The previous week’s viewing of Pride and Prejudice had left Dania longing for the romances. While she had appreciated hearing Eleanor and Gwen argue with Ellen about the film, she herself had found the film perfectly adequate. What it had stirred up in her, however, was a renewed desire to be lost in the rush, the sweep, the passions of a fantasy romance. The kind she had felt as a child, watching movies and not knowing that the female and male leads would always end up betrothed at the end.
All these thoughts swirled around her head as she entered the Barbara’s Bookstore in O’Hare Airport, on her way back home for a wedding. Love was in bloom, she thought, and perhaps if she could find a book to distract her from this during the flight ––
But this thought went nowhere, as Dania approached the Bestsellers wall of the store. Standing in rows, the pulp romances lined the walls, an army of shirtless men and women in cotillion dresses, the metallic-embossed titles and authors shimmering down on her.
Yep, she thought. In for a penny, right?
Glancing across the titles, she tried to make a selection. You Never Forget Your First Earl featured cover art of a white woman, in top-down view, whose pink skirt fanned out to cover the entire image. The Family Matchmaker showed a man and woman, in regency garb, staring into each other’s eyes amidst the plumage of a garden. The bare pecs on display on every pirate-themed book – from Gentle Rogue to Crimson Rapture to A Pirate Of Her Own – led Dania to the conclusion that there had been some prolific shirt-targeting thieves on the high seas.
She had almost made the decision to pick One Night Rodeo, the first in a section of Western romances, when something aesthetically called to Dania about Ella Quinn’s The Marquis And I. The cover was no different than the other regency novels: a white woman in a lush pink ballgown, her back gripped by both her pearled silver bodice and the muscular hand of the gruff, tanned ruffian (I’m sure the book calls him that at least once, Dania thought) that held her close. “Her love is worth the challenge…” intoned the book’s vague cover blurb, balanced by the note on the opposite side that Quinn was a “USA Today Bestselling Author.”
“Sure,” Dania said aloud, to herself. She opened to the first page of Marquis and glanced over the first line:
“Prickles of fear ran down Lady Charlotte Carpenter’s spine, and she fought back the gorge rising in her throat. Inside her gloves her hands grew damp.”
Dania bought the book, and by the time the plane landed, she had read the entire thing.
– – – – –
“What the hell is this?”
Dania looked up from the couch. Gwen, standing over her, held The Marquis And I. Eleanor stood just behind, looking confused.
“What about it?”
“Is it yours?”
“Oh, yeah,” Dania said, with a smile. “I bought it last week, when I was flying home. I read the whole thing in one plane ride, it was awesome.”
“Okay, cool, because we were confused,” Eleanor added, as Gwen stepped back. “Because neither of us bought it, and we had no idea where it came from.”
“Yeah,” Dania said. “I’ve always sort of wanted to do that. You know, buy one of those pulp romances in airport bookstores?”
“I don’t think anyone has ever actually read one of these,” Gwen said, flipping through the book.
“Well, clearly, people have,” Dania chided. “Every one of them says that they’re a best-seller. Lots of people clearly read them.”
“Yeah, maybe in the heartland,” Gwen said. “People who read USA Today. A good endorsement from the free newspaper at the Best Western.”
“She’s right, though,” Eleanor said. “People do read them. At least, there are people who read them somewhere.”
“It’s such a ludicrous genre,” Gwen said. “The fantasy of getting carried away by some swashbuckling rogue man, all characters lacking in self-dependency. It’s gross.”
Dania stood. “Swashbucklers are in the pirate romances, not the regency ones. Are you condemning from ignorance again, Gwen?”
“No,” Gwen added, weakly. “I know what the books are, even if I haven’t read them through.”
“Then what’s the plot of The Marquis And I?”
“I’m guessing some woman goes to a ball,” Gwen said. “And she’s got this Beatrice-like mantra of ‘I don’t need a man,’ and then this dashing prince comes in, and she’s like ‘woah, check that guy out,’ and then they fight for a while and eventually they marry.”
“That’s…not even remotely close,” Dania said.
“Yeah, first of all, he’s a marquis, not a prince, Gwen,” Eleanor said. “Read the title.”
“Okay, fine, what happens?”
“Why don’t you read the book and find out?” Dania said. “Educate yourself on what the heartland is doing.”
“Maybe I will,” Gwen said defiantly. “I’m dropping out at the first passionate sex scene, though.”
Gwen stalked off, book in tow, to her room, as Dania sat back down on the chair.
“When does the passionate sex scene happen?” Eleanor asked.
“Chapter Twenty-Five,” Dania said. “She’s got a way to go. Besides, I think she’s gonna get hooked before then.”
“I don’t know,” Eleanor said. “You know Gwen.”
“I mean, yeah, if she’s gonna go in hating it, she’ll find a lot to hate,” Dania said. “It is a romance, the women do get kidnapped and bound a lot. But it’s like…better than that. They’re all more interesting than that.”
“Well, it’s like…the guy –– there’s this scene a third of the way into the book where Charlotte – that’s the girl – finds out that the guy, Constantine, has a mistress. And she’s extremely adamant that she’s not going to marry a man who abuses other women, or hires them for sex.”
“Feminism, I suppose,” Eleanor said. “Perhaps some of the women choose sex work.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Dania said. “Like, normally, it’d be this tiny plot point where the guy would swear off other women to be with Charlotte, right? But he straight-up tells her that he thinks all the women have made a conscious choice to be sex workers. And she calls him out on it.”
“Wait, so he thinks it’s a choice, so they shouldn’t be shamed, but she shames them ––” Eleanor began.
“No one shames the sex workers,” Dania said. “That’s the point. It’s either belief that they’ve made a choice, or dismay that they were forced into it. No blame is given to them. But anyway, the point is: Constantine has a mistress named Aimée. And he’s like, “she definitely chose her life.” And Charlotte’s like, “I doubt that.” And he’s like, “no, she definitely did.” And Charlotte’s like, “okay, ask her.”
“Nice,” Eleanor said. “I like this so far.”
“So he goes to Aimée and asks her,” Dania continued. “And of course, she didn’t. She was a child, fourteen or fifteen, who was forced into this terrible life, and oh, if only she could get out…you know the bit.”
“But the guy is like, ‘wait.’ And he fully realizes that he was wrong, gives Aimée the assets to rebuild her life, and returns to Charlotte to tell her that he was wrong, and that he has recanted his old ways.”
“And so now Charlotte can finally fall in love with him,” Eleanor said. “Like the genre demands.”
“But I think it’s more interesting than that,” Dania said. “Like, the whole think about Con ditching Aimée – like, that‘s the real fantasy. Because obviously, the setting is ludicrous: this magical high-society regency England where getting married is the only real problem.”
“Everyone has servants, they have to make time for the Ball Season, there’s probably some walking around in gardens…” Eleanor suggested.
“Yeah, the whole deal,” Dania agreed. “But that’s the obvious stuff. The actual comfort – like, if the book is selling this version of reality where all the conflict has been sand-blasted off – the thing they got rid of is the personality flaws.”
“Con’s mistress-abusing notwithstanding.”
“No, even that. Think about it: Con abandons his whole life after learning he was wrong once. Charlotte gets captured early in the book, and gets rescued by Chapter Six. Con and Charlotte fall in love over the course of the whole book, and you really actually feel like they’re right for each other by the time the sex scene happens. They’re both really into it.”
“So the fantasy is consent,” Eleanor suggested.
“Or, like, the idea that you can fully trust this other person you love, because they’ll always be there for you.”
“Yeah, Con doesn’t really seem to have anything better to do than rescue Charlotte and moon after her,” Dania said. “Which makes him a boring character – unless you’re imagining yourself in Charlotte’s role, which is so obviously what the book tries to do.”
“Well, that’s sort of interesting,” Eleanor added. “And correct me if I’m reading into it wrong. He’s always there for her. But he doesn’t do everything for her. He’s just a supporting guy.”
“Yeah, Charlotte is actually pretty active as a character,” Dania said. “There’s this whole subplot I didn’t even mention about this woman named Miss Betsy, who is behind the kidnappings and is selling off girls into the escort business…”
“The plot thickens,” Eleanor added, ominously.”
“I mean, kind of,” Dania said. “That whole thing gets really anti-climatically resolved with, like, a hundred pages to go. The last part is basically just wedding preparation for Charlotte and Con, with a weak plot about keeping it a secret from him. That’s probably the part Gwen will hate the most, because it’s exactly what she thinks the rest of the book is.”
“But if it follows a more subversive first chunk of the book, about consent and the fantasy of reasonable people in love,” Eleanor suggested. “Perhaps it will make up for it.”
“There’s definitely something more to it than I was giving it credit for,” Dania added. “I mean, in the sense that it’s got a more complex and possibly progressive view on gender relations and romantic entanglement than I expected out of a damn pulp romance.”
“When did it come out?”
“February, this year,” Dania said. “Which I didn’t know when I got it. And yeah, it’s still a fantasy regency romance novel, it’s not going to win any feminist literature awards. But I’m pretty sure it passes the Bechdel Test. And absolutely the Sexy Lamp test.”
“Still, interesting to read anyway,” Eleanor said.
“I wonder how much of that subversion is going to come across to people in the heartland who read the books regularly.”
“Well, I don’t know the other books,” Dania said. “Maybe they’re all like that. I’ll have to grab another one soon.”
Image Credit: Kensington Publishing Corporation