Sunday, November 21, 2010

Put up your Dukes!

Several of you have written (privately, of course - wouldn't want to clutter up the Comments field with anything so unseemly as comments, now would we?) with questions about our tumultuous ongoing inquiry, Under the Covers with Paul Marron. The questions have taken a variety of forms, from those of you naughty enough to wonder if I myself have had the pleasure of wrapping that taut little model-body in sturdy clothesline to those of you who've questioned whether or not Paul and I might be sampling the Love That Dare Not Pout Its Name. Prurience, it seems, is the currency of the Internet. Shocking.

But one of the more presentable questions has concerned not so much flexible muscles as flexible reading: do my indefatigable researches for Under The Covers constitute the whole of my sojourns in the Romance genre?

This one I can answer: not so! Not hardly! More romance novels are published every year than any other kind of fiction, and more of them have been published in the past than any other genre, even murder mysteries - even westerns. Whole bookshops are devoted to their resale (like my beloved Annie's, but also many more, a species of bookshop once chronicled for the Romantic Times by my erstwhile colleague Rebekah Bradford), and sports arenas could be filled to the cheap seats with slim, florid-covered novels who came, sold in their hundreds, and vanished in a season. Unlike science fiction or even murder mysteries (to a criminally lesser extent), romances do not linger - the genre has fielded virtually no 'classics' of the type that stick around, constantly re-packaged for new generations of readers. The books are mostly chaff - here today and tomorrow in the fire.

The reason is social conventions, of which romance as a subject has multitudes, murder mysteries far fewer, and science fiction by definition almost none. Social conventions change quickly, sometimes multiple times in one generation, and romance novels based on those conventions quickly lose their appeal. It's assumed by most publishers that the virtuous nurses of Betty Neals' romance novels of the early 20th century can have little to say to the raunchy vampire grrrrls of the early 21st.

The great exception, for obvious reasons, is the historical novel. Set your torrid romance in the present day and you'll be the curator of a period piece faster than you can say "Peyton Place." Set the same story in the Middle Ages, and your book could outlast its contemporaries by a season or two. The few romance novels that have ever managed to live on and get reprinted have almost all been historical novels, and despite the ubiquity of those raunchy vampires, a great percentage of romance novels published every year take place in Ye Olden Times.

This leads, of course, to some fairly hilarious anachronisms, as anybody who's ever relished John Mortimer's pitch-perfect story "Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation" will recall. But some writers at least try to do their due diligence, making a heroic effort to sort out things like wall-sconces and crusades and the Ton before they start with the heavy breathing. And to be honest, sometimes the anachronisms fall by the wayside when the story is good enough - or when the author is (not one critic pointed out the six things that couldn't possibly have happened in Wolf Hall, for instance - including me).

Or when the subject is - in our case today, the over-mighty subject. Yes, we're talking about Dukes, those rarest and mightiest of English peers. In the real world, there've been hardly any dukes in history, only about 500 or so total individuals, and in the world today there are fewer than 25 still alive (I myself have only met a baker's dozen of the creatures over the years, and I've only known two of them well). But you'd never know that from reading romance novels, where you can hardly unfurl a reticule without rapping a duke across the snout (Duchesses are almost equally common, as those of you will know who recall my love of Eloisa James' novels)(including one, as you can see, that sports a now-familiar face!). Take three relatively recent reads of mine, harvested from the close-packed aisles of dear Annie's.

From 2004 we have Adele Ashworth's Duke of Sin - the Duke in question here being William Raleigh, Duke of Trent, Earl of Shreveport and Kayes, Baron Chesterfield ... and husband of Elizabeth, the wife he'd been rumored to have murdered. It's 1856, and this Duke is situated in lovely Cornwall (where no dukes at all live in real life), and he's the object of the widow Vivian Rael-Lamont's unwilling attentions. Unwilling and coerced: at the novel's start, Mrs. Rael-Lamont is approached by an actor (an actor!) with an irresistible offer - if she uses her considerable feminine wiles to filch from the Duke of Trent his prized manuscript of an unknown Shakespeare sonnet, the scheming actor won't publish to the world that her husband is ... still living! And this is the key to the historical's appeal: even in Grace Metalious' day, such a bit of blackmail would have no force at all: publish and be damned, and all that. But if you set a thing in the past, all kinds of naivete become believable, and so poor Vivian sets off for the Duke's library, about which we're told, "Despite the fact that the library had been decorated in a purely masculine flavor, as befit a library, this one was simply gorgeous." The predictable complications ensue, but Ashworth keeps it all controlled and carefully moving, right up to the intensely foreseeable ending. No pronouncements about Dukes as a breed are made by Duke of Sin, and this one particular duke turns out to be not so bad a chap.

Quite the reverse seems to be true of the title character in 2006's The Decadent Duke by the redoubtable Virginia Henley. Here the aristocrat in question is the Duke of Bedford, although from the rather opulent cover illustration, you might think he was the Duke of Soloflex. Whatever the designation, it's him and his dashing younger brother who have Lady Georgina Gordon's interests peaked:
"John Russell? He's the Duke of Bedford's younger brother," Charlotte said. "The Russell brothers were orphaned at an early age and brought up by their grandparents, the Marquis and Marchioness of Tavistock. Strange how dissimilar brothers can turn out to be. Marriage is anathema to Bedford, yet John couldn't wait. Against his grandmother's express wishes, he wed Elizabeth Byng in Brussels when he was only nineteen. He was a young ensign in the Footguards, and fought in Belgium."

"Speaking of grandmothers, Elizabeth Byng's grandmere was a Lennox," Charles remarked. "So John's wife is a distant relation of mine."

"Lud, I wouldn't be surprised if the entire British aristocracy were related through intermarriage," Charlotte said dryly.

And indeed, genealogy is paramount in The Decadent Duke in a more technical and researched way than you'll usually find in a romance of this kind. Real historical characters by the dozen flit through Henley's pages, whereas the typical hisotorical romance exists in a happy Trollopean kind of abstraction whose main appeal is its freedom from the need to research. Of course, as noted, the end result of that freedom can be full of annoying howlers, but you can't let that ruin your fun. And if we're talking about fun, we should certainly close things for today by reaching for the lady whose books epitomize it: the aforementioned Eloisa James, whose novels fizz and bubble like fine champagne. James has written a sparkling series of novels starring various high-spirited duchesses, but in her 2006 novel The Taming of the Duke it's the male of the species in the spotlight, namely Rafe, the Duke of Holbrook - and his recently-revealed brother Gabe:
"Raphael and Gabriel," Rafe said. "Bloody hell. I had no idea."

Suddenly the rather serious set of his brother's face shifted to a grin. "The discovery that you are name for an archangel drove you to curses?"

It was in his smile that Rafe found the difference between his brother's face and his own. For Gabriel Spenser's grin had a charming seriousness to it that had never been part of Rafe's personality.

"What could our father have been thinking?" Rafe demanded. And then he caught, lightning quick, the shift of his brother's eyes that showed he knew perfectly well what the old duke had been thinking. "Next thing you'll be telling me Holbrook dandled you on his knee."

"Only until age eight or so," Mr. Spenser said, adding with a touch of something like prudence, "Your Grace."

"Bloody hell," Rafe repeated, "And don't call me Your Grace. I've never taken to the title."

James knows her facts well enough to know only dukes, of all the British aristocracy, are called "Your Grace" instead of "My Lord," but her main focus in this book, as in all her books, is to provide the perfect hour's amusement. You can tell this even by her chapter headings, like "A Chapter In Which Brazen Jokes About Holes Would Be Appropriate (But Your Author Refrains)" - here's an author with no greater ambition than to please you (and perhaps provoke a wistful sigh)(because she's a great big softy). And since every age has its cares, these delightful historicals deserve to survive, although the odds are against it.

I'll keep reading them, just as I'll keep ranging far and wide over the field of romance (and most other genres, of course) - but it's true: lately, my concentration has been focused on a the fictional odyssey of a certain Italian-extraction male model. We'll return to that odyssey all the more refreshed, I think, from having detoured just briefly into the world of dukes and duchesses.

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