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Historical Romances

REVIEW:  The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan

REVIEW: The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan


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+


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Conversational Review: The Windflower by Laura London (aka Tom and Sharon Curtis)

Conversational Review: The Windflower by Laura London (aka Tom and Sharon...

In preparation for our book club on The Windflower, Sunita and Robin undertook a conversational review of the book. Very soon it became clear that in order to keep said review under the actual page limit of the book itself, we’d have to do more of a general commentary that we hope will provoke more in depth discussion over at the Book Club post.

London_WindflowerRobin: The Windflower was part of my Romance conversion package, and it was the one book I kept picking up and putting down. Until, one day, after I had read all of the Curtises’s Regencies and a bunch of other historical Romances, I picked up the book again and couldn’t put it down until I finished it. Yes, the language was overly lush (it was, at that point, almost 20 years since it had been published), Merry was too much the plucky but clueless red-haired virgin, and Devon teetered on the edge of brooding, rakish alphahole. But still, there was so much to love and admire…

First, the book is set during the War of 1812, and it begins in Virginia, with Merry Wilding trying to sketch a trio of rutabagas, thinking about the unicorn that periodically comes to her in a dream. Merry lives with her aunt, because her mother is dead and her brother – a spy for the American side – lives with their much older father. Merry fancies herself an American patriot, which can make life with her pro-British Aunt April a struggle of personal and political loyalties. So when Carl asks Merry to help him by sketching some men at a smuggler’s den, she is beside herself with excitement – both to help the American cause and for the likely adventure.

Of course, a young woman like Merry, with her long, bright red hair, obvious beauty, and naïve enthusiasm, is not exactly inconspicuous, even in costume, and when some pirates from the infamous Black Joke enter the den, one in particular is clearly taken with her.

Devon Crandall, who has seen and done far more than most men in their mid to late twenties, is more than taken with the young woman whose appearance suggests that she is married to a traveling puppeteer and in an advanced state of pregnancy. All of which amplifies his surprise, some months later, when her unconscious body is brought aboard the Black Joke, presumably from the bed of Devon’s most bitter enemy, Michael Granville, making her an assumed enemy, as well.

Of course, Merry is no more Michael Granville’s mistress than Devon is the lawless, pillaging rapist Merry initially imagines him to be. The means by which Merry ends up in Granville’s bed is merely one more coincidence in an incredibly intricate, interwoven plot that both defies clear explanation and loses a great deal in mere plot summary. To unwind the entire plot reveals many spoilers, which I will try to avoid here, but I will try to summarize as follows:

Merry is taken prisoner on the Black Joke, because Devon is convinced that she somehow holds the key to exposing Granville, something Devon has been yet unable to do. Merry, of course, has no clue about Granville, which just makes her appear guiltier to Devon, in large part because her earlier appearance at the smugglers’ den means she’s obviously involved in something. Also, in part, because Devon is so very attracted to her and can’t seem to get over that.

Devon, of course, is no run of the mill pirate, and the Black Joke is no run of the mill pirate ship. Devon’s older half-brother Rand Morgan captains the ship, and the crew is a salty mix of characters who, despite their reputation for lawless butchery, seem more like a motley band of maritime brothers, most of whom are immediately smitten with Merry. Rand’s protégé, Cat, has daily care of Merry. They are of the same age, although Cat was rescued from a brothel and is therefore much more cynical and experienced than the young woman he befriends.

There are a number of interwoven, coordinated agendas that drive the novel: Merry’s fear for her aunt and brother’s safety, Devon’s campaign against Granville, Cat’s ambivalent protectiveness toward Merry, and Rand’s mysterious machinations around all of them. Devon is hoping to be able to use Merry to expose Granville for the evil scum he knows him to be, but his attraction to her is really what makes him incapable of setting her free. And the longer she is on the ship, the more obvious it becomes that Rand has both knowledge and intention around both of them, which makes him happy to keep the two in close proximity. There are a great number of incidents that occur in the book, all of which serve multiple purposes – to bring Merry and Devon closer together, to forward Devon’s agenda with Granville, to solve a number of mysteries around Devon’s political loyalties and those initial sketches Merry was brought to the smugglers’ den to produce – as the Black Joke makes its way back to England, where the relationship between all of these plot threads will be revealed.

So much of The Windflower sounds like a bad parody when you try to explain it to someone, and yet, every time I read it I uncover more subtle layers. Before I get too far off the rails, though, let me turn it over to Sunita, for her initial impressions:

Sunita: I had forgotten more than I realized of the book since I read it years ago, but I remembered enough that this reread was more of a meta-read, where the Romance with a capital R aspects of the story stood out to me. As I mentioned to Robin before, the opening scenes and the depiction of Merry reminded me of Hero in Heyer’s Friday’s Child; there’s that same young, sheltered, ingenuousness but with a core of common sense underlying it all.

Almost all the characters read as over the top to me, but in an affectionate, intentional way, and Rand Morgan, Devon, Merry, and the ship’s crew are all saved from being caricatures by the skill and self-awareness of the writing. Cat, on the other hand, feels utterly original, and he also feels as if he has wandered in from a completely different novel. This may explain why so many readers are drawn to him and have been clamoring for his story since the book was published. It’s not just that he is gorgeous and has a tortured backstory, but that he comes across as unique over and above that (or in spite of that).

Robin: I agree with you, Sunita, about the meta aspects of the novel. In fact, one of the joys of re-reading the book, almost ten years after I read it initially, is that because I have read so much more Romance in the intervening years, I recognized just how much the book is working with and playing with. For example,when Merry is caught out at the smuggler’s den by Devon, all she can think about is a melodramatic Penny Dreadful she’s read to use for her response, and you can practically see the wink through the words.

I also kept thinking about The Tempest while I was reading, with Rand Morgan serving in the role of Prospero, with all the attendant ambiguity in his motivations and overall character – is he the God-like creator of the world of the Black Joke, and the grand manipulator behind the Merry-Devon-Cat triangle and all that comes from that, and if so, does that make him put him in the position of the great manipulator, master, and colonizer? Or is it Devon’s grandmother, who certainly rivals Rand for machinations and may have fewer boundaries when it comes to use and abuse of power.

All these themes around civilization and what that means, and whether that’s a good thing, and what it means to hold and wield power. In some ways Cat is the character who has grown up outside society, and part of his journey seems to be realizing that he has a rather strong moral and ethical core, which is clearly a (sometimes unwelcome) surprise to him. I also want to ask you, Sunita, about your views on Raven – who in some ways seems to embody the stereotype of the ‘gentle negro,’ but who, in other ways, defies those stereotypes and articulates an interesting commentary on the “civilization” that would make a man like him a slave.

There’s also so much play on fate v. free will, on the question of who is running the show, so to speak, and a lot of layers of authority and knowledge that the book is playing with. Then there are all the issues around Devon and Cat as prodigal sons, and the similarities and differences between them (in fact, I’m just now thinking about how both are blond and light featured, in contrast to Rand’s dark features and hair), and their separate but intertwined journeys toward taking their “rightful” place in the world. All that put me in mind of Henry IV, Part II. I agree with you, Sunita, that Cat is a true original, but his evolution as a character is driven and shaped by all the somewhat derivative characters around him. So what does that mean? I think it’s important on that meta level, in terms of generic development. But I love the way it’s intertwined with all of these other layers, making each character more than just a type – or more types than just one, if that makes sense (except maybe Granville, who becomes pretty much every horrible stereotype in his evilness, including that of pedophile).

Sunita: Oh, Raven. Yeah, he pretty much came across as the happy brown person for me. Not so much in his role, which as you say defies some of the standard stereotypes, but in terms of his presentation and affect. I chalk this up to the 1980s context, but I did have to recalibrate a bit when he first appeared.

On Merry: if you are over 16 and/or don’t believe that the My Little Pony brigade exists in the real world, and you go in expecting to relate to her it’s probably not going to happen. But if you can just go along for the ride, she’s a great character. The authors repeatedly save her from being completely impossible through their use of internal monologues, in which she tells herself to pull herself together, stop being silly, etc.

On this read, The Windflower strikes me as essentially being Merry’s coming of age book, with a couple of fascinating supporting characters who totally steal the show: Cat, for the reasons I’ve given above, and Rand Morgan, who is awful but not. He’s the not-quite-benevolent despot. While there’s a lot of online discussion about Cat/Rand slash, the way I read the relationship (assuming this potential relationship exists, which I think is a stretch) is that it can’t happen because if Rand’s desires for Cat are acted upon then Rand is completely irredeemable and you can’t enjoy the genuinely good things he does. You have to believe in the ambiguity of his character or the book goes a completely different direction.

Devon is fine. He’s not that interesting to me because he seems predictable, but he fulfills his role admirably, which is to be Hero Material by way of Dark and Dangerous (well, Blond and Dangerous but you know what I mean). He becomes slightly more interesting at the end, but soon afterward the story is over.

I can’t quite shake the idea that this is really Cat’s book. He just happens to share it with Merry’s bildungsroman and the Merry/Devon romance arc.

Coming back to your points about the structure and who are the powers behind the story, I think that part of the reason it’s hard to decide is that there are really two parts to the book: the first section on the ship and then the section in England. Obviously the two are connected, but each has a different locus of power in terms of the characters (and neither could take over power from the other in their respective settings).

Robin: For me, Merry’s appeal is largely in her coming of age and the way it mirrors the young, immature, “wild” (and not in the sense of wilderness, but in the character of its patriotism and rebellion) country with which she identifies. That is, for me Merry is “the American” and Devon is the “new” Englishman – who’s more a republican (in democratic sense of the term), and their love story is in its own way a parable of the “second war of independence.” But even in the first part of the book she has some interesting layers. Like when she has a moment of self-awareness upon getting caught in her pregnant wife costume – there’s that bit about how she sees herself as the awkward, inelegant teenager she is. And her eye for artistic detail makes her a perfect narrator for describing those around her.

But where Devon and Merry come alive for me as characters is in England where they’re forced to engage in a “real relationship” within the social strictures they’re part of by virtue of their birth and name. And seeing that after the time on the ship made it feel new and real for me in a way that it never would have been had they not both been part of the captivity scenario on the ship. Or the near-Elysium of the island (St. Elise). I also like the way that Devon can never force himself sexually on Merry because he loves her, which is an interesting subversion of the forced seduction trope.

As for Raven, I think you’re right that he just can’t escape the stereotype in the end, and even though it’s an 80’s book, I wish both he and Granville had been given more depth.

Regarding Cat and Rand, I actually think it’s more interesting to see their relationship as not sexual. Not because I’m averse to that dynamic, but because de-sexualizing it raises so very many questions about Rand’s intentions and character and the easy way in which he lets people believe Cat is his sexual companion. In the end I think I find Rand most compelling, and while almost everyone wants to see Cat’s story developed more fully, I’d love to see Rand’s play out – as he’s not even forty in The Windflower.

Sunita: I agree, I’d love to see more of Rand, and I think the slashy version of Cat and Rand is pretty thoroughly debunked in the book itself. I don’t want to go into spoiler territory, but the various reveals of the last quarter of the novel tie up a lot of uncertainties and loose ends, almost to the point of over-exposition. It’s not that the relationship cannot exist, it’s that I think it makes no sense in the book as written.

I want to come back to your point about the lushness of the language. As you know, I have a very low tolerance for lyrical prose and lush writing, and this book certainly has its share. It was most noticeable to me in the scenes describing the characters and the sex scenes, and these tend to be the places where the romance genre is most explicit and literal, compared to other genres. I can’t say I entirely enjoyed it, but I felt as if it was intentionally deployed.   And as you say, describing the storyline makes it seem almost like a parody. But when I’m reading I can’t let go of the feeling that the authors were having a terrific time writing it, and that I’m reading both a story and an astute commentary on a genre.

Robin: You know, as we’ve been going back and forth, talking about the book and its meta qualities, I have to say that I also find it an emotionally satisfying read. There’s a sense of yearning in the Curtises’s writing that I always get sucked into. But you’re right that it gets really lush, even slushy, during the sex scenes.

But I agree with you about the intentionality, because by that point in the story, we’re getting something from Devon that is new even to him, and in some ways his passion is as new to him as Merry’s is to her. That’s one reason I see them as well-paired. For all of Devon’s experience in other realms, he’s a novice at love, and for all of Merry’s inexperience, she’s an expert at feeling and sensing. So in a sense, they’re both ‘coming of age,’ but from different directions (I did the math and I think Devon’s 27, or thereabouts).

Sunita: That’s a really good point. The OTT aspect of all these dangerous pirates becoming wholesomely besotted with Merry overshadows the fact that her abduction and arrival aboard the Black Joke set in motion critical life changes for all the major characters. This is an authentic ensemble production of a type we rarely see in contemporary historical romance.