Devices and Desires and my problem with AU

by Sunita

I’ve read four more books this month. It hasn’t felt like that many, but one was in process, another was an audiobook, and a third was a reread from way back. So only one book really felt like a slog, and unfortunately it was the one I was looking forward to. I read and enjoyed Pamela Sherwood’s novella, The Advent of Lady Madeline, and Janine and SonomaLass both really liked the full-length novel that follows it, Devices and Desires, so I decided to try it even though I had mixed feelings about the sample. The novel was written before the novella and is modelled on the film A Lion in Winter (the author’s notes in both the novella and the novel are explict about that, calling it a “retelling”). The film, of course, is the film version of a play which fictionalizes the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their relationships with their children at a specific point in time. So you have a three-steps removed retelling of a famous historical relationship about which our information is decent but far from definitive, given that they lived in the 12thC. Moreover, the characters in the film are embodied by famous actors, who become fused with the characters themselves in our understanding of the latter.

I’m laying all this out because as I was reading I was experiencing the text at a variety of levels:

  • as a genre romance with a central relationship embedded within a family saga;
  • as an AU (Alternate Universe) version of real people as well as of a specific film version of those people;
  • and as a story set within a specific historical context, i.e., a ducal castle in Yorkshire, England in Christmas of 1888.

I had mixed feelings about the sample because the types of anachronisms I had observed in the novella seemed to be cropping up here as well, and on top of that I wondered about a couple of more substantive logic issues in the story. Gervase, our hero, rejects being a barrister and instead decides to become a solicitor because he doesn’t want to be dependent on either his father or other people for his income. But to be a solicitor requires three to five years of being an articled clerk to a solicitor (something the text notes), which the clerk not only has to pay for (to the tune of hundreds of pounds), but during that time he is not remunerated, or at least not enough to live on. So who is supporting Gervase while he qualifies?

Second, we are told that in the eight years between the prologue (when Gervase is in his last year at Oxford) and the first chapter, Gervase becomes one of the “top solicitors in London” and has his own firm with someone who does not appear to be the solicitor to whom he was articled. This seems … unlikely? Why would a solicitor take on a Duke’s son and then let him walk away to become a successful competitor? And doesn’t doing that put Gervase in something of a bad light? Perhaps this was standard procedure for solicitors in the late 19thC, but given the tight networks within the profession and the self-governance they had achieved by then, it seems odd to me.

The story really begins when Gervase travels to his family home in Yorkshire with Margaret, Lady Bellamy; they’ve both been invited for Christmas by Gervase’s father, the Duke of Whitborough. Margaret and Gervase were childhood friends and Margaret was engaged to Hugh, Gervase’s eldest brother, until Hugh’s death in a riding accident. She soon after married the somewhat older Lord Bellamy and they were very happy together until he died of an illness after about five years of marriage. Margaret is worried about how the Duke and Duchess will receive her, but since her sister Alicia is engaged to the current heir, Gervase’s brother Reginald, and her brother Augustus is also planning to be there, she decides to go.

If you know the film, then you’ll immediately recognize the Duke as Henry II/Peter O’Toole and the Duchess as Eleanor/Katharine Hepburn. The characters in the novel reflect the actors’ portrayals and are somewhat underwritten; we are supposed to find the Duke charismatic and powerful and the Duchess beautiful and equally charismatic, but this is implied rather than shown.

As for the children, Gervase=Geoffrey, Reg=Richard, Jason=John, Alicia=Alais, and August=Philip II. Margaret is an all-new character. [ETA: Oops, that is wrong, wrong, wrong. Margaret, as the author’s note tells the reader, is based on Margaret/Marguerite of Vexin, who was betrothed to Henry II when they were both children.] Unlike the film, there is no relationship between Alicia and the Duke, although the Duke’s long relationship with a now-deceased mistress poisoned his marriage (the Duchess is merely abroad a lot in this story, not imprisoned as in the film and in history).

I could go on at length about the context, but I’m already going on enough and I’m nowhere near done (I haven’t even talked about the relationships and romance yet). My basic problem was that the backstories and setting were either assumed or underwritten or both. You can’t just stick 12thC people in the late 19thC and have them work the same way. Often when the conflicts in the book mirror the conflicts in the film, they don’t make much sense. For example, Augustus (like Philip) hates the Duke (Henry) because of the way the latter repeatedly bested Augustus’ late father. In the 12thC this had to do with battles, conquest, etc. In the book it is rendered as getting the best of him in business. But there is nothing that shows the Duke as engaging in business. There are no industrial types, no industries, just vague references to business. Augustus, frankly, comes off as a petty little brat, which Timothy Dalton (who played Philip II in the film) did not. The former is just not sufficiently motivated in his actions.

The entire setting is sketchily drawn. Part of this is because we’re at a house party at a castle. But even at other times the context was lacking. The train journey from London to York is critical to the development of Gervase and Margaret’s romance, but it felt to me as if as much time was spent on describing the furnishings as on the characters. And there are almost no servants present, throughout the story. A private train car; a castle; presumably large estates, and almost no support staff observed. I think I counted three named servants. Perhaps this is a consequence of following the way the film foregrounded the family, but it feels odd in the novel, especially since one of the requests the Duke makes of Gervase would be something his own solicitor or man of affairs could discover. It makes the tension between them feel manufactured rather than organic.

The characters themselves feel much more like members of the bourgeoisie than the aristocracy. Despite the fact that every major character is titled (and the majority are part of ducal families), there is repeated emphasis on how prosperous and cultured people are in terms of their appearance and behavior. Generally, people with inherited wealth don’t remark on how rich other wealthy people look unless there is something unusual going on; looking rich was, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, part of being rich. It was a given. And everyone in this story is not only part of the aristocracy and gentry, they’re described as being very well off.

In addition, the tension among the brothers and between the parents and their children loses a lot of gravitas when we’re not talking about kingdoms and crowns at stake, and we’re no longer in the period before primogeniture was fully established in England. It feels even more petty and mean-spirited, since it’s not entirely clear what is at stake and why the parents are choosing sides (in the original the reasons made some sense). If the Duke cared that much about the succession, for example, why wouldn’t he make sure Surviving Son #2 was marrying someone who was likely to produce heirs?

But, assuming you’re still reading, you’re probably asking, what about the romance? We don’t read historical romance for verisimilitude, especially these days; and we’ve always read above all for the romance. The romance between Gervase and Margaret is quite sweet. As Janine notes in her review at Dear Author, it’s a friends-to-lovers story and we get plenty of POV scenes and internal thoughts from both Margaret and Gervase. They go from friends to lovers in the first half of the book, which is both good and bad. It’s good because it feels like a natural progression for them, but it’s bad because there is still half the book to go. So we wind up with lots and lots of family saga stuff and a sudden conflict about 3/4 of the way through, which is resolved by a blinding flash of insight after a crisis. Not my favorite approach, but given the alternative was to have the relationship be fully resolved halfway through the book, not surprising.

The relationship between the Duke and Duchess was pretty unsatisfying. It’s one thing to hate each other because of adultery, or something in their history, but to take that out on their children wasn’t nearly well enough grounded. As I said before, it makes sense if you’re jockeying for sovereignty, but the stakes are just a lot lower here, at least so far as I can tell. Neither comes across as sympathetic, much less honorable. But perhaps my problem is that I just don’t see the Henry and Eleanor characters as hero/heroine material. They’re fascinating, brilliant, imperious, etc., and as played by O’Toole and Hepburn they’re pretty irresistible. But they’re not admirable, or honorable, or even decent, really, and you need that for romantic leads. I don’t have much hope that I will find them sufficiently redeemed in their own stories.

Finally, the aspect of the book that made me almost DNF it several times, except that I wanted to see if it got better at the end: the engagement of Reg and Alicia. If you know the film, or if you’ve just seen the trailer, you know that Richard has a Big Secret and that secret is that he is attracted to men. Well, that’s Reg’s secret too, but it’s not just that. It’s apparently that not only is he attracted to men, he can’t possibly marry a woman. Never mind that the actual Richard the Lionheart fathered at least one out-of-wedlock child and the evidence on his homosexuality is decidedly mixed (historians today consider him to be either bisexual or heterosexual). In this story, Reg is revolted by the idea of sleeping with a woman. Yes, Reg is the heir apparent, but he couldn’t care less about his duty to the line. Women, ICK.

Why? Why did we need this plot twist? Margaret, for no reason I could discern, assumed early in the storyline that because she had seen Reg with a man a decade or so ago (i.e., when Reg was quite young), he wasn’t a fit husband for Alicia. This perception is later reinforced by Reg’s revulsion at Alicia’s advances toward him. Nowhere is there ever the possibility given in the text that Reg might be bisexual.

So, not only does the storyline and the characterization turn Reg into a nasty piece of work (although we get a sense of his inner turmoil toward the end of the book), it dances perilously close to a Gay Villain trope, and it erases the possibility of bisexuality where it well might have existed in history. Now, this may be faithful to the movie, I don’t remember well enough. But if you’re going to jettison the storyline about Henry and Alais’ relationship (presumably because an adulterer who sleeps with his heir’s intended wife is definitely not Hero Material and Henry/Whitborough is up next in the series), you can certainly make Reg a far more nuanced and believable character.

So, my problem with AU retellings? Unless you can really make the characters fit the alternate setting, they’re going to be caught between the two worlds and lack conviction. Some writers can pull off AUs well, but when they do it’s because either they’re following through on an interesting idea (beyond relocating the characters temporally or spatially), or because the author can just flat out write a story. Neither of those things happened here, at least not for me.

Here we have a 12thC king and queen who are transplanted into the heyday of the British Empire. But in this new time period they display no political interests whatsoever. Just fights about parcels of land, when half the world is available for official plunder. At least let Whitborough sit in the Lords and have some fun with it, and have the Duchess play drawing-room power games. That would be true to the original characters and true to the times.

In checking stuff for this post I ran across a couple of posts on the movie by a medieval historian who also loves the film and talks about the characterizations, including Richard, here and here. He gets at the way the movie combines contemporary and historical interests and why it works for so many people.