Thursday, December 03, 2009

Michelle Martin - Pembroke Park

After the discussion of homosexual panic in Heyer's Lady of Quality, I thought it might be interesting to look at a more recent Regency romance where there's very definitely some panic caused by homosexuality. Michelle Martin's Pembroke Park (1986) is subtitled "A bit of a departure: the first lesbian Regency novel," and its dedication mentions "Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer." Martin thus openly acknowledges both her novel's differences from, and its debt to, its literary ancestors.

Joke Hermes's article on "Sexuality in Lesbian Romance Fiction" contains a synopsis of the whole of Pembroke Park and Paulina Palmer has described the novel as "a lesbian version of Pride and Prejudice" (198). She continues by stating that Martin:
signals her debt to Austen by entitling her work Pembroke Park, which recalls the name of Darcy’s country seat Pemberley, and by choosing as the setting for her storyline the village of Heddington, a community as conservative and close-knit as Austen’s Meryton. The opening episode of her novel also displays affinities with Pride and Prejudice in that it centres on the arrival of an affluent visitor with aristocratic connections, and describes the gossip and conjecture the event generates. However, whereas in Austen’s novel the appearance of the rich and handsome Mr Bingley inspires pleasurable excitement among mothers with marriageable daughters, in Martin’s the arrival of the rich and beautiful Lady Diana March [...] generates feelings of despondency and alarm. They are scared that her money and good looks will attract the local gentry and result in her stealing their daughters’ suitors. (198)
The fact that a secondary character, Richard,
need[s] a son to carry on the Sinclair line. However unfair it may be, the estate is entailed solely to male heirs. If I have no son, Laurelwood will pass to my dreadful cousin Collins. (244)
may well recall the Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice who will inherit Longbourn since Mr Bennet lacks a son. Pembroke Park may also contain some slight verbal echoes of Pride and Prejudice: when Joanna's brother, Mr Garfield, declares that Lady Diana is "plain and unattractive" (15), his friend replies that "if she had smiled you would think her more tolerable" (15). This perhaps recalls the crucial importance of the word "tolerable" in Mr Darcy's first assessment of Elizabeth Bennet's physical charms: "She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me" (Chapter 3). Joanna herself "dearly loved to be amused" (18) by the folly of her neighbours, much as Elizabeth does, for as the latter declared: ""Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at! [...] That is an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh" (Chapter 11).

The plot of Pembroke Park does not, however, much resemble that of Pride and Prejudice. It is perhaps more appropriate to think of it as a metafictional novel which includes playful references to other works of fiction.

As the novel opens, Joanna is "walking down a dusty lane" (1), "her mind spinning away to Mr. Scott's newest novel, her thoughts fastening upon knights riding noble steeds as they galloped to the rescue of damsels in distress." Upon hearing hoofbeats, "she shaded her eyes, half expecting to find Ivanhoe galloping towards her" (2). Lady Diana March is no "knight in shining armor" but she is the new owner of Waverly Manor. The allusion to Sir Walter Scott's Waverley is unmistakable.

The convention-defying Lady Hildegarde Dennison perhaps recalls Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. A "silver-haired grande dame of perhaps fifty-five years" (72) she reprimands Joanna:
"Lady Sinclair I am most disappointed in you," Lady Hildegarde said, turning to Joanna. "To have a child is bad enough. To have a child who actually goes out amongst company is worse still. But to have one that screeches is inexcusable." (86)
The sentence structure here may recall Lady Bracknell's most famous pronouncement: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness" (24). The suspicion that an allusion to Wilde's play is intended is perhaps strengthened by an earlier scene:
"Cruelty and propriety are often synonymous," Lady Dennison declared. Joanna stared at her in amazement.
"I must write that down in my diary tonight," Miss Hunt-Stevens exclaimed. "It sounds so very profound."
"I am always profound, Jennifer," Lady Dennison intoned. "I am surprised you have not remarked it before this."
"But I have!" Miss Hunt-Stevens hastened to assure her. "My diary is simply littered with your profundity." (79)
Wilde was known for his witty statements, which Lady Dennison's resemble, and Miss Hunt-Stevens joins Wilde's Gwendolen and Cecily in keeping a diary. Gwendolen never travels without hers because "One should always have something sensational to read in the train" (65) and Cecily "keep[s] a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life. If I didn't write them down, I should probably forget all about them" (36).

In Chapter 10 we find an allusion to Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor when Diana and Miss Hunt-Stevens
sat in the main Waverly Drawing Room laughing heartily over letters each had just received from one Mr. Peter Elliot, who seemed to fancy himself a Falstaff. He had written two passionate, and identical, love letters addressed to a Daisy and a Penny who were, apparently, serving girls in a Lancashire tavern. Mr. Elliot, however, had erred in that he had placed these billet doux in envelopes addressed to Diana and Jennifer. (96)
Mr Garfield shows his unsuitability for inclusion in Diana's witty, irreverent circle of friends when he "brought her his own copy of Milton's Paradise Lost" (101). The contrast between their tastes and the respectable, theological work he chooses is emphasised by the fact that on the same page of Pembroke Park two of Diana's female friends are "arguing over Lysistrata" (101), a comic and extremely bawdy play, though Diana's spirituality is demonstrated via her reading of the poetry of Anne Bradstreet (124). Joanna, although Mr Garfield's sister, is able to fit in with Diana's friends because she has always had a penchant for literature of which her aunt disapproves, particularly "that scandalous Mr. Fielding and his Tom Jones of which Joanna was inordinately fond" (2). Joanna is to be found reading a copy of this work later in the novel (182).

The double entendres in Lady Dennison's comment that "Diana has a passion for art and she is [...] a very passionate young woman" (107) and in Diana's own statement to Joanna that having seen the latter's drawings "You have whetted my appetite and I must be satisfied" (109) hint at the connection between Diana's appreciation of art and her sexuality. Her lesbianism is paralleled by her championship of female artists:
Anne Vallayer-Caster [...] a Frenchwoman of consummate skill. She was highly regarded in her own lifetime I'm happy to say. [...] I think her superior to Chardin but most would quarrel with me there. They're all quite wrong, of course. She is a constant source of delight to me. I've another still-life of hers in my bedroom. (25)
and "Rosalba Carriera [...] is one of my favorites. She was particularly praised in her lifetime for her pastels and her allegories, though she is virtually ignored today" (31).

Joanna is an artist whose painting "gives me great pleasure" (32) but "my brother and my aunt cannot tolerate my working on a canvas. They do not approve of my passion for painting and think that I am idling my time away" (84). Diana's outrage at this proof of their "wretched [...] disregard for your needs and desires" (84) and Joanna's response that she is "used to such disregard" draw parallels between Joanna's creative and personal life. Diana's arrival causes Joanna to fully explore both her sexuality and her creativity. It is Diana who first recognises Joanna's talent (106) and
All that Joanna had hoped to capture in paint was seen somehow by Diana and admired in a rush of words and exclamations that left Diana constantly breathless and Joanna reeling with an [sic] hitherto unknown pleasure. (215-16)
The artistic talent isn't all on one side of the relationship, however. Diana composes music and is a talented pianist:
The room swelled with the music that poured from Diana. The surprise Joanna felt was quickly supplanted by the beauty of the music which invaded Joanna's senses and left her feeling curiously exhilarated. Diana [....] was playing her soul. [...] The music revealed its creatress, and awakened its listener. (141-42)
Given the importance of the creative arts in the novel, and the roles they play in stimulating desire and revealing the "soul" of the artist, it is interesting to note that in a "biographical sketch" Martin reveals that
I discovered my first love and only profession - writing - when I was twelve years old but did not start my first novel until after leaving Mills [College]. Three novels later I fell in love again. Pembroke Park was written in celebration.
One can't help but wonder how much Pembroke Park reveals of "its creatress" and her relationships with both literature and "Lightning," one of the people to whom the novel is dedicated and and someone whom Martin describes as both "my love and muse."

  • Hermes, Joke. "Sexuality in Lesbian Romance Fiction." Feminist Review 42 (1992): 49-66.
  • Martin, Michelle. Pembroke Park. Tallahassee, FL: Naiad, 1986.
  • Palmer, Paulina. “Girl Meets Girl: Changing Approaches to the Lesbian Romance.” Fatal Attractions: Rescripting Romance in Contemporary Literature and Film. Ed. Lynne Pearce and Gina Wisker. London: Pluto Press, 1998. 189-204.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. 1895. Forgotten Books, 2008.


  1. I really enjoyed this article - except - Paradise Lost is great and I'd rather read that than Anne Bradstreet any day!

  2. Sarah, I would apologise to you for Lady Diana March's preferences in this matter, but I really don't think I can take any responsibility for them, and I very much doubt she'd appreciate it if I tried! ;-)

  3. I've not read "Pembroke Park" but I have read several of Michelle Martin's heterosexual romances, which I greatly enjoyed. She seems to be one of those authors who have fallen off the edge of the earth, which is regrettable.