Sunday, 25 May 2014

Seven Sins of Regency Romance

Work-life has been so busy lately, I've been like a wet teabag squished all flat and saggy by the teaspoon of office life. There has been intellectual capacity for anything bar box sets (yay Buffy! yay Firefly! yay Battlestar Galactica! yay Once Upon a Time!) and well worn novels.

However, I was moved to write because I read a book that so disappointed me, it got me thinking about things I never want to see in romance ever again. The book was Potent Pleasures and its by one of my favourite authors, Eloisa James.

Eloisa James writes clever, vivid historical romances. Her Desperate Duchesseseries is a triumph.I recently read the latest in that series Three Weeks with Lady X and liked it a lot. I liked its clever, strong-minded heroine. I liked its hard headed, resilient hero. I loved its intelligent writing and sensuous description and its entertaining side characters. It is good. Her Duchess Quartest series is ace. The Essex sisters books are extremely likeable. 

So, led by the nose (as always) by the allure of Amazon's recommendations progressed onto the next Eloisa James recommendation: Potent Pleasures

Mounties always get their man. Night always follows day. I always finish books. Even bad books. 

But boy did I struggled with this one. It's a sinner, baby. It did the kind of sinning that makes me grit my teeth with frustration and want to scream out loud. 

[As it happens, it turns out that Potent Pleasures is one of James' earlier novesls. The fact that she went onto to write such cracking romances with such excellent female leads is actually quite inspiring. For aspiring writers like myself, it sometimes seems like the Queens of Romance spring into being fully formed, like Athena from the Head of Zeus. It's reassuring to know they work at it too.]

Back to sins.  

My experience of reading Potent Pleasures has brought into sharp relief the things I never want to see in a romance. In fairness, Eloisa James doesn't commit all these sins. Her novels are always well researched and her style is great. But the first four...  yep, Potent Pleasures is a sinner.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Regency Romance

1. Just TALK about it. The major conflict could have solved by a 30 second conversation in the first chapter of the book. There is no adequate reason for it not to happen. This irritates the hell out of me. 

2. Domestic abuse means I love you. NO, your prospective bride being attractive to other men is NOT an excuse to call her a whore. NO that doesn't show you love her. NO discovering your wife slept with someone, once, YEARS before you ever met is NOT an excuse to abuse her. This is not heroic. Do not do it. 

3. Passive heroine syndrome. Heroines who win the love of their man by being steam rollered into oppression and looking pretty do not attract me. Give me three dimensions. If they do get attacked, I want to see consequences. I want to see it affect their thoughts and actions. I want to understand how they recover and change and grow. Which brings me on to... 

4. Character development. Or lack thereof. If someone is a jack ass at the start of a novel, by the end of it he needs to have rung some changes. He needs to have earned the right to a decent relationship. The same applies to heroines. I want to see them grow up. I want to see them change. 

Potent Pleasures exhibits all these deadly sins. That's quite enough to put this book on my black list. There are some it didn't commit and which, indeed Eloisa James (who IS a great author, which is why this was SO disappointing) never commits. For example:

5. Bad world building. Shocking anachronisms, etiquettes breaches and incorrect use of titles. Not one of Eloisa's sins, thank goodness. Shirts should be pulled over the head, not unbuttoned. People don't cuddle and kiss in public in high society in the 1800s. If you're going to write about the Regency peerage, know the rules. Debretts is online, for Christ's sake. Read it. 

6. Americanisms in English settings. I'm not talking about when a character IS American, or has spent time in America. That's fine. That explains it. But a Duchess who has grown up entirely in England in the 1800s does not say Fall. She says Autumn. She writes to people. She doesn't write people. If you set the novel in England, build that world. 

7. Smug marrieds. This applies only to people writing series - when previous characters pop up and are just ludicrously sickening and unrealistic. Eloisa James never makes this error - her characters feel real and age well. I feel strongly about this. See earlier post on the avoidance of smug marrieds.

Authors, guard yourself from these horrors... because it seems, even the greats can succumb. And avid readers (as evidenced by the might of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books) will not tolerate it. So there. 


English Lady said...

I could say one thing that really annoys me in historical (not just Regency) fiction is equating arranged marriage with forced marriage. The two are NOT the same.
Just because parents/guardians bought a couple together, with the expectation of matrimony does not mean they were forced into it against their will- and in Europe from the Medieval Period onwards, free consent was considered essential to marriage.

That may seem Odd, because many plotlines involving forced marriage are in books set in Medieval Europe- but in actual fact forced marriage has been illegal under church law since the 12th century and in England there are laws dating back to the 11th century that prohibited a woman from be married against her will.

I suppose the depiction is based on modern romantic notions- that marriage should only ever be based on love and choosing one's own partner- but even in the Middle Ages there existed some notion that a person should not be forced into matrimony against their will...

Meg McNulty said...

Yep, that's a good one. Plus there are some pretty successful arranged marriages today, so it's not as though it's a model is completely alien to modern authors. I really struggle with a lot of medieval romances, I think they're the worst offenders for offences against historical romance.