Warning: The following review contains spoilers and feminist rallying cries
I’ve read a handful of historical romance novels, including a weird period in my life where I was briefly into pioneer-era mail-order-bride stories, of which there are a surprising number. (Less surprising, however, than the number of “Earth woman becomes mated to a pair of sexy alien warlords who are sometimes also brothers” stories, which is apparently a genre that exists.)
It’s not that I think love stories are inherently bad, or that enjoying them makes you a bad feminist. I’m still peeved about the time when a former roommate chided me for having a “princess thing” when I confessed that I loved Disney movies. Love what you love, and find escapism wherever it pleases you.
These books did not please me. The writing tends to be both repetitive and fragmented, and the sex scenes are sometimes euphemistic to the point of incomprehensibility. Worst of all, MacLean’s Rules for Scoundrels series squashes otherwise interesting characters into very tidy, conventionally happy endings. The moral of both these books seemed to be this: You think you’re different, but that’s just because you haven’t been boinked properly yet.
Let’s back up for a moment. Both of these books, A Rogue By Any Other Name and One Good Earl Deserves a Lover, are set in England during the Regency era and chronicle the redemption stories of the four co-owners of London’s most notorious casino, the Fallen Angel. Each of the owners–Bourne, Cross, Temple, and Chase–have dark pasts and plenty of secrets. They’re also, conveniently, all titled aristocrats, incredibly wealthy, and good-looking to boot.
In the first book, angry and revenge-hungry Bourne kidnaps his childhood sweetheart, Penelope Marbury, in order to secure her hand in marriage and reclaim the estate he lost in a foolish card game. Penelope, longing for adventure and an alternative to a boringly respectable marriage or spinsterhood, eventually wins Bourne’s heart as their marriage of convenience turns into a love match. He gives up his misguided dreams of revenge and settles back into his rightful place in Society with his bride. MacLean also, at some point during the narrative, removes the hero’s balls and replaces them with tangelos.
The second book features Cross and Pippa Marbury, Penelope’s sister. Pippa is basically Temperance Brennan in a corset, and she demands that Cross explain the mechanics of marital relations before she marries her bumbling fiance. Cross is so determined to punish himself for his elder brother’s accidental death years before that he’s become a sort of dark monk, but Pippa’s love and insistent pursuit of knowledge (and his junk) heals his wounded soul. He gives up his self-imposed exile and rejoins Society alongside his brilliant wife.
Yay! Everyone has learned their place, and now they can happily settle down to have aristocratic little babies just like they were always told to do. Sure, they took a somewhat roundabout path, but those crazy kids ended up right where they’d always claimed they never wanted to be–marriage, respectability, and babies for all!
Maybe it’s because I read these books now, in the midst of a massive political upheaval in the weeks following Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March, but the fantasy presented in MacLean’s stories is one that I do not share. The heroines are allowed their little rebellions, but in the end, they willingly embrace the role of wife and mother. The heroes are redeemed and very nearly neutered by love, and everyone just sort of cheerfully sentences themselves to bourgeois domestication.
Screw that noise. I want to see Almack’s burn. I want suffragettes in sturdy walking boots kicking down the doors of the patriarchy. I want strong-minded heiresses to demand basic rights and turn down tepid offers of marriage in favor of a string of lovers. I don’t want to see anyone tamed or made respectable. Forget ripping bodices; I want a revolution.