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There was a post on Romance Novels for Feminists recently about the way we read “feisty heroine” as “feminist heroine”, even though this is often not true. In the comments, Jackie and I talked specifically about the feisty heroine who sees some “wrong” and runs about fixing it as she sees fit. She either makes this pig-headed mess that the hero has to clean up afterwards, or comes to realise her strongly held beliefs were wrong and wouldn’t be strongly held by anyone with more sense than a worm.

Doesn’t exactly scream intelligent, competent woman.

So it was a joy to read Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War the next day and see her tackle this heroine trope head-on. Her heroine, Minnie, has declared war on her hero, Robert, when he refuses to give up the dangerous activity he’s involved in. She tells him she’s going to find proof of his involvement and turn him in to the authorities. Robert proceeds to think this:

In reality, he suspected that he was about to be subjected to a barrage of amateur sleuthing. Bad disguises, ham-handed questions, attempts to go through his rubbish in search of clues… Miss Pursling was undoubtedly the sort of hotheaded young lady who would throw herself into the chase with abandon.

Instead, she ignores him. And then they have this conversation:

He swallowed and cleared his throat. “This isn’t what I expected when you said you’d go to war with me.”

“Let me guess.” She fingered her glove carefully, and he noticed that she was worrying at a tiny hole in the tip. “You thought I would simper if you smiled at me. You supposed that when I said I would prove what you were doing to everyone, that I planned to engage in a bumbling, graceless investigation into your surface activities.”

“I–no, of course not.” But Robert felt his cheeks heat. Because that was precisely what he had thought.

She bit her lip, the picture of shyness. But her words were the opposite of shy. “Now,” she whispered, “you’re surprised to find that I overmatch you.”

Reading it again gives me tingles. She’s quiet, composed and confident. And she does outmatch him, and it surprises him. It worked for me as a kind of romance-trope satire because what Robert – and the reader – expect of her contrasts powerfully with what she really is. It’s creating character on the deepest level. However, it is still satire, in a sense. Robert doesn’t have any reason to expect silly sleuthing from her. He doesn’t think, “That’s how women are,” or even, “That’s how they are in silly romantic novels.” The expectation comes entirely from the genre itself, so it’s playing against the reader’s own expectations in a meta fashion.

Milan tackled quite a few romance tropes in The Duchess War. Some of them worked less well for me – they were less character-driven and more satirical, and so asked me to be conscious of myself as the reader and pulled me out of the story. This conversation between Minnie and Robert’s mother in particular (**CONTAINS SPOILERS**):

“Second,” she said, “you might consider not consummating the marriage.”

“What? Why? So it can be annulled?”

The duchess rolled her eyes. “That is a horrid myth. You cannot annul a marriage for simple lack of consummation. Trust me; I have consulted every lawyer in London as to the ways in which one might end a marriage. I know the law to an inch. … “

Perhaps women did hold the misconception back then that an unconsummated marriage could be annulled, and Minnie’s reaction is accurate. But it’s been one of the most pervasive, old-school misconceptions of historical romance, and I can’t help but feel that this exchange is a tongue-in-cheek jab at that, more than at any notions Minnie had or didn’t have.

The sex scene also challenged common romance tropes, though in this case it was absolutely wonderful, and served their characters before it served anything else. But it did make me think about social reading, and how it affects what and how we read.

There was a rash of Wish List posts recently, asking for more of certain romance trends. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of sex stuff in the comments: mostly requests for more bad sex and more virgin hero sex.

I’m not saying Milan is responding directly to what readers are asking for, it’s not as simple as that. For one thing, she would have started writing this book ages ago. For another, she’s an author who writes consistently ahead of the curve. Also, she’s as engaged with the genre as any reader and would be as frustrated with certain tropes.

But her innovation isn’t read in a black hole. It immediately becomes part of the conversation.

I enjoyed the book a lot, but to me it felt one draft away from ready; some scenes felt as though they’d been changed from one POV to another and not entirely cleaned up, and there was one conversational exchange that should clearly have happened after, not before, an event. I particularly would have wished for Robert to depend on Minnie and her superior tactics for his end-game. She may not have been an unfeminist feisty heroine, but she was still not allowed to act in the crucial moment.

Maybe it’s because it felt unfinished that I could see more clearly than normal where Milan’s taking up the romance conversation, and what her book is doing to generate more of that conversation. The critical conversations around romance online is one of my favourite parts of the genre. There is so much intelligent, fascinating, engaged discussion going on, and I suspect we will see it affect what is written and published more in the next few years, just as what’s published feeds back into the discussion.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

Comments 34 Responses

  1. Brie

    I read a review that mentioned the bad sex, and it made me want to give it a second chance. I also enjoyed the first scene you quoted, and overall everything about the story was wonderful. But to me, it just didn’t click, and I was so bored that I couldn’t finish it. Maybe I quit too soon, I certainly love what she’s doing, or trying to do. It’s not the first time, though.

    Right now I’m reading one of her novellas, This Wicked Gift, and it’s wonderful. Ms. Milan walks the wide and trite conventional line, and then fully steps into transgression. I don’t know if you have read it, but the hero and heroine are both poor and struggling, which already wins her a bunch of brownie points, but on top of that, the hero is infatuated with the heroine, but feels so unworthy and broken that he can’t imagine her even looking at him twice. So he suffers in pain until he realizes that she loves him, right? Wrong! He says, fuck it, I’m already doomed, and I might as well enjoy myself even once, so I’ll blackmail her into having sex with me. And he actually does it! He regrets it, but he doesn’t. He’s heroic enough to want to doom his soul even more in order to be with her (if that can be considered an heroic trait), but not heroic enough to stop himself from using villainous ways to get her, and maybe even sacrifice her. And did I mention that this is a holiday story? But in this case I was fully engaged, both intellectually and emotionally. So going back to Liz’s id post, I think I need a bit of both in order to thoroughly enjoy a book, which I obviously didn’t do with The Duchess Wars.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Wow, I am going to have to get my hands on that novella *immediately*! I love, love when characters don’t listen to their better selves. Or feel insecure but consciously create a sense of confidence, and making their own fate.

      Your last point – YES. This book is so fascinating in the way it challenges the genre, but if the story doesn’t grab you on that id level, I can see how “fascinating critique of genre” wouldn’t be enough in itself to keep you reading. I react that way to a lot of clever books. This one… I guess it did grab me enough on that level, because I really wanted to keep reading. Although I did want Winnie to save the day in the end :-) . Also, Milan’s family-relationships angst is off the charts, and that gets me on an even deeper level than romance.

    2. Kaetrin

      I want to read that one! Unfortunately it is only available in the anthology and I already have the Balogh story in another anthology and am not all that interested in the other one. It’s hard for me to pay a MMP price for one novella. :( I have heard such wonderful things about it – I hope one day she will get the rights back from Hqn and be able to release the novella as a stand alone ebook.

        1. Kaetrin

          I *think* that’s the one from the Heart of Christmas anthology? (or something like that) In Australia the Balogh was published in an earlier anthology with other stories so I already had it.

  2. Erin Satie

    I haven’t read The Duchess War, although the really huge variation of reader responses I’ve seen pop up so far has made me more curious, rather than less.

    I’m a little suspicious of these sorts of meta-games, the same way I’m suspicious of hipsterish ironic detachment. It’s so easy to substitute cleverness for sincerity.

    On the other hand, one of the things that most impressed me about Cecilia Grant’s books is that I felt like she was tackling a lot of romantic tropes — the idea that all it takes for the hero to win the day is be REALLY good in bed, that a courtesan heroine shouldn’t enjoy sex with anyone but the hero, etc. — but I also think she did it with great sincerity and earnestness. I felt like she had a point to make: sex is good, love is good, but it’s the two together that make ROMANCE.

    I guess it’s not enough for me to see something torn apart; good, maybe, but more a critic’s wheelhouse. For me, it’s important to build something new, as well.

    (Which reminds me of that Tension post – the line that stuck with me the most was the one about burning through seven books of JK Rowling’s building in a short fanfic – authors have to build).

    1. anna cowan Post author

      This is the line it skirted for me, and sometimes it was just on this side of electrifying, and sometimes it flung me out completely. It reminds me of a conversation Cat and I had about Skyfall. She was disappointed at how “not Bond” it was. I said I could understand why at this point in the franchise they had to question the whole concept of a Bond movie, and whether it’s still relevant. She said, “Absolutely, but it’s not the movie’s place to do that. The movie just has to be so amazing that it proves Bond is still relevant.”

      Some parts of the book did what I think critics of romance novels, not romance novels themselves should do. This is why the book seemed so tangled up in the broader romance conversation for me. I think the book itself should do what Cat wanted Skyfall to do – embody the inverted tropes so fully that they are their own argument, rather than engaging in the argument itself. Maybe?

    2. Natalie L.

      I’ll just say that I think Milan is a completely sincere writer. I don’t think she’s being clever for the sake of cleverness at all. If she were, I don’t think her books would pack the same sort of emotional punch (at least for me).

      1. anna cowan Post author

        She certainly feels fully emotionally invested in the characters. I think that’s part of why it felt one draft away from ready to me – some of her trope inversion hadn’t quite been fully integrated into the narrative, as I read it.

  3. Natalie L.

    I really liked the way Milan engaged with the various tropes, especially the ones around the wedding night and Robert’s level of, ah, experience in the field. And the epilogue, which I thought was just brilliantly done in so many ways.

    I wasn’t pulled out of the book as much as you were by the parts of the book that was in conversation with the genre, possibly because I found the whole dissection of privilege and Robert’s awareness of it (and how transgressive was that?) so fascinating.

    I love the critical conversations about romance online, too. It’s probably one of my favorite things about blogging.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I’m really interested in your break-down of the epilogue. I’m assuming it’ll be detailed in your review, but if it’s not can you explain here exactly why you liked it so much?

      1. Natalie L.

        I didn’t break it down in my review because I didn’t want to spoil it. What I liked about it was the way at the start of the scene it’s not clear what’s going on, just that the atmosphere is tensed and hushed–which is often the case when the baby epilogue involves the delivery. And then it’s actually Minnie finishing the game of chess she started all those years ago. What really worked for me, though, was the redemption/healing of Robert’s mother–because there is a baby (well, toddler), but she’s caring for him and doing so happily.

        I tend to dislike baby epilogues because they so often reduce the female protagonist to nothing more than a happy womb, but in this case, I felt like that Minnie’s intellect and fulfillment of something unfinished from her past was presented as a much more significant and important part of who she was than the fact that she managed to successfully procreate.

        The other thing that really worked for me was that moment where Oliver’s mother comforts Robert–where she is able to move past her pain to recognize that Robert was his father’s victim, too.

        I do agree that the final confrontation fell a bit flat–I think the scene following the courtroom should have come first and they could have worked out their strategy for Robert’s testimony beforehand. But that may have impacted Minnie’s reaction to the crowd and the subsequent scene with the newspaper reporters–as well as that lovely bit during their argument where Minnie realized that Robert doesn’t believe he’s worthy of forgiveness. I think that was a tricky thing to balance and I’m not sure there was a better way to get all those things going in the book.

    2. willaful

      It’s odd — in this book, I thoroughly enjoyed the jabs at the genre. But in A Kiss for Midwinter they bothered me and pulled me out of the story. I wonder if it would have been different if I’d read them in reverse order.

      1. anna cowan Post author

        How funny – I was exactly the opposite! :-) Which order did you read them in? I read this first, then the novella. In A Kiss, all their frank, genre-bending conversations were firmly planted in character and their relationship to each other. Also, every exchange was backed up 100% by emotion, for me. Whereas in the novel, some of the genre bending felt a little superficial to either character, relationship or story.

        1. willaful

          I read them in that order, though perhaps right after one another wasn’t the best plan. I found the comments on the hymen really forced, like I was being hit on the hammer by the fact that this romance author knew what the hymen was!

          1. anna cowan Post author

            Ah, yes, the hymen. It seemed unlikely she would know what the hymen was to begin with, or be concerned with it. (Also some of the other proper names like vulva, uterus etc.) But weirdly it didn’t throw me out as much!

  4. Catherine

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about the final scene/confrontation. Because I loved this book to bits, but the end was just flat for me, somehow, and I think it was the lack of action from Minnie that did it. Everything just sort of trailed off and was done and a bit anti-climactic, really. A pity, because that was really a fun book, and I did love the characters.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      There was an earlier scene where Robert admitted he was outmatched and said he looked forward to watching her win. It was a shame not to have that followed through on to its full conclusion.

  5. Kaetrin

    I expect I will read this book one day but 2 of my trusted blogger friends have DNF’d this one so it’s not making me rush into it. I’m not sure I’d pick up on the meta stuff. I’m not dense – I can follow along with what you mean, but I don’t generally think of books that way. It’s one of the reasons I like visiting blogs such as this – to expand my horizons, but on the other hand I feel a bit out of my depth discussing it because it’s a more academic (?) look and I don’t have the requisite background/understanding.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I find your reviews very intelligent and, more to the point, specific. Which seems to me to be this kind of thinking :-) . We’re all expanding each other’s horizons all over the place, here.

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  7. londonmabel

    I may have to wait until you review something as Unequivocally Awesome ;-) I’ve tried a lot of romances this year that I just couldn’t stick. Even the passages you included above, they have that “modern person in Regency clothes” feel to them. (They don’t say “lawyers” usually, right? It should be solicitors?) Sadness.

    Love the new site!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I’ll be sure to let you know when I read something electrifying!

      Milan *is* a lawyer and has done some amazing research, so it could be that back then they were referred to casually as lawyers. Or maybe not *g*.

      Thanks for the compliments on the new site! I’m loving it as well :-) .

  8. Ruthie

    I think I liked this book a lot more than you did — and a lot of other people, apparently. I didn’t struggle with the ending at all. I suspect that is, in part, because I became deeply invested in Robert’s character, and I think the courtroom aspect of the story is a great deal more about Robert than it is about Minnie. I suspect there would not have been any way to give both characters equal attention at that part of the book — and I think Robert needed it more. I also didn’t get any sense of this story being unfinished. Interesting, how different my reading experience seems to have been from others’. Will have to think about why that is when I do my Wednesday recommendation post.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      It’s so amazing how everyone’s always reading a different book. Pretty great, really. For me, there was no reason for Robert not to tell Minnie what was going on. There’s a suggestion at one point that he needs her reaction to look genuine (which makes sense), but then he gives her the letter and is shocked and upset when she turns up at court. So why didn’t he just tell her earlier, and get her input? I just never quite felt that her potential was fulfilled.

      I did really enjoy this book – probably more than comes across in my post. There were aspects that intrigued me, though (the meta) and yes, the ending didn’t quite deliver what I wanted.

      1. willaful

        I had exactly that thought. If you have a thorny situation, and you happen to be personally involved with a fantastic stategist, wouldn’t it make sense to ask her advice>?

        1. Ruthie

          My understanding of the story is that Robert didn’t tell Minnie because he understands their marriage to be based on his protection of her. That is, he knows she likes him and is attracted to him, but the reason she agreed to marry him is that he vowed to protect her from her past. Through his botched-and-then-remade marriage proposal, he came to understand her terror — not just fear, but *terror* — of being exposed before a crowd, and he swore to her that he would never let her be hurt in that way. Then, six days later, he was put in a situation where he felt he had to hurt her in precisely that way.

          So why would he tell her? If this were any situation not touching on Minnie’s basest fear, of course he would. But this is not a situation about which he believes Minnie can be dispassionate. He’s certain that as soon as he exposes her, she won’t love him anymore. He’s also certain he has no choice. To discuss the situation with Minnie would be to admit that he’s even considering hurting her, and in Robert’s mind, once she knows his protection is not absolute, she will have no reason to stay with him and will almost certainly leave him (because, in Robert’s mind, leaving is what wives do). So he drags his feet as long as possible, then tells her at the very last moment, when he’s already left the house and his mind can’t be changed.

          Obviously, this shows very poor judgment on Robert’s part, and a complete lack of faith in Minnie’s ability to love him. But lack of faith in love is Robert’s primary struggle as a character, and poor judgment is a flaw he’s admitted to more than once.

          That’s how I read it, anyway. :-)

          Decided I have too many thoughts for a Wednesday rec. I’m going to do a Wonkomance post on Thursday.

          1. Ruthie

            (Edit: Change “won’t love him anymore” to “won’t ever be able to love him,” since Robert doesn’t believe yet that Minnie *does* love him.)

          2. willaful

            Why would he tell her? Because she’s smarter than he is. Because there might be another solution that she could find. (Honestly, his solution doesn’t make all that much sense to me to begin with.)

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