I have a confession to make: I don’t remember every book I’ve read.
Even the ones I liked a lot.
I especially don’t remember titles. This doesn’t make me feel too bad because I know a lot of authors don’t get to choose their titles, plus, an awful lot of romance titles are generic or kind of embarrassing. Or both.
You can rest assured that this little quirk of mine really has nothing to do with how much I like an author. In some ways, it’s even an inverse relationship: if I find a new author and read a whole bunch of her books in a short time period, I’m even less likely to remember individual books and titles.
So before I do an author profile, I go to the author’s website and review what I’ve read of her books and decide if I want to do a general profile or talk about specific books. As it happens, I seem to be all caught up with Eloisa James’ backlist, so here goes.
James didn’t get onto my radar until about a year ago, when one of her “Essex Sisters” quartet was displayed prominently enough at my local Borders’ and my to-be-read pile of tried and true authors was dangerously low. Since then, I’ve read everything by her in mixed-up order except for the very most recent ones. For the most part, this hasn’t been an issue, but I admit to needing a couple of chapters before I feel like the cobwebs are cleared away. To prove that I’m not imagining things, James has an introduction of all of the four "Desperate Duchesses" up on her website (you have to register to read it, hence, no link). She lists 4 duchesses: Jemma, Harriet, Poppy, and Isadore. But the first book was about Roberta—not even mentioned--and the second is about Poppy. Jemma is the character that connects them all (presumably… eventually… haven’t seen Isadore yet that I can recall) and reminds me a lot of Esme, a similar character from the first Duchess quartet. Properly speaking, the main character from Desperate Duchesses isn’t a duchess at all. Confusing.
OK, so assuming you are better than I am at keeping all of the players straight and/or are smart enough to read them in order, settle in and enjoy.
Lately, there’s been a trend of writing more from the male point of view, and featuring the heroes more prominently than the heroines. Theory has it that women readers care more about the heroes and are picturing themselves in the heroine role anyway, therefore, the hero’s personality is more important. (I recommend Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women if you like this sort of theorizing.)
James bucks the trend by writing exciting, unusual heroines. Her heroes are entirely up to par, no worries there, but IMO the heroines are really the stars of her shows. When crossed or disappointed by life, they take action whether it is condoned by their society or not. Esme from the first Duchess quartet, and Jemma from the current one, are both considered nearly persona non grata by the reigning grandes dames of the ton; they have affairs, they live without their husbands (at times, anyway) and they make choices that modern day women can relate to, even at the risk of fairly extreme consequences. They have sufficient personal flair and social power to get away with it-- but just barely. They exhibit a public face of confidence and devil-may-care, but as readers, we also see the insecurities and private tragedies that drive them. Again, a better-than-average connection to the modern reader. Helping to make these women appealing is some very snappy dialog. (I often forget to mention it when an author is super at that, because I tend not to notice the quality of the dialog unless it annoys me. Eloisa James: super).
The great thing about these alpha duchesses is that they generally appear in the first book and we get to watch their relationship evolve over all four books. The problem is that sometimes their situation is more interesting than the “main” character of any given book in the series. This is what has scrambled my brain a little with the current An Affair Before Christmas – it picks up right where Desperate Duchesses left off, but it took me awhile to remember which duke was which and who was dueling whom and why.
James mostly writes in the Georgian period, rather than the more common Regency. What’s the diff? you might ask. Fancy clothes, jewels, balls, the ton, intrigue in and out of marriage. Oddly enough, the biggest difference seems to be fashion. James includes a lot of fun details about the clothing of the times, and in fact, a major plot point of Enchanting Pleasures revolves around what modern-day spin artists refer to as a “wardrobe malfunction.” Mention is made of the infamous practice of dampening the chemise, which apparently results in a better view of the wearer’s legs and butt, though how exactly this is accomplished with 4’ wide panniers remains vague to my inner eye. And the vicissitudes of wearing your hair in a powdered, 3' tall pile turns out to have some significance to the relationship challenges in An Affair Before Christmas.
Some of the characterizations of the male leads revolve around their regard for fashion, disregard for fashion, or the panache with which they are able to pull off more outrageous outfits. James may well be the creator of the genre’s first Metrosexual Historical Alpha Heroes.*
Another opportunity offered by this period is the drama of the post-revolutionary French nobility, which constitutes a lovely little subplot in Midnight Pleasures.
Materially speaking, if you are strict about liking mainly Regency historicals, these are likely going to have all the stuff you like with a refreshing lack of de riguer junk about Almack’s, Covent Garden, and Napoleonic PTSD, and with more sexually enlightened (or at least, permissive) attitudes.
James uses her heroines' side interests to weave in interesting tidbits about the era, particularly the state of science and medicine. The women follow Amanda Quick's pattern to a degree, in that they have quirky "unfeminine" interests which help create a layer of character detail and sometimes a plot point or two. James should watch out though; I'm seeing a pattern already of only a couple books where whatever the interest is (foreign languages, naturalism) becomes one of those annoying plot devices where character A is convinced that if character B knew about it, character B would be horrified/disgusted/catapulted "out" of love, so it becomes a secret that must be kept or repressed. I'm not too happy that the women's mothers are frequently portrayed as abrasive, ignorant idiots, either.
A final point that sets James apart from current popular historical authors is that many of her heroines are married at the beginning of the book. Their marriages have not turned out happily ever after, at least not yet. James leads us through marriages that are complicated by issues of the era, yes, but also timeless problems that can challenge any relationship: sexual incompatibility, infidelity, alcholism, jealousy, loss of a child, health problems.
James doesn't offer any silver bullet here. If she has offered any generic marriage advice, it is the familiar refrain: "communicate, communicate, communicate." Hmmm. Maybe it's stock advice for a reason.
*Wish I could lay claim to this amusing turn of phrase, but James herself alludes to it in some of her "bonus" material for registered readers on her website.