Friday, June 4, 2010

The Antidote

Anime June did a wonderful (and justly famous) guest blog post over at Babbling About Books in which she details (rather in the style of an anti-drug public service announcement) the ten worst cliches in romance novels.  Coincidentally, I had seen that Joan Smith wrote a book I was pretty sure I had never read, Sweet and Twenty.  Even more coincidentally, I started to read it just a day or two after reading Anime June's guest post.

Here are the two reasons why Sweet and Twenty isn't a great romance:

1.  It's not at all angsty.

2.  It's not very passionate.

I could write about those two reasons, but who cares.  What's cool about Sweet and Twenty is that it's the perfect antidote to many of AJ's cliches.

It starts by twitting the presumption that beauty and innocence in a heroine is always a good thing.  Sir Gerald Monteith married a beauty when he should have married a fortune and discovered too late that his bride's innocence was actually ignorance.  When their daughter Sara turns out to be as pretty as her mother had been, Sir Gerald knows what needs to be done:
This beautiful bloom was cultivated, nurtured, and tended with all the care given a rare orchid.  Her manners were groomed to please the highest-ranking suitors; her face and form were tended with oils and exercise respectively, for no excess of fat must be allowed to build up on that celestial body till she was profitably disposed of in marriage. . . . No matter weightier than the weather was ever discussed with Sara, for fear of bringing a wrinkle to her perfect brow or a crowsfoot to the corner of that incomparable eye.

Alas, Sir Gerald dies before the "disposal" of his daughter can be accomplished.  That explains why his sister, Martha Monteith, and a cousin, Lillian Watters, descend on the widowed Lady Monteith and her daughter.

Here's how Smith telegraphs the differences between the deliciously lovely Sara and the rather more ordinary Lillian.  After mentally itemizing her own superiority in looks to her cousin, Sara -- who is described as being "content to sit gazing at a flower or a canary for half an hour at a stretch, and a person of very little conversation could hold her captivated endlessly" -- reflects thusly:
She was afraid Cousin Lillian would be the kind of lady who asked her what books she liked, and whether she played whist, and even what she thought about Napoleon and Wellington or some of those soldiers who were always fighting wars in countries with funny names.  The war had been over since June, but Sara had not yet discovered it.  She was very happy to live in England where there were no wars, and never had been as far as she knew.

Sara admits to her cousin that her favorite book is Peter Pepper's Perfect Day, a novel so engrossing that Sara had read it six times, "once a year since she was eleven."
It was the best book ever written, and she often wished she could have such a perfect day.  So clever the way the writer could think of hundreds of words all starting with a P.  "Peter put pepper on his potato," and "Peter played a pipe," and "Peter pelted pips at people" -- dozens of P's on every single page.  There was never another book like it.

Cousin Lillian clearly gets the point -- no slow-top she! -- and as they get acquainted "by silently looking at the leaves together," Lillian says, "The lovely leaves look languid," and next, "And the grass is growing greatly," and then, to encourage Sara to show her the garden, "Lounging ladies lack liveliness."  Sara can tell there's something odd about this conversation, but isn't sure what.
Another frown creased Sara's brow.  Since her papa was no longer there to chide her for the habit, she was frowning two or three times a week.  "That rhymes," she said, having solved the mystery of her cousin's talk at last.
"Not quite, but you're on the track," Lillian replied, and gave Sara a hand to get up from the bench.
"Just like Peter Pepper!  Cousin, have you read a book too?" she demanded.
"I have read three or four," Lillian told her, "but I have never read one six times, so you needn't fear I'll outpace you."

Ah, the joys of a smart author.

But what of our hero?  Here's where Sweet and Twenty becomes downright subversive.  He's not titled!  He's not tortured!  We're not even sure he's got very much money!!  He's Matthew Hudson, a tall, dark man with grey hair at the temples but quite young-looking nonetheless.  (Several people think he looks like a judge.)  He is also the Whig whip and a whipper-in sent by the Whig leader, Lord Brougham, to get a Whig elected in the West Country riding the Monteiths live in.  He's putting up Mr. Anthony Fellows, a local land owner and, frankly, an idiot.  Aunt Martha's job is to get Sara married, but though she'll happily accept marriage for both her nieces she isn't at all sure that Matthew Hudson is enough of a catch to qualify.  (There's a Mr. Thorstein back in Yorkshire dangling after Lillian; he's in industry, which is bad, but it does mean that Aunt Martha gets some lovely woolens from time to time.)

At which point in the story, we get a by-election to focus on.  I may well have read this book 30 years ago and thought it dreadfully dull (see reason #1, above) but I see now that it's wildly satirical about politics and romance novels, both.  The candidates are William Alistair for the Conservatives, who's not nearly so dim as his opponent but is on the wrong side of the Corn Laws debate, and Tony Fellows for the Liberals.  I suspect Smith of having done some research but I can't find where she got this snippet: "A Tory is a Conservative.  He would conserve power and money to himself, principles to the Whigs, and hard work and poverty to the people."  Kudos if she thought of that epigram herself.

In order for Mr. Hudson to get his dimwitted candidate elected, he needs to make hay of local issues, in this case, the need for a bridge across the Severn to Chepstow.  Smith may have been using a mash-up of bridge construction history here; it's true that suspension bridges had been completed in the US by 1815 (over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia; who knew?), and she's right that Thomas Telford did design the bridge from Gloucester to Chepstow, but it wasn't in 1815 -- Telford built the Menai Straits bridge first.  But even here, there's humor in the situation.

The Tories have been promising a bridge to Chepstow for years but haven't bothered actually to build it.  The sitting Tory M.P. having died, the new Tory candidate, Alistair, also promises a bridge but that seems hollow given how often the constituents have heard it.  Tony seems confused about how politics work:
"Jolly glad to hear you mean to get that bridge for us," Fellows congratulated his opponent. [. . . ]

Mr. Hudson was in despair to see his candidate make such a fool of himself.  "Well, we'll believe it when we see it, eh, Tony?"

"If Alistair says he'll get it, we'll get it," Tony confirmed.  "But we'll cross that bridge when we get to it, ha ha." [ . . . ]

"That, of course, must depend on Mr. Alistair's getting elected.  Remember you are running against him, Tony," Hudson said.

"That's right.  And if I get in we won't see hide nor hair of the bridge, for the repressive Tories run the whole show, you know, and only give the goods to their own ridings." [ . . . ]

Hudson gazed in disbelief at Mr. Fellows.  He had never thought he was a clever man, but this was the first evidence he had that he was a complete and utter fool.

Good stuff.  Just goes to show how politics haven't changed much in 200 years.

Ah, but this is a romance.  How's that campaign getting on?  Not so well.  In his work as the party hack sent to get Fellows elected, Mr. Hudson has to toady up to everyone, even disenfranchised women like Miss Ratchett, whose father is a Cit and therefore very helpful to the campaign.  Lillian sees that she herself has engaged his interest, but only after his work on the campaign is done.  He's remarkably cheerful in the face of her tart reception.  When she points out that as she has "no influence and no vote," he's wasting his precious time talking to her, he says, "It is the unalloyed pleasure of your conversation that attracts me.  I come to bask myself in the glow of your insults and innuendo."

This makes Lillian sound nasty and unpleasant, but trust me -- our sympathies are with her all the way.  She proves to be an able helpmeet to Mr. Hudson's campaign tactics; it's his taking her for granted that rubs the wrong way.  Oh, and having to dance with Whig ninnyheads who think spouting French and Latin phrases is a sign of erudition:  "[Lillian] herself had only the minimal pleasure of standing up with Mr. Basingstoke and hearing his polyglot talk, one half of which she could not understand and two halves of which was not worth listening to in any case."

Even dukes come in for disdain.  While strategizing with Mr. Hudson, Lillian asks if there are no Whig peers to be brought in on Mr. Fellows' behalf.  Hudson is doubtful.  "Some of the dukes are Whigs, but they wouldn't put themselves to the bother of going out on the hustings.  Couldn't bear to tear themselves away from their mistresses."  Take that, Your Grace the Duke of Slut.

In the end [Warning: There Be Spoilers Ahead], Lillian and Matthew Hudson are able to foil the last dirty trick by the Tory whipper-in and get the impossibly stupid Mr. Fellows elected.  Sara is thrilled because she's fallen in love with Mr. Alistair and now he won't be leaving Crockett, but Lillian is unsure if Mr. Hudson intends to come back.  His attentions to her are still quite marked, but he hasn't proposed, and she can't marry a man who doesn't ask.  Aunt Martha, who has confirmed that Mr. Hudson is Lord Cecilford's nephew and thus heir to a barony as well as having a tidy estate of his own, is dubious as well.  But of course he shows up and is immediately sent out by Aunt Martha -- in the pouring rain and far too close to suppertime -- to take Lillian for a ride in his carriage so that he may have time and privacy to propose.  And Joan Smith has one last dirty political trick to reveal:  the grey hair at the temples?  Whitewash, and not waterproof, either.

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