Argh, I feel so torn about this, I feel so deeply torn.
I mean, I follow Anna Cowan on Twitter and I read her blog, and I kind of completely *adore* her but … but … I am not … I just … argh. Argh.
This doesn’t work for me.
There’s lots I do really like about it. I know “different” is not necessarily always a good thing (*cough* Painted Faces *cough*) but, in this case, I think it is. I was so happy to have a sexually ambiguous, cross-dressing hero. I loved the strong, determined, active heroine. And I loved the way the interacted together. I bought the romance between them, utterly. I also liked the fact that there seemed to be different things going on than in most of the Regency-set historicals I’ve read (heh, all two of them) – I mean, there are balls, yes, but there are also mud and farms and families and impending industrialisation. It’s a very marginalisation-conscious book – both Darlington and Kit are marginalised by … I guess … gender ambiguity, the family is marginalised by poverty, lots of the characters are marginalised by sexuality.
This is all shit hot awesome stuff.
Oh, and I liked the focus on the family, as well, and how important they are to each other’s lives – even Wet Tom, her hopeless gay brother.
Equally, it’s incredibly engaging written. The dialogue is all sparky and delightful, and the prose is just plain old fashioned lovely, and often quite unique:
And there he was, the man in black. His profile was to her, his fingers as clever over the keys as his tongue was over words. But less … restrained. His music was lit at the edges.
But, wah, but wah, there was also a lot that didn’t work for me. I’m not massively bothered about historical veracity: I didn’t mind that Kit behaves kind of wildly unacceptably, or that Darlington’s crowd of sodomitical dandies behave too much like modern day queers with a sense of identity as themselves a queers, or that dandyism seemed inherently connected, by the text, to homosexuality, or even that – apparently – the Corn Laws are wrong BUT the plot just came across to me as wildly incoherent. It had a lot of quite interesting strands but they never quite came together in a satisfying manner, and occasionally characters just seemed to act for no other reason than to further it – like Darlington semi-randomly deciding to stay with Kit WHILE disguised as a woman or Wet Tom waking up one morning and deciding to sell the farm. There’s usually some underlying emotional drive but because there was so much happening, the interplay and evolution of motivation and needs between characters didn’t always come across to me. Like, I really liked Lydia and BenRuin (even he was a stereotypical HUGE SCOTT) but they finally decide to have a conversation and admit they care about each other … because … uh … it was near the end of the book, and they felt it was time to have a conclusion?
And, although I really admired Cowan’s attempt to interrogate gender construction in the romance gender, to me it felt more like a slightly unfortunate re-assignment of traits and tropes, rather than a deconstruction of them. Darlington identifies quite explicitly as unmanly man (and suffers for it, as his father’s hands) but … since his non-manly behaviour seemed to centre around passivity, weakness, fearfulness etc. it just reinforced the notion that masculinity = strength, effeminacy = weakness. Which is, of course, nonsense, as well as being problematic. Also Darlington is revealed to be vulnerable before he’s ever really established as being the cunning, complicated exquisite he’s supposed to be. So it’s like he just walks into the text, is briefly interesting and then starts wobbling like a badly set blancmange. I genuinely don’t mind the vulnerable man thing, not in the slightest, I rejoiced and embraced, but I disliked that it was kind of immediate, because that undermined the reality of it, and I disliked the fact it was muddled in with ideas about gender identity and expression. That men aren’t SUPPOSED to express vulnerability is a different issue, I think.
Again, this is a personal reading, but I felt that the text unintentionally ended up buying into the very ideas it was trying to challenge.
Darlington’s bisexuality is a bit invisible as well – it’s briefly mentioned he bonks men, but since he’s also basically frigid (until Kit) I’m not quite sure when he’d have got round to it, or why he’d have bothered. And it just has no impact on, basically, anything, so I don’t know why it’s even in there, except as further explication of Darlington’s perceived unmanliness / difference. I’m sorry to keep banging on about this stuff, but it’s, well, it’s important to me.
This is a slightly odd piece of detail to, uh, pay too much attention to but the first time Kit and Darlington have sex, he basically plays the passive role and, frankly, it’s kind of hot, except she learns how to, ah ‘enter him’ to quote the text and it comes out later that he didn’t at any point … reciprocate. He later does, and that’s fine, but I wasn’t what was going on here. I guess he didn’t want to impregnate / devirginate her, since they weren’t married but he’s not exactly been the bastion of selflessness so far, and, y’know, by the time you’re sharing a room with an unwed lady, and basically having sex with her, not putting your dick in her is kind of quibbling.
And, pretty as it was, the whole thing just felt kind of weird to me. I mean even “unmanly bisexuals” have a cock they like to put places… and, although I appreciated the gender/role reversal thingy, I felt it unhelpfully underscored ideas about activeness and penetration being masculine and passivity and being penetrated being feminine.
Also all the gayboys are totally wet and hopeless.
That is all. And I know it sounds like I hated this, but I really didn't. I admired it a lot, it just troubled me a lot too.