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On Regency Tropes (Plus a Review of Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt)

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This book’s so obscure, this is the best image I could find of the original cover.

One of the top ten lines people use when dismissing romance novels is inevitably if you’ve read one you’ve read them all. Well guess what? The same can be said of sitcoms, Sci-Fi books/movies/TV shows and even reality TV shows. Hell, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood made careers of making the same Westerns over and over.

And yet…

I do most of my romance reading in the Traditional Regency and Regency historical genres, and there are times when I just want to read something… different. No rakes, no Almack’s, no obligatory meeting in the library in the dead of night. But Carla Kelly and Elisabeth Fairchild can only write so many books, bless their hearts, which means I spend a lot of time reading synopses and gnashing my teeth, because they all sound so much the same.

Take for instance Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt.

Here’s the book’s synopsis, courtesy of Goodreads:

THE STUNNING STRANGER
Jocelyn Burnwell lived in the everyday world of housekeeping and looking after her rather mischievous cousins. But one day she helped save a dashing, mysterious gentleman’s life. And her world changed forever.
Who was this elusive Mr. Hammond, this master of disguise and man of a thousand unanswered questions? Jocelyn knew only that he carried with him a letter from Napoleon; she didn’t know that the fate of England depended upon Hammond–or that she was about to embark on a grand and treacherous adventure! As she left her docile life behind and set forth with this intriguing hero, she also felt a stirring in her heart–of a love without rhyme or reason….

That is the synopsis for the original 1991 Jove edition of Gentleman’s Folly. When the book was reprinted in e-book form by Regency Reads, it got a slightly different synopsis:

Jocelyn Burnwell was caring for her mischievous cousins in her domestic world when she saved a stranger’s life. Mr. Hammond turned out to be a master of disguise who had a letter from Napoleon—which could determine England’s fate. So Jocelyn set out on an adventure with this dashing, mysterious gentleman—an adventure that would change their lives.

These are the kinds of synposes that make me want to cry, composed of strings of the pernicious cliches that bedevil Traditional Regencies and Regency-set historical romances. These two examples are particularly egregious, so much so that one could be excused for assuming that Bailey-Pratt is funning us. That she’s written the ultimate farce on the Regency genre. After all, almost every Regency trope is present and accounted for, including:

Mischievous Cousins — when I see “mischievous cousin,” my mind reads irritating plot moppet. Plot moppets are the locusts of the Regency, and usually appear either  to serve as a plot device to draw H/h together or to make “kids say the darnedest things” remarks revealing wisdom beyond their years. The good news is, plot moppets most often conveniently disappear altogether for pages and pages at a time, then pop up when the plot needs them. Hate ’em.

Master of Disguise — all I despise more than a mischievous cousin is a master of disguise. Unfortunately, they’re thick on the ground in Regency romances. Cue the: A. heiress posing as a governess; B. the gently-bred lady passing as a boy for nothing more than a pair of nankeens and a bit of binding; or C. the spy posing as a fop, complete with thirty watch fobs and quizzing glass. Heiresses posing as governesses and spies as fops are one thing, but the woman-dressed-as-a-man trope takes the prize for my least favorite disguise, simply because it’s so rarely done well or believably. 

Letter From Napoleon (indicative of spy status) — if there had been as many spies at work during the Napoleonic Wars as show up in Regencies, there would be a lot fewer Regency romances, because the war would have been dispatched with posthaste.

Unless, of course, they were Regency romance spies, who are often fooled by women dressed as boys and all too willing to drop whatever intrigue they’re pursuing when they meet the heroine. Suddenly there is absolutely no urgency about their errands, and they almost always trust the heroine (almost always a stranger) implicitly from first glance. Somehow, however, they’ll manage to remember the intrigue in time to wrap it up in the last quarter of the book.

Fate of England Depends Upon (Insert Hero’s Name Here) — as common as the spy in Regency romance is the military hero or the duke-who-simply-cannot-abandon-his-responsibilities-at-home-but-contributes-to-the-war-effort-by-doling-out-Very-Important-Advice who manages to have the fate of the nation upon his broad, manly shoulders.

If he’s a military hero, you can bet that he’s Wellington’s right-hand man, or that Wellington would be nothing without him. If he’s a spy, he’s the best in the business and has the one bit of intelligence that will change the course of the whole war. If he’s a peer, then Lord Castlereagh doesn’t make a move without consulting him first.

As if having the fate of the nation on those manly shoulders were not impressive enough, these heroes are almost always to the manor born, so to speak. We’re inevitably told that military heroes bought commissions just to join in the war effort, which of course means they had no training or practical experience prior to the war. They’re just natural born leaders, understand. Likewise spies often need no more than a good French accent to glean all the information they need to save the nation — everything else is managed by sheer force of will and personality.

The Lords SuchandSuch are clearly savants one and all.  Little else can explain how they gain all this wisdom they impart to Castlereagh, considering their relative youth (they’re rarely more than a shade over 30, if that) and all that time spent dodging matchmaking mamas at Almack’s or Vauxhall Gardens. It’s a good thing they are always so humble about everything, and never but ever want anyone to know just how much Castlereagh relies on them. Otherwise they’d just be insufferable.

A Grand and Treacherous Adventure! — otherwise known as a semi-valid workaround for the constricting mores of the day.  There were few legitimate opportunities for unmarried females to be in the company of men of no familial relation during the Regency period. Young, unmarried ladies required constant supervision, you know, or else they’d forever be haring off on some Grand and Treacherous Adventure! just to have an excuse to be alone with a suitable hero.

Said Grand and Treacherous Adventure! will usually involve some combination of these elements:

1. some dire family emergency/attempt to thwart a Gretna Green marriage/on-the-lam run from an evil guardian;

2. a road trip in an overstuffed mail coach with fellow riders who assume the H/h are married and coo appropriately;

3. only one room at the inn, which means automatic compromise to the heroine’s reputation (as though disappearing off the face of the earth with a real or would-be rake wasn’t the outside of enough);

4. the inevitable shotgun wedding when the heroine’s family, oddly absent/generally uncaring during this whole Grand and Treacherous Adventure!, finds out she’s been compromised and demands she be wedded.

Points are awarded if the heroine (or a plot moppet) also does something(s) adorable but stupid which blows their cover, endangers their lives and results in them losing every last sou.

So far, it’s not looking good for Gentleman’s Folly, but something compelled me, and I pressed on.

Little in the first chapter impressed me. Before we’re five pages in, Jocelyn, our heroine, has dressed as a boy to divert the authorities from catching that mischievous cousin of hers, Arnold, who is the world’s most precocious poacher, hit a constable over the head with a gourd and generally behaved like featherbrained girl. Hammond, despite being injured in the line of spy duty, has to rescue her from a soldier who claims she pickpocketed him. Although she must needs divest herself of her cousin’s coat to rinse Hammond’s blood out before it stains (yes, you read that right) and to bandage him up (though she neglects this duty until he all but begs her to), he still never notices she’s a girl. Granted, he is busy stuffing that all-important letter from Napoleon into the lining of her coat, for reasons I’ve still yet to understand.

As Bailey-Pratt is a veritable encyclopedia of Regency cliches, throughout the course of the book, we are treated to, in no certain order:

  •  a huge cast of family members and neighbors that are sometimes hard to keep straight;
  • the snobbish, interfering local Grand Lady who is just waiting for Jocelyn to prove unseemly;
  • kindly, wonderful servants who aid and abet most of the schemes, including the housekeeper who shapes up everyone on the place;
  • a village of less than 4000 people (yes, it’s enumerated) full of spies and ne’er-do-wells;
  • a secondary romance between a beautiful but slightly dense friend and a devoted swain;
  • rank strangers who are more than glad to help this odd lot as they go about their Grand and Treacherous Adventure!;
  • more coincidences than Prinny has mistresses.

But despite all this, it works.

Yes, it works. It works beautifully. Bailey-Pratt manages to employ almost every stock element known to exist in Traditional Regency romance, and in doing so proves how some of these familiar Regency tropes became popular.

The unworldly country-bred heroine is one of the Traditional Regency’s most frequent flyers, right up there with the poor downtrodden heroine forced to live off the charity of her relations, and at first blush, Jocelyn seems no different than a hundred other similar heroines.

Then she surprised me by refusing to fall head over heels for Hammond within the first three chapters. More surprising still, when she does begin to feel a distinct stirring of feelings for the rogue, she shrugs it off as nothing more than an exciting change from the usual humdrum. Her feelings for him develop in intriguing fits and starts as he reveals himself as kind, funny and honorable.

Jocelyn is so refreshingly normal. Sometimes she’s stubborn and silly, but mostly she’s just a harried young woman left in charge of her relatives’ ramshackle household. Not only is she not Mary Poppins-esque in her complete mastery of all domestic tasks, she’s often the opposite — she lets her cousins’ rooms go to dust and moths and allows the youngest to accumulate a nice coating of dirt that she cheerfully tells him needs drowning to remove. The only fault I found with Jocelyn is that she’s often no more than a linchpin, the still point of the action that’s going on around her.

Then there’s Hammond. I almost cringed when he quickly identified himself to Jocelyn as a spy, and not only because I thought of course he trusts her implicitly, despite barely knowing her. I waited for him to prove out to be a sorry excuse for a spy, but wonder of nine days’ wonders, Hammond is indeed an actual working spy. With results both comic and exciting, he spends (or wastes, depending upon his mood) days trying to flush out the villains at work in Jocelyn’s village and get back the famous coat and the letter inside.

It soon becomes obvious that he revealed himself to Jocelyn just to play upon her youth and trusting nature, something he’s not above doing several times in the book. He’s also not above letting someone else come to her rescue if he’s got bigger fish to fry. He’s got a job to do, and if he just so happens to encounter Jocelyn as he does it, great. If not, she’ll just have to wait. And he really is a master of disguise — Bailey-Pratt’s descriptions of the subtle ways he changes his appearance are delightful.

If it sounds like Hammond’s a first-rate cur, trust me, he’s not. He never gets anywhere near compromising Jocelyn, but neither does he always try to exclude her from the action Because She’s a Female and Must Be Kept Safe. By the end of the book, even I was believing him as the Spy That All Other Spies Admire and Wish to Be.

Which brings us to the plot moppet, Arnold. He’s the most wonderful awful boy, sort of a cross between Opie Taylor and Dennis the Menace, always up to no good. But it’s no wonder — poor kid’s being raised by wolves who routinely leave him with Jocelyn and a rotating cast of housekeepers who leave within hours or days. He lies, he carouses, he wants candy. Jocelyn no longer dreams of having children of her own for fear they will be like Arnold, and Hammond sums him up best by saying that while he can appreciate Arnold, he’d rather not have one just like him, since he likes sleeping at night.

Even the lesser cliches are employed with the utmost care. The Grand Lady really isn’t that bad — she’s nursing a surprising tendre is all. Not all the coincidences are quite so coincidental, after all, when it’s all wrapped up at the end. And if everyone this ragtag bunch meets on their Grand and Treacherous Adventure! is shockingly helpful, then it’s likely because they, like us as readers, just seem to be enjoying these characters so much.

So why does a book, built as it is like a house of Regency pattern cards, work so well? Bailey-Pratt uses these tropes as touchstones, rather than let them do the work of creating characters and plot.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the cliches that Bailey-Pratt and so many others use in Regency romance. They are no more cliched, in fact, than any other romance novel cliches. If we automatically roll our eyes when we see these stock elements in a Regency novel, then it’s because we’ve so often seen them abused.

Well-worn tropes are the lazy author’s best friend, the writing equivalent of a paint-by-numbers kit. By using stock characters like the rake, the country-bred ingenue, the foppish dandy and the matchmaking mama, the author bypasses the difficult job of character development. We all recognize these characters, and have a mental picture of them ready to slot in to the author’s space. Framing the story around familiar plot points and situations achieves the same goal. 

Trust that I am not damning Cynthia Bailey-Pratt and Gentleman’s Folly with faint praise, because this is a book I have returned to time and again, though I still don’t know why. I give Gentleman’s Folly 5 stolen kisses, Hammond 5 hats to employ in various guises, and Arnold 5 pieces of lint-and-dust-free candy. 

One last thing about Gentleman’s Folly:

I have absolutely no idea how I came to have this book on my old Aluratek e-reader, but it’s been there three years or more. It wasn’t recommended to me. I didn’t find out about it from a review, because the only review I could find when I wrote this was one I posted at Amazon.  I didn’t buy it from Amazon, either, or it would be on my Kindle. It’s a mystery to me.

Also — no apparent reason for this book to be titled Gentleman’s Folly, and can someone please help me understand why so many books I love have awful covers? The only element in the original cover for this book that has anything at all to do with the story is the cane the erstwhile Hammond is holding.

Gentleman’s Folly

Cynthia Bailey-Pratt

199 pages

Jove (1991); Belgrave House/Regency Reads (October 12, 2010)

Like Traditional Regencies, sweeting? Try these:

Marriage of Mercy by Carla Kelly

The Country Gentleman by Fiona Hill

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Author: J.E.

Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

4 thoughts on “On Regency Tropes (Plus a Review of Gentleman’s Folly by Cynthia Bailey-Pratt)

  1. Thanks, J.E. For a minute there, I was worried you were going to hate it. It was the first one I ever wrote…and it probably should not have seen the light of day. But Berkley, dear souls, were fairly desperate at the time. When I say this is the first book I ever wrote, I don’t mean the first one I ever *published*. Gentleman’s Folly (assuredly not my original title; I also have no idea why they named it that!) was the first book I ever started, muddled through, and brought to an end. Being young in the ways of literature, I thought it was brilliant, however no one was more surprised than I when it sold! I hadn’t any idea what I was doing; I wrote it by the light of nature. I’m so happy to hear that it is remembered and that you enjoy the slightly ‘off’ qualities. I too wanted a Regency Romance that wasn’t entirely London-based, was not centered on how to catch a husband, and that brought in elements of history. There really was a dinner as described at the end of the story, for instance.

    Anyway, thanks again for your review!

    C.B. Pratt

    • What a wonderful story! I respectfully disagree that the book never should have seen the light of day — I loved it, quite obviously.

      The more I think on it, the more it reminds me of Patricia Veryan’s books, in fact. Can’t get any higher praise than that!

  2. Just wanted to say I thought this was a very well written review – I enjoyed the analysis of regency tropes, and I was not expecting that twist midway ;). I’m not entirely sure how this book found it’s way onto my to-read list, but I’ll be trying it out.

    • @Chris — I’m glad you liked the review, and I hope you like the book. Like I said in the above comment, if you like Patricia Veryan’s books, you’ll like it, I think. Happy reading!

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