Monday, November 13, 2006

Carola Dunn - Crossed Quills

There's a review of Carola Dunn's Crossed Quills at The Romance Reader, where the reviewer concludes that this is a 'refreshing, intelligent Regency featuring two characters who are perfectly matched. This one is a delight, and comes with a strong recommendation'. So, as usual, I'm not going to write a review. What I want to focus on is the fact that this is a metaromance, and one which includes considerable detail about the politics of Regency England.

We've already discussed politics in contemporary set romances, and the conclusion we'd reached was that politics is more likely to appear in a historical, but that this does not mean that there aren't any parallels to be drawn between contemporary and historical politics. The historical context does, however, provide a certain distance, so that even if the characters are members of a particular political party or political movement, the author cannot be accused of engaging directly in contemporary party politics. We've also had a look at historicals and wallpaper historicals.

I've recently been noticing how many authors of historical romances post information about their historical research on their websites and blogs. Claire Thornton, for example, has a section on black people in 18th-century England, Kalen Hughes offers some interesting insights into wearing a corset, while Loretta Chase writes about the practical reasons why a Regency dairy might have had tiled walls and marble floors, and Cheryl St. John gives some background on the Harvey Girls. I'm sure the authors of historical romances must have to leave out vast amounts of information that they've researched, and it's nice that they can now share it with readers online.

Crossed Quills is not a novel in which hefty chunks of undigested historical background have been dropped clumsily into the characters' discussions. It's quite possible to read the novel, enjoy it for the storyline and pay only cursory attention to the political and historical background. That's just as well, because I'm sure the reviewer wouldn't be describing it as a 'delight' had it read like a history textbook. Nonetheless, the historical background is interesting and somewhat unusual.

There is a strong yet somewhat forgotten tradition of radical politics in the UK. The Guardian recently 'asked readers to tell us which neglected radical event from British history most deserved a proper monument' and you can read about the result and various of the nominees here. As Pam Rosenthal discovered when she began to research the politics of 'Our cherished, charming, civilized Regency' period, it most certainly wasn't all charm, politeness, glittering ballrooms and dashing aristocratic spies.

In Crossed Quills the heroine is a writer of political articles, written under the pen-name 'Prometheus'. The hero considers them 'brilliant [...] well-reasoned yet pithy, both incisive and persuasive. Whereas Cobbett's language is far too incendiary to be taken seriously by anyone but rabble-rousers and the starving masses' (1998: 5). William Cobbett
was not afraid to criticise the government in the Political Register [the newspaper he founded] and in 1809 he attacked the use of German troops to put down a mutiny in Ely. Cobbett was tried and convicted for sedition and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Newgate Prison. When Cobbett was released he continued his campaign against newspaper taxes and government attempts to prevent free speech.

By 1815 the tax on newspapers had reached 4d. a copy. As few people could afford to pay 6d. or 7d. for a newspaper, the tax restricted the circulation of most of these journals to people with fairly high incomes. Cobbett was only able to sell just over a thousand copies a week. The following year Cobbett began publishing the Political Register as a pamphlet. Cobbett now sold the Political Register for only 2d. and it soon had a circulation of 40,000.

Cobbett's journal was the main newspaper read by the working class. This made Cobbett a dangerous man and in 1817 he heard that the government planned to have him arrested for sedition. Unwilling to spend another period in prison, Cobbett fled to the United States,
This escape is referred to in Crossed Quills (1998: 75). Cobbett soon returned to England and continued writing for the Political Register and 'in 1832 [...] after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act Cobbett was able to win the parliamentary seat of Oldham'. Dunn makes reference to the price of the Political Register when Wynn, who has been reading Prometheus' article in this newspaper, 'picked up the Register again, the shilling edition. He no longer had to be satisfied with the twopenny pamphlet edition, reduced in size from the newspaper to avoid the stamp tax which put it beyond the reach of the poor' (1998: 5). Even in his previous state, before he ascended to the viscountcy, Wynn was, as he acknowledges, still considerably better off than the majority of the population:
he and his family had never been without food or clothes or a roof over their heads. They had even scraped up enough to give his eldest sister a Season on the fringes of Society. In spite of gowns turned, made over, and retrimmed, Albinina had married well, into an ancient if untitled family.
In fact, they had fared splendidly compared to a large proportion of Britain's people, workless and hungry since the end of the war. (1998: 6)
This was a time of economic and social unrest:
whilst the laurels were yet cool on the brows of our victorious soldiers on their second occupation of Paris, the elements of convulsion were at work amongst the masses of our labouring population; and that a series of disturbances commenced with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815, and continued, with short intervals, until the close of 1816. In London and Westminster riots ensued, and were continued for several days, whilst the bill was discussed; at Bridport, there were riots on account of the high price of bread; at Biddeford there were similar disturbances to prevent the expiration of grain; at Bury, by the unemployed, to destroy machinery; at Ely, not suppressed without bloodshed; at Newcastle-on-Tyne, by colliers and others; at Glasgow, where blood was shed, on account of the soup kitchens; at Preston, by unemployed weavers; at Nottingham, by Luddites, who destroyed thirty frames; at Merthyr Tydville, on a reduction of wages; at Birmingham, by the unemployed; at Walsall, by the distressed; and December 7th, 1816, at Dundee, where owing to the high price of meal, upwards of one hundred shops were plundered. (from Sam Bamford's autobiography, Passages in the Life of a Radical [which] was published in parts between 1839 and 1841)
As Chubby, Wynn's friend, comments, there were 'universal suffrage petitions and Prinny getting shot at in the Mall. That happened only last week, the twenty-eighth of January [1817]' (1998: 7).

In addition to the politics, Crossed Quills has, as mentioned, a metafictional aspect, since both the heroine, Pippa and the hero, Wynn are authors and each admires the other's works. Each, for differing reasons, fears discovery and writes under a pseudonym. The politics and the effects of being an author of particular kinds of work are intertwined with the love story, and even there, the metafictional aspect of the novel can be felt, for Dunn has created a hero and heroine who are not paragons of beauty. Wynn's first opinion of Pippa's looks is that she's 'no antidote. When animated, her face is quite fetching if rather pale [...] but she would not do as the heroine of a romance, you know' (1998: 30). Wynn, Lord Selworth has 'flyaway flaxen hair' (1998: 12) which, when he runs his hand through it bears a 'likeness to an ill-made hayrick' (1998: 19), is 'slim, and not much above middling height' (1998: 12) although in the heroine's opinion while he's 'not precisely handsome, at close quarters his lordship's smile was simply devastating' (1998: 13).

The metafictional aspect of the novel is introduced almost as soon as the political, when Wynn declares that
the style I developed to write those wretched Gothic romances is [...] unsuitable for a maiden speech to the House of Lords [...]. Somehow I just can't seem to keep out the melodrama and bombast.
"Seems to me," said Chubby judiciously, "you were a devilish sight happier writing your romances than you have been since your great-uncle popped off and made you Viscount Selworth." (1998: 6)
Wynn has written under the pseudonym of 'Valentine Dred' and fears that 'public exposure would blight my political career, if not wither it entirely. [...] I should not be taken seriously.' (1998: 141). Pippa is a reader and admirer of his novels: 'She liked Valentine Dred's novels because there was always an undertone of amusement beneath the horrors of headless horsemen and mad monks. One smiled even as one shuddered' (1998: 78-79). Pippa, not knowing Wynn's secret, but thinking there's a similarity between Wynn's writing style and Dred's, observes that 'a serious aspiring politician was bound to be distressed if informed that his style resembled that of a writer of racy fiction' (1998: 79). This is perhaps rather topical in the light of the way fiction made its way into the recent US elections. In the Virginia senate race
Mr. Allen has spent months disparaging Mr. Webb as a writer of fiction, as if a novelist's experience is any more divorced from everyday reality than the life of a U.S. senator. His campaign suggests that because some female characters in Mr. Webb's books are portrayed as sleazy or servile Mr. Webb must himself see women in that light. (Washington Post, 1 November 2006)
and in the campaign to become Texas' Comptroller of Public Accounts, Susan Combs, who had written a romance novel, 'was accused by her opponent, Fred Head, of writing pornographic novels, based on excerpts he published online from her novel, A Perfect Match' (Romance Wiki). As it happens, both authors won the elections and Wynn has perhaps rather less cause for concern than he imagines, but nonetheless, the fact that a writer's fiction can be used against them, even nowadays, suggests that Wynn's caution is far from unjustified. A politician and novelist active in a period very much closer to Wynn's is Benjamin Disraeli, who was a Tory, but one very interested in social reform: 'Social reforms passed by the Disraeli government included: the Artisans Dwellings Act (1875), the Public Health Act (1875), the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1875), the Climbing Boys Act (1875), the Education Act (1876)'. The Climbing Boys Act is, in fact, referred to in a Historical Note at the end of Crossed Quills.

Pippa is the author of political articles but she cannot let her gender become known since
Cobbett could not afford to go on publishing articles the world did not take seriously. How much influence would they exert if it became known that the author was a mere female?
And a youthful female, at that! (1998: 16)
Pippa's fears seem well-founded, since in this period women (along with very many other sectors of the population) did not have the vote. At a performance of The Merchant of Venice Pippa muses that 'Jews ought to have the vote, she thought, as well as Catholics, Nonconformists, and the property-less massses. Not to mention women. [...] Shakespeare had recognized the talents of women. Pippa was not unique in her abilities, merely rare in being encouraged to develop them' (1998: 130).
In Great Britain woman suffrage was first advocated by Mary Wollstonecraft in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and was demanded by the Chartist movement of the 1840s. The demand for woman suffrage was increasingly taken up by prominent liberal intellectuals in England from the 1850s on, notably by John Stuart Mill and his wife, Harriet.
even when women did finally receive the franchise, it was restricted to older women, not those of Pippa's age:
The need for the enfranchisement of women was finally recognized by most members of Parliament from all three major parties, and the resulting Representation of the People Act was passed by the House of Commons in June 1917 and by the House of Lords in February 1918. Under this act, all women age 30 or over received the complete franchise. An act to enable women to sit in the House of Commons was enacted shortly afterward. In 1928 the voting age for women was lowered to 21 to place women voters on an equal footing with male voters.(both quotations from the Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Wollstonecraft was, like Pippa, a radical and she
attacked the educational restrictions that kept women in a state of "ignorance and slavish dependence." She was especially critical of a society that encouraged women to be "docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else." Wollstonecraft described marriage as "legal prostitution" and added that women "may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent."
The ideas in Wollstonecraft's book were truly revolutionary and caused tremendous controversy. One critic described Wollstonecraft as a "hyena in petticoats".
Dr Samuel Johnson's somewhat similar view of eloquent women is quoted in Crossed Quills itself: 'A woman preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well: but you are surprised to find it done at all.' (1998: 23). Given this background, one can understand Pippa's concerns about maintaining her identity a secret.
  • Dunn, Carola, 1998. Crossed Quills (New York: Zebra Books, Kensington Publishing Corp.).

1 comment:

  1. Really loved this book. I happen to enjoy the politics of Edwardian Britain and find myself populating my novels with MPs and diplomats.