I’ve mentioned before that I owe my discovery of Madeleine Robins’ Sarah Tolerance mysteries to Victoria Janssen, and must thank her again for the happy reading. Victoria’s post was prompted by the release of a new book in the series, The Sleeping Partner, after a gap of several years (and from a new publisher, which probably accounts for the gap). I’m glad I didn’t have to wait years between discovery and reading this new volume.
The Sarah Tolerance mysteries are in some ways fun-house mirror reflections of the world of traditional Regency romance, in which Robins began her writing career. Miss Tolerance’s work as an “agent of inquiry” often takes her among the aristocrats who populate the pages of Romance, and she is herself the daughter of a baronet. But Miss Tolerance (as the narrator always calls her, keeping a polite, proper distance) is Fallen, having run off with her brother’s fencing master at 16. She creates her detective career as an alternative to prostitution–or, as she would bluntly say, being a whore.
The mysteries Miss Tolerance must solve often revolve around the ways men use and abuse women to increase and protect their own political and economic power. In The Sleeping Partner, an initially pseudonymous lady asks Miss Tolerance to find her sister, who has apparently eloped, although their father does not wish to have the girl found. The parallels between this story and Miss Tolerance’s own are obvious, and brought into even sharper relief when the case reconnects her with someone from her past.
Someone in the novel describes Miss Tolerance’s father as “Gothick” for refusing to have her name spoken after her fall, reminding me that the novels’ exploration of male power over women is central to the Gothic novel as well, though the tone here is very different. In Regency romance, love typically protects the heroine (and the reader) from the worst that could happen to her in a society where women are pretty powerless. In these novels, it mostly doesn’t, though Miss Tolerance herself explains that she was not “ruined” by her fall because she was loved by the man she eloped with. She may be an outcast from the life she was born into, but when he dies, she has the courage and resources to make a new life for herself. Other women are not so lucky, and the novels are clear-eyed about the ways in which they are vulnerable.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Miss Tolerance, with her sword-fighting skills and penchant for male dress, makes a dashing heroine. There’s a touch of romance, too, though Miss Tolerance’s Fallen state–and her enjoyment of her independence and career–make it unclear if a conventional happy ending will be possible down the road. Here again the novel approaches Romance themes from a different angle.
This is also alternate history, a Regency world slightly askew; for instance, the Prince of Wales has been disbarred from the succession for marrying Mrs. Fitzherbert, a marriage which is probably historically accurate, but was not legal or acknowledged. A well-known historical figure who in real life died before the novel takes place is here given a different fate and makes a fitting appearance (to say who would spoil the clever surprise).
I think other lovers of traditional Regency romance might well enjoy looking awry at the world and concerns of the genre as much as I did. Through the lens of mystery, and the eyes of Miss Tolerance, a darker side of that world appears.