An avid reader calls it as she sees it on books, publishing and the written word in general.

Friday, April 6, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Christmas in the Country by Carola Dunn

It happened quite by mistake, while I was searching for a historical mystery recommended in The Age newspaper a few weeks ago. I rather like novellas so when I saw that the author had written a Christmas-themed book consisting of two novellas I thought it would be a good introduction to her work. Like a plum pudding or a hot cross bun, a Christmas-themed mystery goes down well at any time of year.
Unfortunately, I must have taken a wrong turning at some point, and rather like Alice through the looking glass or the children tumbling through the back of the wardrobe, I found myself in a strange and mysterious place. I found myself reading a Regency Romance.
Rather like a tourist in a strange country, I was quite charmed and delighted by the strangeness of it all. Look, the heroine’s father is a country squire! They are going to a ball! She’s wearing a fur muff! In fact, starting with the muff, there was an entire new vocabulary to learn, most of it consisting of various terms for clothing. I have no idea what a “striped lutestring” or “peach sarsnet” are, except that the heroine was considering wearing them, before she decided on the “deep-rose velvet carriage dress, trimmed with black satin” and accompanied by a “Parisian bonnet of black velvet lined with rose sarsnet and embellished with a wreath of roses about the crown.” As you can no doubt guess by now, it appears that the world of regency romances (at least in terms of their readers) are a firmly male-free zone. The repeated descriptions of clothing might have been enough to send me to sleep, if I hadn’t had so much entertainment trying to figure out what the words actually meant and whether sarsnet was actually a kind of net or not.
The other characteristic of the regency romance (from my highly scientific venture into the genre) appears to be the obsession of the female characters with a state known as “being compromised.” As you can tell from the passive construction, this is a dreadful fate that happens to women at the hands of handsome rapscallion types. It apparently represents a kind of social death. Unfortunately, it also appears to be rather difficult to avoid, as simply being alone with a man in a secluded setting could qualify. Therefore, the characters are generally doomed to cast lustful glances at each other from afar, or restrain themselves to polite conversation about the weather. That is, until some crisis precipitates them into each others’ arms and they begin planning the wedding.
As you may have gathered by now, I found the whole thing rather hilarious. I am clearly not qualified to make any comments on the quality of the books in general – Dunn’s works may be fine examples of the genre or otherwise. I could make some comments about how the fetishisation of this period in history with its impossible restrictions on women’s lives represents a worrying trend, but in order to do that I’d have to take the whole thing seriously. I can’t quite seem to manage that feat. If this rings people’s bells, I wish them good luck with their genuine Valenciennes lace and Yule logs. One visit to the land of regency romance has been more than enough for me.

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