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Miss Eliza’s Gentleman Caller - Marilyn Clay

I bought this book at the remaindered book stand in the Pathetic Mall (its anchors are a Safeway and a Zellers, and I’m sure the Zellers is the location to which all other Zellers in Victoria send the stuff they can’t sell. The other stores in the Pathetic Mall are a remaindered shoe stand, a carpet cleaning store, a remaindered TV store, and a store where you can get your “family crest” or various "clever" sayings embroidered on tshirts or ball caps).

I was actually hoping to get some kind of pulpy space opera or sword-and-sorcery epic, but the guy who runs the stand just scowled when I asked if there was any science fiction. Maybe he’s a fundie and thinks sci fi is satanic, although if that were the case, why would he have a large selection of horror? Maybe it was because they were actually trying to close the stand when I got there and he just wanted me to hurry up and pick out my books so he could go home. Yeah, that’s probably it.

I passed over a book that was like an exact retelling of Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, another that was an exact retelling of Cotillion (also by Georgette Heyer), and the “sequel” to Pride and Prejudice (which I’m sure is far inferior to the original) in favour of Miss Eliza’s Gentleman Caller, which is a conflation of the stepmother-the-same-age-as-the-heroine plot and the faux-engagement-that-turns-into-a-real-marriage plot.

Well, uh, that about sums it up plotwise. The prose was somewhat awkward in places, but the author had a fairly decent command of the Regency idiom. My familiarity with the works of Patrick O’Brian had me shouting at the book in several places and caused me to decide that the heroine wasn’t exactly in with the best set in the ton. For instance, her chaperone or sponsor when she was attending parties without her widowed papa was a Mrs. Villiers; and another hostess with whom she seemed to be intimate was Lady Hamilton, though as the book progressed it became apparent that this Lady Hamilton was not that Lady Hamilton. This makes me think that:

  1. the author was blithely unaware of the works of Patrick O’Brian and just chose names that sounded Regency-ish without doing research or reading other works of fiction about the period. Okay, so I don’t expect every author of every obscure mass-produced Regency romance to make sure that her character names have never been borne by any other fictional character, but naming one of your characters Mrs. Villiers is almost like naming one of your characters Fitzwilliam Darcy. As for Lady Hamilton, it’s like having a character named Maria FitzHerbert who isn’t that Mrs. FitzHerbert. On the other hand, if you don’t know who any of these personages are, none of this should bother you.
  2. the author was, in fact, aware of the works of Patrick O’Brian and decided to include a Mrs. Villiers as an in-reference for others in the know, sort of like I once read a mass-produced regency in which the characters went to a ball held by the Marquis of Alverstoke, the hero in Georgette Heyer’s Frederica. That really doesn’t explain Lady Hamilton, though. There’s no excuse for that.
  3. my shouting at the book means that I know far too much about the Regency period for my own good and am obviously turning into a basket case from having spent 6 days on my own with no-one to talk to.

Score: 3 pints for keeping me entertained, laughing out loud, and shouting on a Monday night, for a refreshing change in which none of the characters are hard up for money, and for not having a too-unbearable oh-gosh-what-if-they-really-don’t-get-together-at-the-end conflict.

Score: Three Pints

Fletcher’s Fortune, J.C. Edwards. New English Library, Sevenoaks, Kent, 1992.

This novel is proof that accounts of sea battles against the French can be just as interesting when told from the point of view of a member of number ten gun crew. Later the protagonist becomes a Bosun’s Mate and gets to fire one of the bow-chasers. He is the heir to a vast fortune and one of the Lieutenants spends most of the book trying to murder him, facts he does not know until two chapters from the end. Practices which he is subjected to throughout the book would never obtain on one of Jack Aubrey’s ships, though you hear about them from time to time, so I also found it interesting to read about some of these practices from the point of view of a pressed man. These practices included Lieutenants very enthusiastic about the practice of flogging, and taking women aboard the ship while it was in Portsmouth harbor.

Two parallel stories take place in this novel - one is our hero Jacob Fletcher’s account of his life as a pressed man, and the other is the intrigues and machinations of Fletcher’s former employer and his lawyers vs. his adversaries, the former wife and legitimate sons of Fletcher’s unknown father, Sir Henry, who were disinherited by Sir Henry in favor of Fletcher because of their debauched tastes and all-round sheer evilness. The two parts of the story never quite coincide, because Fletcher finds out about his inheritance by reading through the papers of the Lieutenant who is trying to kill him, but changes his name because he wants no part of his vast inheritance, preferring to make his own way in trade.

From the design of the dust jacket, the description of the story, and the author’s preface, I thought this book was going to be very tongue-in-cheek and over-the-top, kind of like The Pyrates, by George MacDonald Fraser. In fact, the only part that was really like that was the villains of the piece. I guess the author had to come up with some reason or justification for the villains to come across as really evil, so in addition to their trying to kill Jacob for his inheritance, the author imbued the villains with preferences for alternative methods of sexual expression. There was not anything explicit, but I guess the readers were supposed to hate them and think they were evil because of their preferred methods of sexual expression. I don’t want to come across like I am defending alternative methods of sexual expression, but the author could have come up with some other reason for Sir Henry to have disinherited his whole family (like that they had already gambled away half his fortune, or that they were discovered in collusion with the French) or could have at least stopped harping on the alternative methods of sexual expression.

Anyway, that was a small part of the story, and it didn’t really detract from it too much. Lots of good stuff about life at sea, told from a perspective definitely not to be found in Patrick O’Brian. Nice bloody battles, in which the French are defeated and the British Navy is victorious, which is as it should be. Wide open for a sequel, with more intrigues and machinations and sea battles.

Score: Three and a Half Pints

The Wolfe's Mate, Paula Marshall. Harlequin, New York, 1999.

This is the third Harlequin Regency I have read (I used to read the Penguin Putnam ones but I don't think they are publishing them any more). Before I start this review I want to make it clear that Penguin, Harlequin, and Zebra mass-produced Regencies are not in any way shape or form to be considered in the same category as Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer. Nonetheless, they can be pretty good brain candy.

This is also the second Regency I have read by Paula Marshall. She has this disturbing habit of having her heroines always imagining the hero as some sort of predatory beast like a lion, or in this case a wolf. I don't really care for it, but she's a pretty good storyteller despite this quirk.

I once read a book on how to write romance novels, and it's true, there pretty much is one formula that everybody sticks to. At the end of this formula there is supposed to be some huge awful conflict or misunderstanding that makes it look like the couple will never end up together, and then a big make-up scene. I don't really like them -- I don't think fights or misunderstandings are a good basis for a lasting relationship. Happily none of this occurs in The Wolfe's Mate. Everything is nice and civilised. The hero and heroine meet in somewhat interesting circumstances, but are soon back inhabiting London during the Season, wearing their most fashionable clothes, and driving their curricles through Hyde Park. Only a rather malicious lawsuit keeps them from getting married halfway through the book.

Paula Marshall does a good job creating characters who, though part of the ton, were not necessarily born to great wealth or privilege. Her heroines are smart and independent, with more or less believable reasons why they might be so (the heroine of The Wolfe's Mate had a much more believable reason than the heroine of Dear Lady Disdain). In other words, she creates period-seeming Regency characters that a modern audience can relate to. Her heroes are manly but not overbearing -- I really hate romances where the whole concept of why the girl falls for the guy is that he's just so darn good at getting her to do what he wants her to. And she has actually heard of Georgette Heyer.

However, that doesn't make her Goergette Heyer, so she can't get five pints. She can have three and a half pints, but they are pints of mass-produced American beer, with less flavor and a lower alcohol content than could be hoped for from a really nice English beer.

Score: Three and a Half Pints

The Mauritius Command, Patrick O'Brian. HarperCollins Publishers, London, 1977.

I have been reading the Patrick O'Brian novels in order. I think this is the fourth one in a series of about 20. I didn't like this one as much as some of the other ones for two reasons. The first reason is that, like Master & Commander (the first book in the series) it is basically just one naval engagement after another, which I find somewhat boring and more than a little hard to follow. This book does have a plot, and the naval battles are pretty central to it, but I find the important parts a little hard to dig out from all of the detailed jargon. I think maybe for the next one in the series I will make myself a cheat sheet of who the captain, lieutenants, and petty officers are of each ship.

The second reason why I didn't enjoy this one as much was because I kept feeling sorry for Jack. He still has no money, his marriage isn't quite living up to his expectations, he has to deal with difficult lieutenants, captains, and admirals, and he's hideously outnumbered by the French. I won't say how the campaign ends, in case you were planning to read this book, but I felt happy for Jack when the campaign was over so he could hopefully move on to something better.

Score: One and a Half Pints

Double Deception, Patricia Oliver.  Signet, New York, 1997.

This book started out promisingly enough. It was pretty promising right up to about halfway through. The heroine was a woman of mature years who knew what she was about. The hero was not obnoxious and overbearing.The setup was reasonable.

Then all sorts of things started to go wrong. It was kind of like the author suddenly didn’t really know how to finish the story. She tried all sorts of ploys. She brought in a good friend of the hero’s and his wife to try and set them up. She had the hero and heroine talk about how they had erotic dreams about one another as though this had been happening throughout the whole book, even though the author didn’t say anything about it until like three chapters from the end. She had two different versions of the Big Conflict which makes it look like the hero and the heroine will never get together - one was the classic big misunderstanding, and the other was that, even though he didn’t really have any problems expressing himself at the beginning of the book, the hero suddenly developed a case of tongue-tiedness and not being able to come up to scratch, while simultaneously the heroine, who never seemed quite so self-assured before, was wishing that the hero would just shut up and kiss her. Although there was no sex, the hero’s sexual impulses were often just a bit unwholesome - at least once he contemplated making love to the heroine while she was unconscious, and he apparently had this thing about women who were powerless to resist his advances. And three different dowagers wore, not puce, but purple gowns of uncertain vintage with enormous turbans. I know it’s a cliché in regencies, but three times in the same book is overkill. 

Now, there were some clichés (and other parts) that worked. The seemingly forbidding old lady who secretly plans the whole romance out in advance was pretty cool. The beginning of the Big Conflict made sense, wasn’t forced, and didn’t even seem particularly painful (the way they often are). Because I’ve read Cousin Kate, I could tell that the heroine’s stepmother was preventing letters from getting through between father and daughter, but I didn’t think that the author’s treatment of this situation was badly handled. I thought it was cool that the heroine had campaigned on the Peninsula with her husband. Most of the heroes and heroines in the more recent regencies are a little bit older, more experienced, and more in command of their destinies than in Georgette Heyer, which is fine as long as the characters are believable, which in this story they were. I also liked the fact that although the hero and heroine were both widowed, they had both had fulfilling first marriages and were ready to love again, rather than having had bad or unsatisfying first marriages and having never experienced true love or desire before, as happens in many romances where the first spouse is dead. 

So, there were some good parts, but only in the first part of the novel, and because I read the first part first and the last part last, the bad last part is what sticks in my head.

Score: Two Pints

With This Ring, Amanda Quick, Bantam, New York, 1998.

I think this novel was recommended to me by my friend Jean, but since Jean recommends so many romance novels to me I’m not sure she told me about this one or not. Anyway, I really liked it. It wasn’t in any way obnoxious. The heroine was strong and didn’t take any guff from the hero. There was no trace of either of the things I particularly hate about romance novels: the woman falling in love with the man specifically because he rides roughshod over her and bends her to his will; and the awful moment just before the end where they almost don’t get together because of a fight or a misunderstanding or whatever. The sex scenes were not two moist pages long. It had a reasonable plot, in fact basically the same plot as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. While certainly not up to the literary quality of Jane Austen, it was somewhat reminiscent of Northanger Abbey. What I mean, in case you’re unfamiliar with that particular work, is that is describes, in overwrought prose, menacing dilapidated abbeys and foggy London alleys and then comes up with perfectly prosaic reasons as to why a mysterious figure appears in the middle of the night or how the lord of the manor knows everything about his unexpected guest. One of the villains of the piece, who was primarily a bad guy who was to be prevented from acquiring the important object and taking over the world, was even more creepy in his secondary role as a man devoted to the adoration of the heroine (an authoress of Gothick novels) to the point of obsession and stalking. Anyway, this novel was good enough that I would read another novel by Amanda Quick, and that’s good enough for me. 

Score: Three and a Half Pints


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