Scarlett Peckham


#100Romances: A ROGUE BY ANY OTHER NAME + Epistolary Love

This week my journey through romance's greatest hits led me to Sarah MacLean's regency novel A ROGUE BY ANY OTHER NAME.

What I loved about this book is its love letters.

Each chapter begins with a letter from the heroine, Penelope, to the hero, Bourne, beginning when they are childhood sweethearts. In the beginning, Bourne writes back and their exchanges are sweet and adorable. Then he suffers a tragedy and abruptly stops responding to Penelope's letters. Eventually she stops sending them, but she never stops writing - until the very last letter in the book, when she loses hope and destroys her final missive. 


Through these short notes we watch Penelope's heart get broken when Bourne disappears. We see her heartache fade into resignation when she stops sending the letters she pens and becomes engaged to someone else. We see her lose all faith in love, and in herself, when her engagement falls apart. And on Bourne's side we see the sensitive, kind and funny boy he was before he became the difficult man we are confronted with in the present day. 

The letters are overlaid with the plot brilliantly, so that when the characters are at their worst, we get to see them at their best at another point in time. And when they are at their most hopeless, we get to see that they will eventually find what they are looking for.

It's a poignant way of giving Penelope and Bourne more depth, and I loved the sense of intimacy it gave the book. Historical romance novels tend to be written in dual third-person point of view, so we don’t often hear the characters speak in first person, except in dialogue. And while this lends itself to the rich world-building that historical romance is known for, it can sometimes make the characters feel distant. 

Sometimes, it's nice to read someone pouring their heart out.

Next week we switch from lighthearted romps to UGLY CRYING with Laura Kinsale's FLOWERS FROM THE STORM.


#100Romances: The Duchess War + Woke Feminist Dukes

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This week in my journey through the fairest romance novels of them all we arrive at THE DUCHESS WAR by Courtney Milan.

I find this book delightful, in no small part because it features one of my personal favorite historical romance hero archetypes: the Woke Feminist Duke (WFD).

Here's how you can spot a Woke Feminist Duke in the wild:

  • He will be hot, but probably in an intense, intellectual way. 

  • He will be respectful of sexual and emotional boundaries, but good at both kinds of intimacy.

  • He will be a sensitive lover, in an "enthusiastic continuous consent is the biggest turn on there is and my fetish is communication" kind of way. (Extra credit if he is a virgin.)

  • He will really dig a good, meaty Relationship Talk. If you want to enjoy a "Big Mis" with him, you will have to try very hard to avoid confrontation and communicate poorly.

  • He will be fundamentally empathetic and sweet natured. When you hurt, he will hurt too. (Extra credit if he has Emotional Trauma in his past.) 

  • He will be, because Reasons, incredibly jacked. We can safely assume he has excellent hair and his forearms are mesmerizing.

  • He will believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings, even if this makes him an unpopular outsider in his privileged world.

  • Extra credit if he is fighting to use his power to reform the system he has benefited from, even if he is not quite sure how to do it yet, and may require some help from the heroine.

  • Nevertheless, he probably still has a really nice mansion in the Lake District and can afford to furnish you with any number of exquisite ball gowns or horses, should you wish.

When I am in the mood for a stone cold classic factory-grade WFD hero, my first port of call is always with Courtney Milan. 

Which brings us to Robert Blaisdell, hero of THE DUCHESS WAR.

Robert, AKA the ninth Duke of Clermont, might be the ur-WFD. While many WFDs have a social justice or reformist cause, Robert goes that extra step and literally wants to abolish the peerage. When not fighting the good fight in the Lords, he spends his time in a factory town writing seditionist handbills encouraging workers to organize. His hobbies include worrying about privilege and power differentials and falling in love with women on account of their giant brains and facility for chess. 

Reader, I love him. I am grateful to Courntey Milan for inventing him, and for producing a stable of hilarious, intelligent, tightly plotted, hot romance novels about smokin' WFDs uniting with badass ladies to create a more just world.

A lot of historical romance novels are about resistance from within the belly of the system, but some are more explicit about it than others. Ms. Milan's novels tend to be as explicit as they come.

For my money, I like it when a credible, sweet, sexy love story can flourish inside the tension between the trappings of wealth and power and the stark inequities that enable it. And in a m/f book, I always appreciate it when the burden is not solely upon the heroine to understand or feel trapped by the limitations of her society. 

So three cheers for the WFDs. I am always looking for more of them - if you have encountered a good one nominate your personal favorite in the comments!

Next week's read: A ROGUE BY ANY OTHER NAME by Sarah Maclean.


#100Romances: The Duke and I + This Is Not How To Get a Baby

The Duke and I.jpg

It is 2018 and we are, at long last, back to our favorite parlor game: reading the beloved romances of all time, and writing long, somewhat tortured essays about them!

Today's book is the 2006 regency classic THE DUKE AND I, the first installment in Julia Quinn's beloved Bridgerton series.

There was one thing I absolutely loved about this book and one thing I absolutely hated and they both concerned one rich, age-old topic:

The Getting of Babies.

Children, and whether or not to have them, is the central theme of this book, and the plot is fairly simple: Daphne Bridgerton wants to marry the nice boy she has fallen in love with (a charming, sweet Duke by the name of Simon), but he cannot have children and she wants to be a mother. She is sad about this conundrum but decides Simon is enough for her and marries him anyway, despite his misgivings about not being able to give her the life she wants. And then, a few weeks after they are married, she finds out that he actually can have children but doesn't want to. She becomes very angry at him for the verbal shenanigans that led to this misunderstanding, and they have several terrible fights about it and it nearly ruins their relationship.

The root of Simon's desire not to have a child is one we have seen in many a romance novel: he believes perpetuating the family name will vindicate the abusive father who tortured and rejected him. But if his reasons for avoiding parenthood are standard romance novel fare, his palpable sense of suffocation at the notion of becoming a father is not. 

This is the part that I loved.

Julia Quinn is beloved for her musical, witty, light-as-air dialogue, but a quieter gift of this book is the realism with which she portrays Simon’s inchoate dread at the thought of having kids. Daphne Bridgeton’s desire to have a child is treated just as sympathetically. Daphne comes from a large, loving family and keenly desires one of her own. It is her dream to be a mother, and the expected occupation for a woman of her station, and when Simon tells her, before they marry, that he cannot have children, she is heartbroken. She must make a choice that many men and women in our own modern age must make all the time: do I want this person, or a child, more? 

When Daphne chooses Simon, it is easy to feel that her choice comes with as much loss as joy. It is the stuff of Modern Love columns and dating podcasts and subtly observed literary novels set in certain parts of Brooklyn. I am a massive sucker for historical romance novels that look at modern problems through the lens of the past, and I was moved by this portrayal of two lovers genuinely wanting to preserve the other's happiness, but finding it impossible to reconcile their own ideals and visions of family with their partner's.

How, I wondered, would Simon and Daphne resolve this seemingly intractable problem? 

I knew they WOULD resolve it, of course, because that is the fun of a romance novel. The reader is guaranteed they will face this fundamental difference in values and find a way to both get what they want. 

Because one of the great pleasures of romance is trying to figure out the plot once the central conflict is established, I began to weigh various outcomes in my head as soon as these two kids tied the knot.

Here are a few potential solutions:

  1. A secret baby might show up on Simon’s doorstep, awakening his paternal urges just as he’s about to lose Daphne. 

  2. Simon's attempts at family planning (the ol' pullout method) might work imprecisely, resulting in an accidental pregnancy that will force him to face his fears whether he likes it or not.

  3. Daphne might start a school, or take in orphans, in an attempt to reconcile her longing for family with her husband's desire to remain childless, and find that this fulfills them both in unexpected ways.
  4. Simon and Daphne might talk it out and consensually come to an understanding of how they, as a deeply in love couple, will shape their family in a way that will leave them both satisfied. Together, they will decide to have a baby the old fashioned way

Spoiler Alert: None of these things are what happens. 

Instead, Daphne waits until Simon is drunk, sexes him while he is half-asleep, and physically forces him to ejaculate inside of her while he is too addled to get away. 

For those following along at home: GUYS, THIS IS NOT HOW YOU GET A BABY.

Sexually coercing a drunk person is not romantic. It is also not legal.

The book depicts Daphne's act as a rebalancing of power. Because Simon took advantage of Daphne's lack of sexual education to make her think he “can’t” have children, Daphne believes herself justified in taking advantage of his temporarily powerless state in order to conceive.

There is a long-running debate about whether or not Daphne is winsome or loathsome on All About Romance, and I am firmly a vote for team Loathsome. 

But I am also for team Missed Opportunity. Historical romance novels are often a way of interrogating our own modern culture, and it would have been interesting to see this very relevant problem resolved in a less troubling and more nuanced way.

In short, I wanted a happier ending.

Next week we will turn to a book I've been looking forward to rereading: Courtney Milan's THE DUCHESS WAR.

Until then, feel free to concoct ethical ways of getting or avoiding babies in the comments.