In my opinion, the best historical romance novels are about today. Let me explain: though they’re set in a time in the past (usually Regency-Victorian England or Western North America in the late 1800s), the contents, themes, issues, and politics of the romance and the world are negotiating and commenting on the sociopolitical issues of today. This book takes that directive and blows it out of the water. Written in 2019 and set in 1867 England, this book is so intrinsically about the sociopolitical frustrations with patriarchal power and the both personal and systemic violences of that power. It is not nuanced, it is not subtle. It’s about two old women falling in love and going up against terrible men. It is the ultimate fantasy of taking down a truly bad man with your own sapphic joy, overdue spite, and arsonry spirit.
This novella starts the way all good romances do: Violetta has a problem. She has been sacked from her job managing the boarding house where she’s worked for 47 years exactly 11 months before she would be entitled to her pension. And so she devises a scheme to pose as the owner of the boarding house, con one of the tenant’s rent out of his wealthy old aunt, and pocket the 68 pounds.
The wealthy aunt, Mrs. Bertrice Martin, needs an adventure. And a romp through town with her new lady love to take down her truly Terrible Nephew is just what the doctor ordered.
I love this book. Both the prose and the dialogue are snappy and compelling in their oddness. Courtney Milan is a master of new, interesting story concepts, lovable, prickly characters, and real, swoony romance. And this straight-shot sapphic, anti-patriarchal romance without even a whiff of homophobia is, almost always, just what the doctor ordered for me as a reader.
I love a romance about people who don’t get romance novels written about them and this is one of those–old women with the wisdom, fear, joy, and pain of having lived a life subjugated by the capitalist, heterosexist patriarchy. Old women (Violetta is 69 and Bertrice is 73) with needs and desires and the hard outer shells that they have built up in order to live in a world that is not only not built for them, but one that actively resents them as “surplus,” unnecessary and unworthy. They must do the work to break each other open and to make themselves receptive and vulnerable to the intimate knowing that true romance requires. The physical intimacy is raw and breathtaking and so real, with real bodies and heart-rending tenderness.
Yes, Terrible Nephew is cartoonishly (and then very cathartically) bad, but all of the other men in this book are bad in different, more subtle, more real ways, and watching these women band together in their romantic love and partnership, as well as finding other women to support and fight alongside, is powerful.
On top of all that, there is casual cane usage and some intensely beautiful conversations about grief and depression in between bouts of rowdy farm animals and off-key carolers.
In this book, love (and crispy cheese) conquers all, even bad men and creaky bones.
Content warnings: sexual violence (off page), misogyny, ageism, depression, grief