources of learning–it started with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Not a good starting, point, hmm? I took a world mythologies class as a college freshmen, which led to a class on the history of Buddhism, which led to a class on the art history of Asia…. Today in my professional work I encounter studies of current social movements in India as well as studies of India’s colonial built environment. All this is to say, I don’t have a cohesive understanding of the cultures of India in any one time or place, but I’m fascinated by this place and people that is so different from my midwestern American home.

    Sunita makes another point which is critical to my enjoyment of any book: “these experiences are part of Grace's personal development and help shape her desires, rather than being used as ooh-isn't-this-exotic interludes.” Gratuitous “ooh-isn't-this-exotic” moments are book killers for me. The best books weave the social, artistic, religious, musical–cultural–elements of a time and places into the very fabric of their characters and stories, and it’s this richness of place and time that I am always hoping to find in a story, especially in historicals.

    Ms. Dreyer’s book was not on my TBR, and I am heading over to the ebookstore to buy a copy now. Thanks for this post, Sunita!

  7. Pat
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 09:46:45

    I was startled by the tepid reviews of this book and Ms. Dreyer’s previous one, both of which I enjoyed. I confess to considerable ignorance about India and Indian culture, so I cannot comment on that. However, both books seemed to me to be grounded in a very real and vividly captured world, and that is something I appreciate.

  8. jody
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 09:48:22

    @Jayne:

    I enjoyed Julia Gregson’s historical novel East of the Sun and would be interested to know anyone else’s thoughts on this book.

    And what about M. M. Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavilions? And Valerie Fitzgerald’s Zemindar? I’ve never been to India and don’t know if any of the authors got it right, but I love these books and hope they did.

  9. dick
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 10:10:41

    @Jayne: John Masters wrote several books set in India–The Lotus and the Wind and Night-runners of Bengal–which were praised when first published. One of Barbara Dawson Smith’s early books was set in India during the Sepoy rebellion–”Fire on the Wind.” In another of her books, the hero is a half-caste duke–”Fire at Midnight.”

  10. Sunita
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 10:45:46

    Wow, such great comments, thanks!

    Ritu and Jaclyn, I think that it’s impossible to get everything right, especially in fiction, and knowledgeable readers should keep in mind that fiction writing has its own constraints. That said, there are some traps that are pretty easy to avoid these days, especially given the availability of accurate information.

    I don’t read chick lit, as a rule, but one thing I’ve found in some NRI-written books is the emphasis on food and ritual rather than a more comprehensive portrayal of immigrant life. My favorite expat/NRI books are mainstream fiction/lit fic by Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Devakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri and the like. But those are not romances.

    I have not read MM Kaye, in part because I’m not big on “half-caste” heroes and heroines, and the 1857 rebellion is as overused as Waterloo. But it’s in my TBR, really! For contemporary books, I think Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite A Lady gets the feel of the country very well, as does Duran’s Duke of Shadows. They are extremely evocative. Thomas’s is a road romance focused on the hero and heroine so the relatively skimpy characterizations of natives matter less. In the Duran I found the characters problematic but she is amazing at capturing the feel of the country, so I still enjoyed the reading experience.

    The best books on colonial India, bar none, are the Raj Quartet books by Paul Scott. I’ve read them multiple times and watched the Granada miniseries, and they remain awesome. Again, not romances, but with romantic storylines threaded through the novels.

    One of the reasons Never A Gentleman worked for me was that Dreyer isn’t giving us an Indian history lesson, or plopping down Anglo-Indian characters, but showing us through a character what makes India so seductive and compelling. I felt as if Grace loved the place for the things about it that are real, and she avoided overused stereotypes.

  11. Sunita
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 10:53:57

    @Janet W: I don’t think you need to read the first one before this. There is backstory in the first one which adds richness to the characterizations, but NaG stands on its own pretty well.

  12. Jaclyn
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 11:14:40

    I loved The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Divakaruni. Around the same time I read Bombay Ice by Leslie Forbes. I recall being caught up in the book (which is a thriller set in the world of Bollywood), but not much more than that.

    You all have added to my TBR. *le sigh*

  13. Kim in Hawaii
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 11:33:45

    Aloha, Sunita! I appreciate your frankness in this opinion piece. In fact, I left the comment to the review last year of BARELY A LADY. I wrote that Eileen Dreyer had worn a sari to the Beau Monde Soiree during the 2009 RWA Convention. You replied with your concern about Western women wearing native costumes.

    Ms. Dreyer did attend RT and she is a ball of fire! She, Pat Rice, and Cathy Maxwell hosted an interactive panel on how to bring characters to life – Pat covered heroines, Cathy (in an elephant’s nose) addressed heroes, and Eileen talked about villains. It was informative and entertaining but also inspiring to see three authors so passionate about their writing in historical romance.

    In fact, I had scheduled a breakfast date with Eileen for Saturday morning. We talked about her experiences (as a trauma nurse and her travels (off the beaten paths through Europe).

    Eileen has also asked me in advance if she could sing during the SOS Military Mixer. Her father, a WWII veteran, had recently passed away. During the breakfast, she expressed some concern that she might not be able to sing with a hoarse throat. Yet she sang … and sang a beautiful tribute to the greatest generation.

    I came away from RT with a new admiration for Eileen as I have seen firsthand how she seeks excellence in all she does.

  14. Janine
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 13:49:01

    Fascinating post, Sunita! I know what you mean about being hyper-sensitive because I feel that way about portrayals of Israelis in American books. Not that there are many of those (and I don’t think I’ve read any in the romance genre), but when I’ve come across them in mainstream fiction, they often don’t seem quite right.

    Sherry Thomas's Not Quite A Lady

    I think you mean Not Quite a Husband.

  15. Evangeline Holland
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 14:25:37

    Thank you for this post Sunita! This is precisely why I approach cultures outside of my own with caution. Even though I majored in anthropology, it is still very easy to filter other cultures through my cultural biases, through the biases handed down to us by the Victorians and Edwardians (particularly when reading primary resources!), and through the cultural biases of mostly Western-based scholars. I also never feel comfortable just tramping through someone else’s heritage and history for the sake of entertaining others-’even those existing within the United States. However, I think it’s equally misleading to write a strictly “white” world, as this implies that “white” people are the default blank cultural space from which to launch any type of plot in historical romance. It’s a very fine tightrope to walk, and a journey I find challenges me as a writer and as an anthropologist.

  16. Sunita
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 14:59:13

    @Kim in Hawaii: The comments that followed your original comment made me think a lot and were part of the inspiration for the post, so thank you! I think talking with Ms. Dreyer about pretty much anything would be a treat.

    @Janine: Yes, thank you, I did. (((redface)))

    @Evangeline Holland: Yes, it’s not just our cultural biases but the difficulty of understanding and communicating aspects of another era. And it’s a difficult balance between treating “white” or European as the default and creating characters who are comprehensible, let alone sympathetic, to today’s readers.

  17. Isobel Carr
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 15:20:40

    @Sunita: I’m assuming you’ve read White Mugahls, yes? It's such an amazing look at the English in India and at the lives of Anglo-Indians back in England. I found it utterly fascinating to see the transition from how they were treated and viewed in the 18th century (if you had money and family, nobody cared that you were half-Indian) to the Victorian period, when they began to care VERY MUCH (and then you throw in the queen's Indian servant, her rock after the death of Brown, and things get very interesting indeed).

  18. Sunita
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 16:03:53

    @Isobel Carr: I’ve read excerpts, but I don’t really read Dalrymple’s books because I have to read the academic historical scholarship of the period and those books and articles are really good. So the more popular stuff feels watered down to me (nothing against it, just an occupational hazard; lots of people in India read and love Dalrymple). The rise of the middle class, non-Oxbridge civil servant during the Victorian era, and the fact that these men were now accompanied by their families (less common in the late 18th century) really changed the dynamic, both within India and for people who returned. It’s a fascinating process.

  19. Isobel Carr
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 16:13:26

    @Sunita, if you have primary sources to recommend, or specific scholarship I can access, bring it on! I LOVE this kind of stuff!!!

  20. Isobel Carr
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 16:15:04

    And if you ever attend RWA National, I’d LOVE to have you give a workshop on the topic for the Beau Monde . . .

  21. Sunita
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 16:25:53

    @Isobel Carr: What a nice compliment, I am blushing! Three books, just for you: (1) The great historian P.J. Marshall, The Making and Unmaking of Empires; this is a comparison of Britain’s loss of the colonies and the acquisition of Indian territories. Two oldies but goodies on ideas and India: (2) the less prolific but equally great Eric Stokes, The English Utilitarians and India; and (3) Francis Hutchins, The Illusion of Permanence. The former is a classic on how Utilitarian philosophers and evangelicals used India as a lab for their theories; the latter extends Stokes’ theories about imperial ideologies and is dated in its view of Victorian society but still very useful. If not in print, available used or through ILL and definitely in university libraries.

    ETA: There is a lot of very good social history on this period now as well, but I don’t have it at my fingertips.

  22. Eileen Dreyer
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 16:53:56

    Sunita–thank you for again beginning a really thoughtful, heartfelt discussion. I can’t tell you what your approval means to me. I admit that I”m obsessive about my research. It goes back to the fact that as a nurse, I’ve NEVER seen an accurate portrayal of nurses in media, so I vowed I would give a lot more respect to anyone I represented in my work. @Evangeline, I feel the same way, that I don’t want to arrogantly assume I know another culture enough to portray it through a lead character.

    I knew all along that Grace would have been to exotic places. But I’m not sure I would have so interwoven India into her life if I hadn’t been able to go. Not that there isn’t beautiful research out there. But having the chance to not only experience India as a tourist, but as a friend, I fell in love. I was overwhelmed by it, mystified, upset, anxious, enchanted, surprised, hungry,seduced …The old cliches are absolutely true. It is a banquet for the senses, a dream you just can’t seem to shake off. But that doesn’t make it an easy place, either.
    You made me smile about the erotic water color art. I knew the tantric art existed. But I actually came across some beautiful, brightly colored water color examples in Rajasthan, which as you said, is an area with strong Muslim influence.(if my husband hadn’t been so shy about possibly showing them to customs, I would have brought some home for my own bedroom). And when I did research, I found that a good percentage of the extant top ten tantric temples(say that fast three times) were in Rajasthan(which is where Bharatpur is located) and Madhya Pradesh, which is next door. So I went for it.

    I just wish I’d been able to include more. I have a feeling, though, that I’ll be back. Both in real life and in romance.

  23. Sunita
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 17:21:40

    @Eileen Dreyer: I think what you did with Grace’s experience in India and its effect on her is the epitome of showing-not-telling. The reader learns through the character’s thoughts and feelings, and these are revealed primarily through actions and dialogue. There are a few expository passages, but I don’t think there are that many.

    It doesn’t surprise me that you did lots of research! But it doesn’t show in the end product, in the sense that the material is so well integrated into the Grace’s story that I don’t separate the India stuff from Grace. This must be really difficult to do, but my goodness it’s impressive when it works.

    John Russell, the late great art critic for the NY Times, had a cover story in the Sunday Magazine many years ago about art and public life in India, i.e., that art, religion, and color were deeply embedded into the life of everyday people. Your characterization of Grace reminded me how insightful that observation was, and how if you don’t get that, you don’t get a big part of Indian life.

  24. Eileen Dreyer
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 17:46:55

    I think one of the ways it really struck me was the ubiquitous use of the crysanthemum and passion flower. There is just something about seeing blankets of bright yellow and red that screams life. I love the fact that each god has his or her own flower
    . How much more lovely than sacrificing goats.

  25. Kaetrin
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 03:29:01

    I love books set in India – it has always seemed very exotic to me. I cut some of my romance reading teeth on MM Kaye’s Shadow of the Moon and The Far Pavillions. I have Trade Winds too but for the life of me I can’t remember whether India featured in that one.

    I can’t speak for whether they’re accurate, but they were certainly enjoyable for me and I have them on my keeper shelves.

    You’ve sold me on this one too so I’ll have to pick it up soon. thx!

  26. Eileen Dreyer
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 12:07:03

    Kaetrin–Far Pavillions was a seminal romance for me. Suddenly the world was mystical and exotic and challenging. I think I’ve always wanted to set a book there for myself, so I could return.

  27. Sunita
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 13:55:43

    @Kaetrin: @Eileen Dreyer: Okay, you two, I give! Far Pavilions is moving up my TBR!

  28. Kaetrin
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 19:36:50

    @ Sunita – it’s a great book, even though I think Shadow of the Moon is my favourite! :)

  29. Jill Sorenson
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 20:01:58

    I can’t speak to the authenticity of the setting details but I loved Meredith Duran’s Duke of Shadows. I think she handled the tug-of-war within the bicultural hero brilliantly.

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