GUEST POST: The Journey Home: Reading Romance While Sheltering in Place by Pam Rosenthal
Note from Janine: Guest poster and romance author Pam Rosenthal, whose novella A House East of Regent Street is being published in digital format for the first time tomorrow, has contributed the lovely essay below.
How do you read during a pandemic? For facts or for escape? Survival information in the baleful here and now, or a reminder of how life ought to be?
For me it’s all of the above. But when it’s time to go to sleep – especially if I actually want to get to sleep in times like this – I need a nightly dose of happy endings, or at least of the illusion of a world where happy endings are guaranteed. And in romances both newly discovered and gratefully revisited, I find myself hungry for the very concept of home, while on the other hand, since I’m aching to take a trip somewhere… anywhere… I’m more aware than ever of heroes’ and heroines’ journeys.
Concepts like home and the journey may seem awfully basic and unsophisticated (romance in particular is often dissed for its endless mixing and matching of these tropes); but there’s something deeply human about our conflicting needs to be safe in our space and to light out for the territory. And these themes aren’t only metaphors. Recently reading that San Francisco landlords had wanted to overturn our eviction moratorium (thankfully defeated in court), I thought of all those Jane Austen heroines threatened by the loss of a home or genuinely dispossessed, as Austen, her mother, and sister were after the Reverend Austen’s death.
Which brings me to my own personal ground zero for such concerns in romance, and not, I suspect, mine alone: Lizzie Bennet dating the moment of her falling in love with Darcy to her “first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” Lizzie is mocking herself, of course, by posing as a shallow self-caricature. But she’s not mocking the anxiety that she, like Jane Austen, grew up with, of knowing that she and all the unmarried women in her family will lose their home when her father dies. It makes total sense that she’d be sensitive to Darcy in his home setting – for the affection his tenants bear him as well as for those fabulous gardens. And – as I like to hope, anyway – for his being willing to cut those tenants a little slack in hard times.
There’s a British phrase I like: Who is he when he’s at home? – meaning Who is he really, when the inessentials are stripped away? It can also be used to query the meaning of a word, and in general it ratifies the idea that home is where you are most yourself, or in Darcy’s case, your best self. But in romance (as in life, and particularly as we’re learning under the conditions of a pandemic) that’s only half the story. Because sometimes you’ve got to get out on the road, and we’re all missing that.
Which was why, when recently encountering the work of Scottish author Mary Lancaster for the first time, I was charmed from the beginning of The Deserted Heart (The Unmarriageable Series Book 1) by how Charlotte Maybury manages her unruly brothers, servants, and pet when they take shelter from a fog at a mysteriously deserted inn. The best thing about this opening scene is how Lancaster doesn’t stop to tell us what a resourceful, adventurous, practical, and witty young woman Charlotte is; she lets Charlotte demonstrate it for herself. And when Charlotte joins forces with another puzzled guest, a Mr. Alexander, to discover what happened to their hosts, Alexander is as taken by Charlotte as we are, and I love him for it (and was even willing to overlooking a clunky plot construction whereby Charlotte keeps from revealing her last name).
Soon enough and inevitably, Mr. Alexander turns up at Charlotte’s family home as Alex, the Duke of Alvan, who is courting Charlotte’s beautiful sister, and events unfold much as one might expect. But what made it work for me was how, after having met Charlotte at her energetic, natural best, we’re gradually able to see her more completely, through Alex’s growing realization of how the Maybury family (in a way that’s all too common, and not only in romance novels) have tacitly cooperated to assign her the role of plain, sensible, responsible, and indispensable unmarriageable sister.
The Mayburys being at heart a smart, loving family, it all works out sweetly and modestly. But after the pleasure of the resolution had subsided, I found myself still thinking of young hero(ine)s of my own real-life acquaintance, who are unable to cast aside their assigned roles these days (grateful as they doubtless are for the homes and families they have). And I was also gratified that Charlotte and Alex decided not to spend their wedding night at either of their family homes, but at the inn where they first reached out to each other from the confines of the too-small identities imposed upon them. Ultimately, of course, they’ll wind up at Alex’s family home, because romance (always at its best when it reconciles incommensurables) is about both yearning to escape the strictures of social roles and learning how to responsibly accept them.
This balance of tropes is beautifully accomplished by Mary Balogh in Slightly Dangerous (Bedwyn Saga Book 6). At which point I have to confess that for years I didn’t get what Balogh was about, but this novel has been a potent gateway drug (thank you, Janine!), and I found myself gobsmacked by the forthright, lustful erotic sensibility that lies at the heart of Slightly Dangerous’s meticulous light Regency comedy of manners, eager to find out how Balogh pulls it off in her other books, and shitfaced for coming late to the party.
Which is not to suggest that Regency people didn’t have or want or know about serious lust; but merely that they didn’t employ the codes and signals we use. What’s sayable or even thinkable, most particularly as it pertains to sexuality, changes wildly over time. Balogh’s characters’ manners have a delightful period cadence and sheen, but their sexual self-understandings have a directness that’s been earned, and learned, over two centuries. Reading historical romance, we’re suspended between the era the characters inhabit and our own; fiction can be time travel no matter what the genre, as discourses meet and comment upon each other. And in Simply Dangerous, I think that Balogh’s ability to bring together aspects of two eras has its roots in her wise and graceful acknowledgment of her debt to Austen.
So when Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle, invites Christine Derrick to his home after she’s given him a severe dressing-down for his lack of human kindness, he does so by drawing on the truths about home, responsibility, and identity that romance owes to Pride and Prejudice. And Balogh sets it up so the reader, in on the joke, watches with pleasurable, even proprietary, anticipation. Wulfric’s home, which he has filled with a rowdy house party of his loving and entirely unintimidated family, is the best way he can convince Christine that he is more than his aristocratic position (short, of course, of a spoiler I won’t spoil). Yes, I’m Duke, he communicates, and yes, I’m up to my ass in rectitude and responsibility, but please take a good look at me here at home among those whom I’m responsible for and whom I love. And moreover (as he adds after things have worked themselves out a bit) there’s one gorgeous, sexy space on my estate, that I save for those most precious times when I allow myself a moment of freedom from all that.
Which is a good place to end up – in those intimate, sexy homes away from home, in-between places like inns and carriages and those great English outdoor venues like garden mazes or cottages tucked away on the grounds of great ancestral estates. Of these, my favorite is Hawker’s cottage in Joanna Bourne’s The Black Hawk (The Spymaster Series Book 4), seemingly little more than a refuge for a spy who’s rarely at home, but for me another wise and poignant meeting of home and the journey, as realized in Bourne’s Spymaster books, where secret agents for England and France find family and love and human connection while always being on the run.
In the scene I’m thinking of, the French spy Justine surreptitiously visits her English counterpart Hawker. While Hawker and Justine oh-so-slowly acknowledge each other’s tantalizing presence among of the meticulously described objects and furnishings (and yes, there will be sex), the influence and sensibilities of other beloved characters (like Marguerite, from earlier books) suffuse the air like perfume:
Marguerite was wise [Justine thinks]. She took what Hawker carried from his past and gave him the rush chairs, the heavy, cheap teapot, the well-scrubbed old table. She offered him his future in those fine books and the soft chintz chairs by the fire. Then, casually, upon the mantelpiece, Marguerite set a piece of porcelain fired when Joan of Arc was young…. Someday, when [Hawker] moved easily among the rich and powerful, he would not even realize it began here.
I love that Justine’s imagination locates Hawker not only in space but in time but (as with Darcy and Wulfric) within a web of relationships. But even more, I love that this scene at the book’s center is perfected and completed by its double on the book’s final pages, when Hawker visits Justine’s little apartment some two decades later, after the Napoleonic Wars have finally ended. Justine (whose spy name was Owl) has accurately predicted Hawker’s trajectory: the former guttersnipe is now Lord Hawkhurst, owner of a country house in Oxfordshire, and Justine has finally agreed to marry him. And although Hawker’s observation of his lover’s little space is nicely realized and detailed, it was a single simple sentence, in Hawker’s most intimate inner guttersnipe voice, that did its wonderful, fiendish, romantic work on me: “It felt like he’d been waiting his whole life to walk in a door and there would be Owl, doing something interesting.”
Because that’s home, in the end and if you’re lucky, even in a pandemic. Someone you love, doing something interesting.