It’s no secret to readers of this blog, and to readers who pay attention to my reviews at Dear Author, that I’ve had a hard time finding historical romance novels that provide me with a satisfying read these days. Although I’ve somewhat made my peace with historical inauthenticity, all kinds of things will jerk me out of a book, and for whatever reason they seem to be increasing in frequency. I’ve found a few books where the historical aspects work for me, as well as those where the romance is so good that I overlook the historical improbabilities. But a lot of the books that are most highly praised in my online romance circles don’t work for me. At all. These are “serious” books in the sense that the authors conduct background research and diligently work to create settings that are not “wallpaper.” And yet they fall flat when I’m reading them. It’s frustrating, because I want to read and enjoy books in the subgenre. Finally, though, I think I’ve pinpointed why I’ve been having so much trouble.
Last week Liz McC wrote a terrific post about what she’s been reading lately. The conversation in the comments ranged across a number of topics, but the longest discussion was about Rose Lerner’s latest (and long-awaited) release, Sweet Disorder. I had picked up this book with great eagerness when it came out, but after a couple of attempts I DNF’d it. I realized there was no way I was going to be able to lose myself in the story even though I wanted to, and I mentally filed it in the “it’s not you it’s me” category. But after reading Liz’s blog post it was evident to me that her thoughts on it mirrored some of mine, and our take on the book runs contrary to a lot of other readers’ experience, including readers with whom we share interests and sensibilities about historical romance.
The big reason I couldn’t keep going with the book was that setting and context are important to me in fiction, and I couldn’t buy the political setup. The book is set in a highly competitive constituency in the National Election of 1812. Although the electoral reforms of 1832 were still in the distance, there were always a few competitive races in the pre-reform era and it’s not a stretch to believe Lerner’s fictional borough of Lively St. Lemeston could have been one of them.
Lerner wrote about her research on women and politics over at History Hoydens, a group blog in which romance authors talk about the historical materials they find and the processes by which they integrate history into their fiction. In it she relates an anecdote that gave her the concept for Sweet Disorder: during the Oxfordshire election of 1754, Lady Susan Keck sent a couple to Oxford to be married so that the bridegroom could vote in the election as a proxy for his (new) wife, who held property rights over two votes. Like Lerner, I found this surprising and intriguing, and so I followed her citation to the fascinating work of Elaine Chalus and promptly fell down the rabbit hole to read about women and politics in 18thC England.