Spring Pleasures: Miranda Neville, Oscar Wilde, and Easter Goodies

This post is mainly about my response to Miranda Neville’s Confessions from an Arranged Marriage (short version: loved it). If you’d like a more conventional review, I’d recommend Janine’s at Dear AuthorI also enjoyed SonomaLass’s “Tale of Two Minervas” post.

I feel like I’m in the eye of the storm today, a momentary lull. Yesterday, Good Friday, I went to church twice, then out to dinner and a play with friends. Tomorrow, it’s church again and family Easter brunch. I’m also resting up for the piles of end-of-term marking that arrive next week and the week after.

It’s a sunny spring day, the kind that almost makes up for the dark, wet Vancouver winter. I took the dog for a long walk through the neighborhood, admiring the spring flowers and glimpses of snow-capped mountains against blue sky.

Yesterday, I took my daughter to church, where the kids heard the stories of Holy Week and then dyed a ton of Easter eggs. These are a sample of her work. I love dyeing eggs. Even the ones dipped into a slew of random colors by three-year-olds turn out beautiful. I’ve got a bag in my closet full of equally colorful candies to fill the kids’ Easter baskets (with some left over for adults).

The play we saw last night, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, was a kind of Easter confection itself, with female characters in bright, beribboned late-Victorian dress; a clever, cartoony set; and Wilde’s witty, frothy dialogue (the play is subtitled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People). I love this play and haven’t seen a live production for years; it was so much fun. This morning I finished Miranda Neville’s latest novel, Confessions from an Arranged Marriage, which I also loved. Watching Earnest, I thought about Neville, and finishing her book, I thought about Wilde.

That’s partly because Neville’s next book is titled The Importance of Being Wicked, and this sparked a Twitter conversation about her enjoyment of Wilde. And because Neville’s books are often funny, her dialogue witty. But it’s also because Wilde’s play is about artifice, among other things, and part of what I enjoy about Neville’s books (and she’s definitely on my shortlist of favorite historical romance writers) is that they seem self-consciously “artificial,” calling attention to their play within the constraints of the genre. I don’t mean that they are parody (or that the emotions aren’t genuine), but that there’s an awareness of working in a tradition, a relish for classic tropes: in her last book, Amorous Education of Celia Seaton, Neville used a highly artificial, romance-novel version of amnesia to great comic effect, for instance.

Confessions makes good use of one of my favorite tropes, the forced marriage or marriage of convenience. Blake accidentally debauches Minerva in a library, a setting that’s both highly symbolic of the issues in their marriage and a classic romance-novel scene of seduction. Given a hero named Blakeney whose intelligence is underestimated by everyone, and who’s tasked with a little spying on his honeymoon in Paris, I saw an allusion to The Scarlet Pimpernel, too; Neville said on Twitter that she didn’t intend that, so I’d chalk it up to an upwelling of the Romance Collective Unconscious. In any case, the echo of a book I’ve loved since high school added to my enjoyment of Neville’s version of one of my favorite romance tropes. Minerva and Blake dislike, even despise, each other, and seem entirely opposite. Watching them figure out how to make a marriage work and learning to respect and love each other was a delight.

The book felt deliberately constructed, too. The last line in Earnest is Jack/Ernest’s famous “I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” Last night, the actor playing Jack paused in the middle and said “wait for it. . .” an acknowledgement of the artificiality of the theatre, the existence of the audience (something the production did in a number of ways), and that many members of that audience would be familiar with the line. Neville ends each of her chapters with a line that isn’t quite punchline and isn’t quite teaser, something that summed up the chapter and made me want to turn the page: “His moment of wielding his inherited influence might be only too brief” or “Blakeney has ruined me. I have no other choice.” After a couple of chapters, I did come to “wait for it;” it felt like a little joke of the author’s I was in on.

Some readers–even those who enjoy Neville’s books–comment that they feel distanced from the characters, and I know what they mean. It’s hard to explain where that feeling comes from. I think in part it’s that Neville uses exposition (and brisk, concise exposition) to bridge the novel’s scenes more than many other romance writers today. I find a lot of contemporary (i.e. written now) romance novels highly cinematic: scene, scene, scene. Neville’s book is more scene, bridge, scene. The result of more reliance on exposition is somewhat less deep point of view–the account of characters’ feelings is often brisk and concise. This, too, is part of what makes Neville a comic writer for me; her narrator isn’t as distant from the characters, or as ironic about them, as Austen’s, but there is some similarity. I like it fine, but I’m a low-angst reader.

That’s not to say I didn’t find the book moving. I thought Blake’s anxiety and shame about his secret, his desperation to conceal it, were well drawn, but I didn’t feel them deeply (though I think other readers might). I did really identify with Minerva’s feelings after the first sex scene, though. I loved this whole scene. Minerva enjoys herself very much until the actual consummation, which is painful. I liked the realism of that scene–not that the first time is that painful for everyone, but it varies a lot, while romance first-time scenes seem awfully similar (just a little pinch, as the doctor says about a shot, then ecstasy). The aftermath is even better: Minerva notices (and resents) his weight on her, his hairy legs, the stain on the bed’s canopy. She’s not in the moment. She worries that sex can never be a path to affection for them, that’s she’s doomed to be disappointed and to disappoint him. This realism about how painful it can be when sex goes wrong I found very moving. Since this is a romance novel, Minerva’s fears eventually prove groundless, of course, and that’s part of why I could bear to share her suffering.

Confessions from an Arranged Marriage is smart, funny, and moving. A perfect Easter treat. Not that that will stop me from eating chocolate and jellybeans too.

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18 Responses to Spring Pleasures: Miranda Neville, Oscar Wilde, and Easter Goodies

  1. So glad to see another thumbs-up for Confessions. I’m embarrassed to admit how hard I took it when the Rita finalists were announced and Amorous Education didn’t make the list. There’s something so fresh about Neville’s sensibility; I really think she’s bringing something unique to historical romance right now and I want to see her get the recognition she deserves.

    Your reference to feeling “in on the joke” describes a lot of my own response to her, especially to the use of that godawful “erotic” text in Amorous Education. It was as though, at one remove from the story, the author was addressing me directly (albeit in an undertone), saying, “Check this out; can you believe someone really wrote this? Can you imagine horny Georgians reading this?” And undeniably that creates a distancing effect from the actual narrative, but for me that’s not inherently a bad thing.

    On another note… it looks like you deliberately avoided mentioning the nature of Blake’s secret in order to avoid spoilers, so I’ll do the same… but this is the second historical-romance hero in the past year or so to have this particular issue, and we’ve also recently had at least one (maybe more) hist-rom hero on the autism spectrum. So I naturally wonder when we’re going to start seeing some heroines with interesting cognitive issues. Or are they already out there, and I just haven’t heard of them?

    • lizmc2 says:

      I can’t think of a female example. It’s a great concept, though, to have a character suffering from something that couldn’t be understood and dealt with the way it is today. Or not. I’ve had college students I suspect have undiagnosed learning disabilities, and some who were only diagnosed well into high school.

      I, too, think Neville deserves more recognition. Her books are standout to me. (um, like yours)

  2. Ros says:

    I agree with you about the narrative exposition in Neville’s writing. Personally, I really like it. I don’t need *every* page of a book to be high-octane emotion. And I’m perfectly happy not to be in deep POV. I like seeing things from a narrator’s perspective. I wish more writers would write like this. I had the Scarlet Pimpernel in mind as I read this too. For me it was distracting, particularly because it’s Lady Blakeney (i.e. Minerva) who actually shares a name with one of Orczy’s characters (the Pimpernel is Sir Percy) and I didn’t see any similarity between the two women.

    Cecilia, I think that’s an interesting question. I recently read a contemporary romance with a dyslexic heroine, but I can’t think of a historical one.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Well, I took the Pimpernel think as a hat tip rather than a real parallel. And turns out it was mostly in my head anyway!

      It strikes me that another element of the “distance” some readers mention is that Neville’s characters are often not just smart but intellectual. It isn’t that they don’t feel, but they attack problems with their heads more than their hearts, if that makes sense. They still make mistakes and do dumb things, but there’s something different there from many emotion-driven characters.

    • Rosario says:

      I agree with you about the narrative exposition in Neville’s writing. Personally, I really like it. I don’t need *every* page of a book to be high-octane emotion. And I’m perfectly happy not to be in deep POV. I like seeing things from a narrator’s perspective. I wish more writers would write like this.

      Same here. Actually, I reread Lord of Scoundrels yesterday (for the umpteenth time -yes, I’m one of those who thinks it’s the best romance ever), and what struck me the most was how well Chase uses the omniscient narrator to explore Dain’s feelings.

    • willaful says:

      Historicals heroine with dyslexia: To Pleasure a Prince by Sabrina Jeffries.

      I am seeing more and more emotional, mental and neurological conditions in historical romance. It can be a really interesting way to explore a character, though sometimes it starts to feel merely trendy.

  3. Barb in Maryland says:

    Add me to the list of Ms Neville’s fans. Thank you Sunita for explaining why I felt a bit ‘detached’ from her characters. But, as with Ros, that’s not a bad thing.
    Ros–I chuckled over our hero being known as Blakeney, with that hint of Scarlet Pimpernel mannerisms. Of course, it doesn’t do to examine it too closely: Sir Percy (surname)Blakeney, Bart. was the SP. Ms Neville’s hero is formally Arthur William Gerrit Vanderlin, Marquis of Blakeney–and thus known as Blakeney while his father still lived. But you are right; Minerva(Lady Blakeney) is not very like Marguerite (Sir Percy’s wife) except that they are both women who believe they’ve married dolts and come to realize that such is not the case.
    Cecilia–I can’t remember any recent books where the heroine has cognitive issues. There are plenty of books where she’s extremely near-sighted and bumbles around because her mother doesn’t want her wearing spectacles (and I do dislike that trope!), or terribly shy, or overweight, or considered plain, or considered a ‘bluestocking’, but none with anything as serious as autism.

    • Barb in Maryland says:

      Barb here again–with sincere apologizes to Liz! I committed that major commenter faux pas of losing track of whose blog I was commenting on. Mea Culpa, mea maxima culpa! I could blame all the Easter chocolate for rotting my brain, but that would be wrong.
      (Barb slinks away, hiding her face in embarrassment……)

      • lizmc2 says:

        LOL, no worries! I’m honored to be confused with Sunita (plus we use the same WordPress theme), and am also in an Easter-candy induced coma.

    • lizmc2 says:

      I wonder why this is a flaw so far given to heroes, not heroines? Is it because men are the brains/brawn, women the heart, stereotypically? I liked the way each of these characters had their own kind of intelligence, and they made a great team.

      • Ros says:

        I wonder if it’s a way of re-balancing the power dynamic in a society where men traditionally hold all the cards.

      • I like Ros’s theory. My knee-jerk hypothesis is that it has to do with the hero traditionally being the exotic Other while the heroine needs to be reader-relatable with a minimum of effort. That’s more cynical than I want to be about publishing, so I think I’ll agree with Ros.

      • Ros says:

        Cecilia, you can be as cynical as you like! But I do think that there’s a difference between historicals and contemporaries here – I’ve just finished another dyslexic-heroine-contemp – so I think the power balance may be part of it.

        • lizmc2 says:

          Helloooo, blind Rochester! It seems plausible to me. Though the cynical explanation does too. I didn’t get the exotic Other male feel from this, but did to some extent from Jennifer Ashley’s Madness of Lord Ian, though I liked that book.

      • Yeah, it’s funny – I think a hero who struggles with something like dyslexia is actually more relatable, less “Other,” than your garden-variety top-of-his-field alpha. (I theorize this is true for most readers, not just me.) But my assumption is that a heroine with the same kind of issue would be more of a stretch for the average reader to relate to.

        I might be completely wrong about that, though. I’ll have to look up that Jeffries book Willaful mentioned, and see how it works.

        Also, I recognize I’ve gotten completely off track from the content of your post, so I wanted to swing back that way long enough to say: On paper I hate the idea of that actor adding “Wait for it…” in that TIoBE line, but I’ve seen that kind of thing work before, and also I’m pretty sure TIoBE can survive most anything any production throws at it.

        • lizmc2 says:

          I love an off topic discussion.

          I actually would have preferred he skipped “wait for it,” but it was a pretty “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” production, so it did fit.

  4. sonomalass says:

    I think a man with a learning or cognitive disability makes him vulnerable, and yes, takes away from his power in a social system where he has a lot of it. I think it would have less impact for a heroine in historical romance — they are already almost as controlled by the men in their lives as if they were mentally incompetent. Particularly learning disabilities could, I think, be largely overlooked; it’s more likely for a woman to be frowned at for being too fond of learning than not fond (or able) enough.

    I think a disorder on the autism spectrum, like Ashley’s Lord Ian, would be interesting to see in a female character. But I think the numbers are overwhelmingly male (at least today) for those conditions, so I don’t think it odd that I haven’t read about a female romance heroine on the autism spectrum.

    The challenge of learning disorders or mental conditions is trying to be believable about them in the historical period, where there aren’t words for such things or understanding of them. The author has to write convincingly about how the character and the people around him or her deal with a condition that is undiagnosable and most likely unique in their experience. I think Ashley, Neville and Courtney Milan have all done it well.

  5. I enjoyed this book very much but I’m going to take disagree re. the summarizing and the distance in Neville’s books. At some points it works wonderfully with the comedy and light tone, but at other moments, when nothing light is happening, there is still a tendency to summarize that only serves to undercut the strength of the scenes IMO.

    I’ll give an example of what I mean. Take the scene in which Minerva realizes Blakeney is dyslexic. At this point, I’ve been waiting for this moment for 80% of the book, and yet when it comes, the exact moment in which her realization comes upon her is summarized without much attention to emotional impact, dammit. I’m referring to the second sentence below:

    Since Sebastian was a man of his word,she was satisfied with their conversation. But something he said preyed on her mind as she rode home throught he park.

    I’ve often wondered if the man can even read. He’d been joking. It was the kind of sniping remark he and Blake made about each other, the sort of thing a bookish man would say about a sportsman he disliked.

    And yet…

    Most of this is beautifully excecuted, but the line that makes me feel a bit detached here is “But something he had said preyed on her mind as she rode home through the park.” Seems like a throwaway line but it’s not. A very slight rephrasing here, to “But as she rode home through the park, something he said preyed on her mind” would make all the difference to me.

    Why? Because the first version buries what really matters, the niggles in Minerva’s mind, in the middle of the sentence. Rearranging the sentence would bury the less relevant part and make me feel the dramatic moment more. It also matches what is going on with her — she’s riding home, and at the same time, growing more conscious of something preying on her mind. The words would be stronger coming in the order in which they happen for the character because the reader would be deeper in her POV right then.

    I think you’ll agree that this scene is not meant to be comical. Would putting the reader right there in Minerva’s head just before she realizes her husband is dyslexic undercut the humor of the story any? I don’t think so. If anything, I think feeling the emotions more strongly during the emotional scenes just makes us laugh more for the funny ones.

    But maybe I’m out in left field.

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