Monday, August 27, 2007

The Rules of Gentility

Our book today is “The Rules of Gentility” by Janet Mullany, and we must immediately report that it’s unlikely to show up on Bella Abzug’s reading list up in Heaven. That’s all in all a good thing for Miss Mullany, we think: Bella was a formidable enemy to have when she was alive - we doubt she’s lost any topspin arguing with God about the fact that He made Eve second.

“The Rules of Gentility” is set in the Regency period, alas. Despite the protestations of our esteemed belle dame sans merci My Lady Disdain, we here at Stevereads have never understood the magnetic appeal the Regency period seems to exert on so many writers. It was a squalid time, full of body odor and disconcertingly large hair-lice and sugar-blackened teeth, so what’s the allure? Is it the psychological undertone of liberation, the father figure of the king being offstage? Is it the very, very temporary absence of the shadow of some awful war or other? We’d ask My Lady Disdain ourselves, but she’s currently skiing in Stade with a ‘spare’ prince of Spain, so we’re on our own,

No clues forthcoming in “The Rules of Gentility,” which is the story of young heiress Philomena Wellesley-Clegg, who’s on the town in London with shopping in mind, for bonnets, shoes, and perhaps a husband:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” goes the novel’s rather dire choice of opening, “that a single woman of fortune and passable good looks amuses herself in London with fashion, philanthropic works, and flirtation, until a suitable gentleman makes an offer. I consider the pursuit of the bonnets and of a husband fairly alike - I do not want to acquire an item that will wear out, or bore me after a brief acquaintance, and we must suit each other very well.”

Philomena has several prospects - for the husband, that is, and she immediately gives the reader a quick synopsis of each, the main purpose of which is to start the guessing-game going on which she’ll eventually marry (My Lady Disdain, were she not spelunking in Cuba with Ian McKellan and, um, FRIENDS, would no doubt warn us here that list or no list, there are almost always dark horse complications to this kind of handicapping - and she ought to know! The entire time she was married to her second husband, she thought his younger brother was gay - until he revealed that he was merely patient and became her third husband!)

Mullany is a spirited writer who’s not at all without talent - even readers who’ve never picked up a romance novel before will keep turning the pages right to the end. This is a happy little book, perfect for a guilty pleasure or a long plane ride, although we here at Stevereads must point out the obvious: that time would be infinitely better spent reading the novels of Jane Austen. Still, we know what world we live in, so we won’t preach. For a few paragraphs.

“The Rules of Gentility” is a fun, enjoyable little read, but oh, the price you pay for the pleasure. Mullany has read her Austen, or listened to a chunk of it while on the Stairmaster. She knows enough about the outside TYPE of a Regency to throw in a bit where her fabulous heiress is confronted with the working class, on whom she takes instant pity and is met with the requisite defiant independence:

“I sit beside her on the bed and take her hand ... ‘Kate, you are so brave. But I should like to offer you a job where you could make forty pounds a year.’
Kate laughs. ‘I make that in a quarter year, or less, miss, and with that greedy Mrs. Bright taking most of the money.’
‘You would have safety, security, and a respectable profession.’
‘Miss, I had a respectable profession. I made a few shillings a week, working sixteen hours a day in a basement where the walls streamed water. That’s how you ladies get your pretty gowns. And then I was ill, and my job gone. I’m fortunate that Mrs. Bright took me in.’
What can I say to this? That I am sorry? Even I can see that would be an insult ... ‘I should like to train you as my maid.’
There is silence, or at least silence of a sort as the creaking from upstairs accelerates and next door, loud groans replace the sound of a switch upon flesh.
‘I don’t think so, miss.’ She shakes her head, takes my hand, and gives it a kind squeeze.”

Ah, the brave, proud, and above all complacent poor! Where would Regency novels (or My Lady Disdain’s five villas) be without them? They KNOW there’s a party going on everywhere else in Regency London, but they’re too busy with their sweating walls to throw bricks at all the brightly-lit windows and risk hitting so fair a creature as Philomena. They must be COAXED, CAJOLED out of their poverty, if one is to make anything of them!

And who has time for that, when there’s the aforementioned husband to find? Readers who stick with “The Rules of Gentility” for any length of time will be reminded very forcefully of “Sex and the City,” but maybe the forlornly loyal Austen fans among them will hope for an ending with even a nod toward wry detachment, even the hint of a knowing smile. Alas, for them the wait will have been in vain, however pleasant the journey. In the end, Carrie Bradshaw carries the day:

“His lips brush against my hair, and it is the most natural thing in the world for us to kiss. “And I love you too,” he whispers. ‘You may put your hands in my pockets as much as you like, and you can buy bonnets to your heart’s content.’
What woman alive could refuse such a proposal?
Not I.”

Every Jane Austen fanatic could of course name at least one woman then alive who could have refused such a proposal, which raises another question about Regency novels: why on Gawd’s green Earth would any writer with an ounce of sense in her head actively INVITE comparison with the author of ‘Pride and Prejudice’? The brand name ‘Jane Austen’ has become in recent years a booming cottage industry full of writers doing just that, without seeming to care that they can only come off poorly in comparison to one of the greatest novelists of all time. Or is it that they know what we here at Stevereads would hate to admit, that the times have changed, lessened, sufficiently so they might WIN such a comparison?

My Lady Disdain could no doubt enlighten us, but alas, she’s boogie-boarding in Cabo with Johnny Lang and won’t be back until he’s won a Grammy. Until then, with books like “The Rules of Gentility,” we’re, as noted, on our own.


Beepy said...

When I stop vomiting, I might be able to leave a comment.

Seriously, I hate books like this. First of all, why can't we leave Jane Austen alone. Are modern writers trying to make me hate her? I'm barely hanging on to my love of her novels by focusing very intently on them and repeating a calming mantra. Every third book being written has the words "Jane Austen" or "Darcy" as part of its title. I don't see the attraction. Take something unique and beautiful and market it like a roomful of Elvis impersonators.

Secondly, can't we please have a bit of historical accuracy. Am I to believe that a woman of this "quality" would be consorting with prostitutes? Having worked the streets of London back in the day, let me tell you "bloody unlikely." Their brothers, fathers and boyfriends, sure, but not the young missies.

And, Gawd, if any gentleman were so bold as to suggest that a lady put her hand in his pocket... Didn't they used to faint at the word "leg" or am I thinking of the Victorians again?

Steve, you know that I have a soft spot for the chick lit, but spare me this one. I beg you. I'll even put my hand in your pocket.

Sam said...

Beepy, this sounds like the bitter longings of a woman who never found the man to buy her bonnets.
Elizabeth Benett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are itter than it, Regency Ben-Jen (Ben-Dar?), and they're seriously in love and don't care what the tabloids and blog-fields say about them. Anyone who doesn't want more and more of this fabulous, totally real couple doesn't believe in the infinite bonnet-bounty of true love. I for one can't get enough.

Gianni said...

Ah, the Austin copycats... Somewhat of a cross between a trashy romance novel and chick-lit, guaranteed to make anyone with a y chromosome fall into the deepest coma imaginable.

Beepy said...

Damn, Sam, you saw right through me. I am without a bonnet=frustrated. I look at all my friends getting a new bonnet every day and I say to myself "Where is my special bonnet?"

Greg said...

The new Open Letters is up. Everyone go read (especially my piece)!

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