I discovered the Pennyroyal Green series through highly positive reviews, and started by the first book, The Perils of Pleasure. It felt like reading an old-times roadtrip book, the kind of story where every unexpected thing happens to thwart the arrival at the destination, where comedy mixes with drama and each chapter ends with a new cliffhanger, like a Victorian serial. I thought it similar to an even older book, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. Colin might be an aristocrat, and not criminal, but he’s still a lovable rogue who gives the story a Picaresque feeling. With Madeleine as badass heroine, it became one of my favorite books as soon as I started reading.
Next I read, out of order, A Notorious Countess Confesses, and cried my eyes out over Bible verses, of all things. What I Did For A Duke has hilarious angry swans and kitten sketches, so my heart was won. But then I got to Like No Other Lover, and there I got stuck.
Like No Other Lover’s hero is Miles Redmond, an entomologist and Explorer who has traveled to the South Seas in search of unknown butterflies. As a Brazilian biologist, I was prepared to fall in love. Instead I found myself repeating an experience I’ve already had too much of in my life: the fetishization of tropical spaces and dark-skinned women. Miles has had sex with a lot of dark-skinned women in his travels.
Race in historical novels is always complicated. Almost by definition Regency novels tend to be completely White, with the occasional appearance of a character who’s half Indian or half Native American (biracial characters being often used for inclusion while trying to keep things not so scary.) And the historical period being right in the middle of England’s imperialist/colonial efforts always makes for awkward reading. I’ve read a number of romances with military heroes who’ve served in India or characters of color who feel out of place in the racist ton, with varying degrees of success or facepalming. Sometimes I cringe and shake my head, sometimes I laugh at the author’s lack of awareness, and sometimes I suspend my awareness of the racial and political issues so I can enjoy the book. In Like No Other Lover, I hurt, because I was expecting better from an author I’ve come to love and trust.
“Noisy rainbow-feathered birds and irisdiscent butterflies the size of Chinese fans spangled the air; dusky-skinned women as entangling as the flora shared his bed at night. Everything was abandoned and excessive.”
“And suddenly, as Lord Albermarle stood at his elbow and pressed him for stories of warm-blooded women of easy virtue, it happened.”
When I was 19, I tried to use the internet to learn and practice English, and I made an ICQ profile that mentioned the city I lived in. I received a message from an USian tourist 20 years older matter-of-factly telling me which hotel he was in and how much he’d pay for the night, which was more than the usual, he said, because I spoke English and he expected conversation besides sex. The dusky-skinned woman of easy virtue is me. “Everything was abandoned and excessive” is Hollywood geography.
“affectionate women who wore nothing for clothing above their waists all day.”
The National Stereotype of Brazilian Women was born with the country. The Caminha letter to the King of Portugal goes on and on about Native women, their nudity, their bodies, the shape of their genitalia. (It’s creepy, really. I feel dirty in a bad way when I read it.) Nowadays, people whose only knowledge of Brazil is Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival parade on TV are still asking me online if I walk around in a sequined bikini shaking my butt all Day long. The parades happen during a 4-day period, in a closed street, for tourists who bought expensive tickets to watch, but people generalize from there without thinking how ridiculous it would be to generalize the whole of USA by what happens in Las Vegas shows.
“Plenty of debauchery to be had in the South Seas,” she said sagely. “Native girls and whatnot. He’s probably just grown bored with that debauchery nonsense.”
“She thought of native women and debauchery.”
Like it was published on Slate, “Whisper the country’s name and, after soccer, sex is the next association.” Because White foreigners see Brazil (and most of Latin America) as “miscegenation gone wild.” Sexual tourists who come to Brazil (more specifically Rio de Janeiro) “believe that Brazilian women are endowed with a sort of hyper-sexuality, which is the result of a combination of miscegenation (or racial mixing), the tropical climate and a non-puritan mentality.”
There’s also a belief in anachronistic space (“movement over the space of empire is also a movement back in time”), a belief that “women in Rio are like what women were before” in the U.S. (before feminism – besides all the solicitation and offers of employment in porn that I get online, I also get marriage proposals, with the explanation that Brazilian women know how to treat a man and are great cooks.)
What makes it so frustrating, and so hard for me to finish reading Like No Other Lover, is knowing that Julie Anne Long is capable of doing better. It’s true that this portrayal of racist, imperialist English aristocrats in the Regency period is realistic, but it also makes extremely unsympathetic characters for a post-colonial reader. I put the book aside and went on to read I Kissed an Earl, where she seems to be setting the stage to tackle slavery. And like Miles in the previous book, Flint has slept with women of color. He has a Moroccan mistress named Fatima, whom he plans to marry before meeting Violet Redmond.
“You love Fatima, don’t you, after a fashion?”
It took him a moment to recover from their collision with honesty. He studied her, head tilted slightly, for a moment of silence.
“She’d think your name exotic, too, you know.” Sounding amused.
“Why did you just say that?” She was irritated.
“It’s the way you say her name. You make it sound as though your lips can scarcely form it for the sheer exoticism of it. And I know of a certainty it’s not a struggle for you. It’s very common name in her land, you know. Like Anne in yours.”
She fidgeted. It was an uncomfortable observation.
There. Realistic, and so much better I cried in public when I read that.