Jan 13, 2014

Three Historical Romances: The Governess Affair, A Company of Swans, Private Arrangements

Romance is not a genre I’m particularly knowledgeable about; I’ve been meaning to rectify this for a long time, and that desire only increased over the past year thanks to my experience in libraries. Of course, at any given moments I have about a hundred conflicting reading projects and priorities, so who knows how many of them I’ll actually get to read in 2014. But I’m off to a good start, as over the holidays I had the chance to read three very enjoyable historical romances. Here are my thoughts:

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan:

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan

I’d been meaning to read something by Courtney Milan for ages, and when I realised that the digital edition of this novella was available for free download I was unable to resist. It’s apparently a prequel to the Brothers Sinister series, about which I know little, but my enjoyment of it is evidence that it stands on its own perfectly well. Also, I definitely plan to read the rest of the series now.

The Governess Affair is set in 1835, and it tells the story of Serena Barton. Serena is a former governess who seeks reparation for a wrong that’s initially only hinted at by standing outside the door of the Duke of Clermont’s townhouse and demanding that he deal with the consequences of his actions. At first we only learn that she was dismissed from her position with no reference over what the Duke calls “an employment dispute” — it’s up to Hugo Marshall, the Duke’s man of business, to get to the bottom of her story. As his attraction to the remarkable Ms Barton grows, he uncovers something that makes it impossible for him to look at his employer the same way again.

Spoilers and TW for the rest of this mini-review: The Governess Affair is about a woman dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault. When we first meet Serena, she’s not yet able to call what happened to her rape because she’s bought into the victim-blamey rhetoric that maintains that if you don’t scream and struggle enough, you’re complicit in the violence that’s being done to you. I found this both heartbreaking and believable (such poisonous ideas are alive and well today, after all, let alone in the nineteenth-century), and it was excellent to see Serena reassess her experience and put the blame squarely where it belongs as the story progressed.

It’s perhaps easy to underestimate the enormous courage that it takes for Serena to do what she does, just like it’s easy to place unreasonable expectations on people who have suffered through harassment and sexual assault and demand that they act like we think the “perfect” victim should. Passive resistance is the only weapon at Serena’s disposal, and she makes the most of it. Neither the law nor public opinion are likely to be sympathetic to her; if she has the power to harm the Duke’s reputation, it’s only because he’s dependent on the wealth of a wife who wouldn’t look kindly on his behaviour. Other than that, very few people would bat an eyelid at a Duke taking advantage of a servant, and Serena knows this. Unfortunately she has absolutely no recourse but to confront her abuser despite her trauma: her material survival and that of her sister depend on it. So day after day she stands outside his house in the rain and cold. I can hardly begin to imagine the courage and desperation something like this would require.

The Governess Affair is a story about finding safety and happiness within the confines of a deeply sexist social system, rather than a story about toppling said system — but the former is a kind of story I’m interested in as well. Serena doesn’t single-handedly bring about a change in the power dynamics that make what happened to her not only possible but common enough as to be unremarkable; instead, she has the good fortunate to meet a partner who respects her, sees beyond the misogyny that declares her “damaged goods”, and brings her back into the fold of married respectability when she thought this was unimaginable. Individual solutions of this kind are of course neither revolutionary nor permanent, but as I said above, I’m interested in them because they may have happened to countless real women. This is the kind of subtly subversive story I imagine Mary Elizabeth Braddon might have written if she could afford to be more explicit (as far as I know the closest she gets is Aurora Floyd, which is awesome in its own right).

Last but not least, I loved the sex scene at the heart of The Governess Affair because it’s all about returning a sense of safety and control to a rape survivor, and this is something I’m very interested in seeing fiction explore. The consent-centred erotic game Hugo comes up with is not something that would have worked for every woman, but Serena responds to it very well and the result is a sweet, tender and hot sex scene where a woman is fully in control.

I wonder if this novella’s happy resolution could strike some readers as facile: I can see why that might be the case, but at the same time it worked for me. The Governess Affair is a hopeful and feel-good love story rather than an in-depth examination of gender inequality, but this is not the only nineteenth-century sexism or abuse survival narrative we have, and we need all the stories we can get. Seeing a character like Serena find some much-deserved happiness and hope was enough for me on this occasion.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson:

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

A Company of Swans opens in Cambridge in 1912: eighteen-year-old Harriet Morton lives with her aunt and her father, a university professor, in a house devoid of laughter. Harriet is incredibly intelligent, but she’s pulled out of education when the headmistress of the girls’ school she attends talks with her father about her future — although he’s an academic himself, he doesn’t believe in any of that women in university nonsense, thank you very much. Harriet’s greatest fear, when we first meet her, is that she’ll accept a marriage proposal from a suitor she doesn’t care about in the least just to escape her father’s house.

A Company of Swans follows Harriet from entrapment to adventure: when a Russian ballet company invites her, of all the advanced students in her ballet class (which she’s only allowed to attend for exercise, at a doctor’s advice) to accompany them to Manaus for a series of performances at the Opera House, she defies her father’s orders and runs away with them. During her journey, her world expands beyond anything she’d imagined: not only does Harriet have the time of her life, but she makes plenty of friends and eventually falls in love.

I turn to Eva Ibbotson when I’m in need of comfort reading, and it’s very rare for her to disappoint me. I honestly believed, thought, that I’d run out of things to say about her romances. I didn’t even review Magic Flutes when I read it last year because I thought I’d only be saying what I’ve already said a hundred times before: I love her books because they’re gentle and happy-making even if (or perhaps because) they’re usually quite predictable. But having a happy ending of the kind you can see coming doesn’t necessarily mean a novel holds no surprises. A Company of Swans is probably my third favourite of Eva Ibbotson’s romances, after the nearly perfect The Morning Gift and The Secret Countess. Let me see if I can explain why.

Some of the reasons are general yay-Eva-Ibbotson-yay type reasons: A Company of Swans is full of loveable characters who are affectionately portrayed; it’s set in a time and place and concerned with something (ballet) you can tell Eva Ibbotson was genuinely fond of; there’s a sense of warmth permeating the novel that makes for a lovely reading experience; and it has an epilogue that lets us know our beloved characters survived the Great War (I always worry when reading books set in the Edwardian period, even though I do realise these are fictional people who didn’t actually have to live through anything.)

Then there are the things I think this novel does particularly well: first of all, there’s the fact that for all her gentleness, Harriet is actually quite defiant, and that the novel clearly takes a stance on reactionary attitudes towards women’s roles. Then (minor spoiler) there’s my favourite bit: the moment when Harriet quite consciously decides to be “ruined” by her love interest, Rom. He thinks that, because she’s a “good” girl he intends to marry, they shouldn’t have sex, but Harriet makes it quite clearly that actually, she wants to. Up until that point there was a little too much emphasis on Harriet’s “modesty”, so that change of direction was a nice surprise. Earlier in A Company of Swans, there’s a scene when Harriet replaces a friend at the last minute by jumping out of cake and performing an erotic dance, and the descriptions all emphasise how she’s sensual but “innocent”. But however much Ibbotson hints at a tired old good-girls vs bad-girls dichotomy, Harriet’s disreputable friend Marie-Claude is actually portrayed with nothing but affection and respect, and later on Harriet is allowed to express and act on her sexual desire with no terrible consequences (quite the contrary).

So that was lovely to see. I do wish that, like her namesake, this Harriet had been allowed to combine a dancing career she’s obviously passionate about with a fulfilling marriage, but alas. A Company of Swans is not perfect, but it’s a satisfying novel with its heart in the right place and a basic feminist sensibility.

Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas:

Private Arrangements by Sherry Thomas

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, I found out that Sherry Thomas is a good author to try if you enjoy Courtney Milan, so I decided to take the plunge. Private Arrangements is mostly set in 1893, and it tells the story of Gigi and Camden, aka Lord and Lady Tremaine. The two have been married for a decade, and as far as society is concerned, they have the perfect courteous and amiable marriage. There’s only one little detail worth mentioning: Lady Tremaine lives in England and Lord Tremaine in America, and the two haven’t said more than a few words to each other since shortly after their wedding.

When Gigi petitions for divorce, though, Camden decides it’s time to return. Through alternate present-day scenes and flashbacks to ten years before, we learn more about this couple’s complicated dynamics and the big mistakes that drove them apart. Is it too late to save their marriage or can old hurts finally be healed?

I’ll start by telling you what I enjoyed the most about Private Arrangements: it’s sweet, it’s well-written, it has excellent characterisation, and it’s exactly the kind of love story I’m always saying I want to see more of. This isn’t a story about the first rush of excitement that follows girl-meets-boy; it’s a story concerned with two people with a decade-long complicated history slowly working things out. What does it mean to rebuild trust? How do you recover from a moment where you let selfish need thump respect for the person you love? How can unhealthy dynamics be made right? What does real intimacy entail?

I also liked the fact that the narrative acknowledges that both Gigi and Camden screwed up big time. Their troubles begin when Gigi is manipulative and deceitful, but Camden responds to that in the worst possible way — with cruelty and bad faith, instead of with an attempt to understand and repair the wrong his beloved had done him — and Thomas is too smart to let her heroine shoulder the blame on her own. Neither Gigi not Camden are villanised, and we’re shown that they both need to learn trust before they can embrace happiness. That was a refreshing approach, especially considers that so many narratives punish women so much more severely than men for similar mistakes.

I admire Thomas for taking a “bad” woman and making her a sympathetic, complicated and entirely human romance heroine. However, there was something about Private Arrangements that didn’t quite work for me, and after thinking about it for a while I think it’s down to the Victorian setting. Let me explain: I love people-who-seem-to-hate-each-other-turn-out-to-(still)-be-in-love stories, but for them to truly work we need to assume equality between the two partners who are so busily driving one another around the bend before collapsing into each other’s arms. Thomas attempts to even the ground between Camden and Gigi by making her an independently wealthy industrial heiress, but I have to confess I could only suspend by disbelief so far.

At the back of my mind, I kept thinking about the unexplored power imbalance between Gigi and Camden; about the gender inequalities that created it and how they were there even if you tried to subtract monetary dependency from the equation. I kept thinking about Victorian divorce and property laws; about popular opinion and ostracism and enormous social pressures; about nineteeth-century pregnancy and motherhood and all that it implied; about the fact that Camden could destroy and manipulate Gigi in ways she couldn’t him, simply because he’s a man. There’s no way around the fact that he always had the upper hand in terms of power, and that makes their supposed battle of equals veer dangerously close to exploitative dynamics. This disparity made him come across as a jerk in a way I don’t think was intended, and unfortunately this kept me from rejoicing at their reconciliation in the way I would have liked.

To be clear, I had a ton of fun with Private Arrangements, and I know that getting so hung up on the social dynamics of the period it’s set in is not necessarily the most generous or productive way to read a story like this. But we’re all shaped by our own readerly histories, and having spent so much time reading about Victorian gender inequalities in the past means I couldn’t stop my brain from going there in this instance. But I’d still recommend this novel for the characterisation and refreshing angle (love stories about what comes after the supposed happily-ever-after are my favourite), and I look forward to reading more of Sherry Thomas’ work in the future.

Have you read any of these? Let me know what you though if so. And if you have any more romance recommendations I would love to hear them.

Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.

11 comments:

  1. It's interesting to me to see where libraries file Ibbotsons. Most of the time I see them in YA, which is surprising to me.

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  2. I have that Milan for the same reason but haven't got to it yet. I liked Private Arrangements a great deal but agree that it had issues. I didn't think about the wider social context at the time but definitely the immediate ones and there was that inequality there.

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  3. I so, so have to read Courtney Milan. I do love me some historical romance, and she has been on my list since she started publishing, but I just haven't got there yet. This particular one is on the list and now I'm very anxious to get to it indeed.

    Haven't read an Ibbotson romance yet, really should get on that. Which one should I start with?

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  4. Jill: I was just telling someone else this morning that it's interesting that her books were originally published as romances in the 80's and 90's and have now been republished as YA. I definitely think they have crossover appeal and don't mind seeing them in either section, but it's one of those examples that drives home the genre vs marketing category issue!

    Charlie: I definitely also liked it a lot overall. Thomas is great at characterisation and that's usually the number one thing that hooks me as a reader.

    Kiirstin: The Morning Gift! Oh, the thought of that book alone makes my heart swell ♥

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  5. aw, a post of romance reviews from you! I read romance occasionally, but not as much as I used to because the tropes got tiresome to me. I still enjoy them from time to time--at Christmas or the occasional romantic suspense.

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  6. Have I recommended Meredith Duran to you before? If not, consider it done now. I liked That Scandalous Summer, as I recall, and also Wicked Becomes You. I like both Courtney Milan and Meredith Duran for talking about their characters' relative positions of privilege; that is interesting to me. Ditto Cecilia Grant (actually, Cecilia Grant even more than Meredith Duran).

    I like Courtney Milan, although her early books better than the most recent one. I like her for coming to romance novels with such a clear feminist sensibility (and talking about it in interviews).

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  7. I echo the Meredith Duran suggestion above - I haven't read any of her books recently but I loved a couple of the older ones (Written on Your Skin comes to mind although it's been a while so they're mushed up in my head).

    I like the Brothers Sinister series (just read the most recent one, The Countess Conspiracy) but I loved the one before that, with Unclaimed as my actual favorite (it's got a virgin hero and a courtesan and makes for a fantastic role reversal against a more typical trope).

    The Eva Ibbotson I read was fantastic - I need to read more!

    Belated happy birthday - I hope it was a wonderful day!

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  8. Thank you for reviews on three books which were new to me.

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  9. This is silly, but I kind of forget sometimes that romance is its own genre. Like, I'm so used to it being a subplot in the books I read that it just stopped occurring to me that it's its own thing! So I'm glad you reminded me, because I'm a secret romantic. I definitely think this will be the year I try Eva Ibbotson. She sounds like excellent comfort reading. And I'll be curious to hear about any other romances you check out! :)

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  10. Amy: I don't know why, but I was totally in the mood for romance this Christmas. Maybe it's the comfort reading elements.

    Jenny: You hadn't, I don't think! But if you and Meghan both like her she's going on my list for sure. And Cecilia Grant too, of course. As for Courtney Milan, yes, I love that too. Her awesome feminist tumblr commentary was what made me want to read her in the first place.

    Meghan: Thank you so much for the recommendations! Do you think I'd be better of trying the Turner series, then? And thank you also for the birthday wishes <3

    Mystica: You're welcome :)

    Laura: Nobody tops Eva Ibbotson for comfort reading! Start with The Morning Gift if you decide to give her a try. Also, I'll make sure to keep posting about my romance reading adventures :D

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  11. Totally want to try out the first two - I haven't read any straight up romance in a year. The third one sounds like it would hit my biggest problem with straight romances. Books have just got to convince me the couple are equal or I'm going to hate the dude.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.