Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life

"...for there is in London all that life can afford."  So said Samuel Johnson in 1777. The quote applies equally to women. The first time I visited London, I was reminded in some ways of New York City, particularly the theater district. However, I came to realize that NYC is like London's younger brother, trying on his elder brother's cool jacket and trying to look sophisticated. One must admire his energy and give him points for trying, but he is a somewhat paler imitation.

New York City can brag to history buffs of its Dutch colonial history and former identity as New Amsterdam. That's adorable. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The oldest part of the Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago.

I love travelling to London, even if it means staying in a small, overpriced hotel room, eating the abomination that is an English breakfast (complete with runny scrambled eggs and black pudding) and rarely finding a decent cup of coffee. I even enjoy spending time at Heathrow, although my flight home is always at least an hour late, and the repeated security warnings about unattended parcels delivered in a calm female voice with a perfect BBC accent makes me feel like I am in a dystopian science fiction film. Those minor inconveniences are a small price to pay for being in London.

Interior of The Orangery
During our first visit to London, we wanted to have a nice afternoon tea but had not made reservations in advance. Happily, we discovered The Orangery at Kensington Gardens, where we had delicious tea sandwiches, scones that were to-die-for, and decadent pastries with our tea. The building was originally Queen Anne's actual orangery. That visit started my addiction to fancy afternoon teas. One minor disappointment was the lack of a tiered service for the refreshments -- it was served in three courses instead (first sandwiches, then scones with clotted cream and jam, then dessert pastries).

St. Paul's Cathedral
Saint Paul's cathedral is truly magnificent. The influence on the U.S. Capitol building (and therefore numerous State Capitols, including Wisconsin's) is obvious. For those Mary Poppins fans out there, be warned -- they have posted a sign asking one not to feed the birds, in the interests of hygiene.

Being a fan of the late Warren Zevon, I also felt compelled to order a pina colada at Trader Vic's. The waiter seemed a bit confused, since they actually call that drink a Bahia at Trader Vic's. Also, the waiter was an immigrant and probably unfamiliar with the cultural reference. However, I eventually got a pina colada, and it was very good.

I recently discovered a fantastic travel guide -- Walking Jane Austen's London by romance novelist Louise Allen. It's a terrific book for aspiring writers of Georgian and Regency historical fiction, as well as being a delightful travel guide. I am looking forward to trying a couple of those walking tours myself.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Revisiting the Matter of Britain

I have vague memories of pop culture references to King Arthur and Sir Lancelot while I was growing up, but I first learned the basics about the legends in high school, when my English class read Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The teacher also told us about Thomas Malory's Mort d'Arthur, on which it was largely based, and some of the ways in which Tennyson departed from his source material.

I was hooked. In college, I took as many literature electives as a business major could manage to fit in and began reading some of the earlier medieval versions. For recreational reading, I devoured many of the modern retellings (some with a high medieval or fantasy setting, some firmly set in a realistic late-Roman-Britain setting). My favorites were those by authors who leavened the tragedy with humor and had a firm understanding of the medieval source material. I am particularly fond of Thomas Berger's Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel and Sharan Newman's Guinevere trilogy. No matter how many times I read the story, however, I always knew going in that there would be no happily-ever-after.


I got away from the Matter of Britain for a number of years, largely because the pressures of post-college life led me to want a happy ending in my recreational reading. My interest in Arthurian stories was re-kindled by a trip I took to Glastonbury last summer. I climbed the tor and saw the purported grave of King Arthur (conveniently found by the monks in the 12th century, when they desperately needed pilgrims and donations to help them rebuild the church after a fire). I remembered my love for the legends and their many retellings.

Over the years, a number of authors have written contemporary, fantasy or science fiction books that are based on or inspired by the Matter of Britain. The nice thing about a loosely-Arthurian story with new characters is the possibility for a happy ending. I remember reading Port Eternity by C.J. Cherryh and Excalibur by Sanders Anne Laubenthal when I was still in college. I decided to seek out more Arthurian-inspired books that have the possibility of a happy ending. In a bit of serendipity, I recently found If Ever I Would Leave You, an anthology of romance stories with Arthurian themes. I am currently reading it and enjoying it very much. I think I will make a habit of seeking out new Arthurian-inspired romances.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

When I was a young woman, I never even heard of e-mail until I took a "Computers in Business" course at UW-Madison. The instructor told us about this new thing called "electronic mail" that was meant to solve the persistent problem of phone tag (this was also in the era before affordable and truly portable cell phones). We all seemed skeptical that it would ever catch on.

I kept in touch with friends and relatives who had moved out of state by regularly writing letters, in cursive handwriting on decorated stationery with matching envelopes. My correspondents regularly sent me handwritten letters in return. I still have many of them packed away somewhere (a handful of them were deliberately destroyed, like Lord Byron's memoirs, out of concern for the reputation of the author).

In 1991, one of my reservist friends was called up and sent to Saudi Arabia for the duration of Operation Desert Storm. For several weeks, I did not have a mailing address for him. By this time, I had access to a computer with word processing software, so I began typing letters to him in one big document, with each entry clearly dated. I chronicled all the gossip about our mutual friends (mainly who hooked up with whom -- we were in our 20s at the time, and our social circle was full of drama).

When I got an APO address for him, I began printing and sending the letter(s) in manageable chunks, with two or three days' worth of entries at a time, mailed a few days apart. He seemed to really enjoy getting them, and he wrote back to me whenever he could. No, it was not the beginning of a romance between the two of us (I was already dating my future husband by then). Another sort of drama was gradually revealed in the letters I received from him. A woman whom he met at a New Year's Eve party (just a week or two before he shipped out) was also writing to him. As the weeks went on, her letters became increasingly romantic and possessive. He swore to me that he had done nothing to encourage her to think of him as her boyfriend, and he was at a loss over how to handle it. I believed him, because I knew the woman in question, and she had a history of that sort of self-escalating relationship behavior. Some of us had to hold an intervention with her, and he decided to transfer to a different campus when he returned stateside.

Nowadays, that whole drama would play out in less than a couple weeks on Facebook, with conflicting relationship statuses and comments from mutual friends. But once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was possible to remain in touch with someone, and even become a close confidante, via letters that took days or even weeks to reach their destinations. Maybe that's why I am fascinated by epistolary novels, and why I felt the urge to write one (a novella, actually) this summer. There have been a number of great contemporary epistolary novels that make use of emails and social media posts. I'm going old school, though, because as useful as I find email and social media, they don't quite have the same magic as a letter written on paper and sent through the mail.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Turning a Villain into a Hero

I've just started reading How to School Your Scoundrel by Juliana Gray. It is the third of her Princess in Hiding books, featuring heroines disguised as men. This is a tried-and-true romance trope, and I began to tire of it after the second book. I was intrigued by this novel, however, because it uses another plot device that is done far less often -- making a villain from a past book into the hero.

That is not to say that the idea is new. It has been done often enough, but it is rarely done well. Often, the character seems to undergo a personality transplant between books. I am curious to see how Gray handles it. So far, she seems to be implying that the characters in A Gentleman Never Tells were mistaken in their perceptions as to the depths of the Earl of Somerton's villainy.

The possible appeal of rehabilitating a hero is obvious. Many women are attracted to bad boys, with the belief that the love of a good woman can save him. I happen to agree with advice columnist Margo Howard, who is fond of saying "Women are not reform schools."  However, the rehabilitation of a villain is the logical next step after rehabilitating a damaged hero.

The damaged hero trope became very popular in the 1990s, largely thanks to the works of Laura Kinsale. She is a master at writing about damaged but redeemable heroes. My personal favorites from her are Flowers from the Storm and Seize the Fire. She eventually took the next step and wrote Shadowheart, which features a brutal medieval villain from her previous romance For My Lady's Heart. I loved FMLH, but I have avoided reading Shadowheart because the description of the plot turned me off. There was a time when I read romances about women being forced to marry their captors, but that trope has long since lost its appeal for me.

On the other hand, I loved Loretta Chase's Captives of the Night, featuring a brutal assassin from The Lion's Daughter as the hero. However, TLD is one of the few novels by Chase that I haven't read (by the time I became interested in her back catalog, that one was out of print, and I'm too frugal to pay collectors' prices for paperbacks). I wonder if I would love the Comte d'Esmond so much if I had gotten to know him as a villain first. Of course, he has that James Bond thing going on (he is equally skilled as an assassin, a spy and a lover), so I might.

I am looking forward to learning whether I can appreciate a hero whom I first encountered as a villain.