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Long before contemporary historical romance writers used Vauxhall to bring simmering attractions to a boil, William Makepeace Thackeray did the same. The difference is that Thackeray had actually been to Vauxhall—and saw the venue through the eyes of bathetic experience.

In his 1848 novel Vanity Fair, Thackeray sends his characters to Vauxhall when decisions need to be made about matrimony and romance. The novel follows gentle, kind Amelia Sedley and her avaricious yet delightful friend, Becky Sharp, to the pleasure gardens with their different suitors. Becky is on the precipice of receiving a proposal from Amelia’s brother, Jos, who is very silly but rich—and thus a veritable catch for the shabby-genteel Becky who has recently accepted a post as a governess. Everyone has speculated about their potential engagement for weeks, but Jos has been unable to cough up the question. He has resolved to finally do it at Vauxhall, which Thackeray treats a bit like the nineteenth-century equivalent of proposing at a sporting arena. For her part, Amelia is escorted by her two future husbands, although no one knows at that point that both men will come to marry her. The first man and husband, dashing and fickle George Osborne, is her original beloved who later dies at the Battle of Waterloo. The second is his best friend, Mr. Dobbin, who is already secretly in love with Amelia at Vauxhall and is, in the end, much more worthy of her affections.

The evening at Vauxhall gets off to a promising enough start: they “were perfectly their box: where the most delightful and intimate conversation took place. Jos was in his glory, ordering about the waiters with great majesty. He made the salad; and uncorked the Champagne; and carved the chickens; and ate and drank the greater part of the refreshments on the tables.” Here, we see the Vauxhall described in the history books. It is all cold chicken, high spirits, indulgence, and excess.

Unfortunately, Jos orders a bowl of punch—“everybody had rack punch at Vauxhall”—and the whole evening begins to unravel. No one drinks the punch but Jos himself and he gets so inebriated that he begins to sing. He is heckled by bystanders outside of their box and almost begins to brawl with the crowd of men. He then clasps Becky around the waist in a scandalous manner and calls her "my dearest diddle-diddle-darling." In short, he horrifies and humiliates the rest of the party. The illustration above shows how Jos is “uncommon wild” in his drunkenness. Worst of all for Becky, he never manages to propose.

After the ladies and Jos are packed off in separate carriages by George Osborne and Mr. Dobbin, Becky tells herself that Jos will come and propose to her in the morning. The narrator soon dashes these hopes with the truth about Vauxhall punch: “Oh, ignorant young creatures! How little do you know the effect of rack punch! What is the rack in the punch, at night, to the rack in the head of a morning? To this truth I can vouch as a man; there is no headache in the world like that caused by Vauxhall punch. Through the lapse of twenty years, I can remember the consequence of two glasses! two wine-glasses! but two, upon the honour of a gentleman; and Joseph Sedley, who had a liver complaint, had swallowed at least a quart of the abominable mixture. The next morning, which Rebecca thought was to dawn upon her fortune, found Sedley groaning in agonies which the pen refuses to describe.” Instead of an experience fit for a refined gourmand or youths yearning for an exciting flight into fancy, Thackeray presents Vauxhall—and its punch—as a mistake that everyone makes at least once.

Dobbin also earns the Vauxhall-specific sympathy of the narrator. The fifth wheel of the coach in this quintet, Dobbin arrives at Vauxhall to dine with the couples, but realizes that he is unwanted. “I should only be de trop,” he tells himself, “I’d best go and talk to the hermit,” and he heads off “out of the hum of men, and noise, and clatter of the banquet, into the dark walk, at the end of which lived that well-known pasteboard Solitary.” The narrator concludes: “It wasn’t very good fun for Dobbin—and, indeed, to be alone at Vauxhall, I have found, from my own experience, to be one of the most dismal sports ever entered into by a bachelor.”

And, here, it seems that Thackeray and contemporary historical romance writers agree. Vauxhall is a place where characters roll the dice on their attraction and hope not to come up empty handed—and it seems that to strike out at Vauxhall hurts just a little bit more than anywhere else. In the end, Vauxhall is for lovers.

Here are my favorite new releases for the month of March! This month I have three romances to recommend that are truly perfect. Each one displays such artistry in its execution and was just an all-around privilege to read. I also think that all three of these books display a trend in historical romances that has been happening for a while now: a shift towards emotionally intelligent heroes. All of the heroes in these books are handsome, commanding men who know who they are…and yet they also have the ability to understand their own emotions and translate them into action/behavior. I love this evolution and so I loved each of these books. I can’t imagine three better reads for historical romance fans to pick up in April.

Eloisa James’s How To Be a Wallflower

First of all, I am so excited to review an Eloisa James, because she is a bit of a personal hero of mine. She writes historical romance novels and she is an English professor, which is the same trajectory I am going for, so I think she is just amazing. I also really appreciate how I can see the Renaissance scholar in each of her books and How to Be a Wallflower was no exception. The emphasis on the theatre, the references to early modern plays, and the critique of Shakespeare’s language in Romeo and Juliet—I loved it all.

And, like all of James’s work, this book was just SO fun. She has a singular talent for creating buoyant, charming heroines and Cleo is this type exactly. She is unflappable and successful (she runs a commode empire) and yet is still vulnerable and a little otherworldly. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic that Cleo has with her late mother—she still hears her mother talking to her in her head and the rendering of their relationship felt so real. James really shows how Cleo loved her mother tremendously but also was hurt by her tempestuous behavior. Over the course of the novel, Cleo sifts through the parts of her relationship with her mother that she wants to remember and treasure and the parts that were damaging or left her feeling alone. This process felt so relatable and seeing this back-and-forth unfold gave Cleo a lot of depth. Similarly, Jake was a great hero. I really appreciated how he recognized early on that he loved Cleo and wanted to pursue her and that he didn’t care about what had originally driven him to England anymore. It is great to see such emotional intelligence in a hero and Cleo even recognizes this trait in Jake, telling him at one point that he understands his emotions more quickly than she does her own. I loved this role reversal and I think it marks a trend in historical romances. Jake is an alpha hero in many ways; he is domineering when it comes to business and even in his interpersonal relationships. That said, his comfort being vulnerable reflects, I think, the growing popularity of emotionally intelligent heroes and the fact that, in 2022, many readers find nothing sexier than a man with some soft skills. I definitely feel this way myself and so I was delighted to read Jake.

How to Be a Wallflower is a delectable historical written by a master of the genre. Jake and Cleo have a totally magical connection and, overall, this book is not-to-be-missed.

Diana Quincy’s The Marquess Makes His Move

When I was reading this book and reached the twist in the middle, I gasped aloud in such a way that my husband thought that something terrible had happened. To avoid any spoilers, I won’t reveal what exactly got that reaction from me—however, I will say that, up until that point, I thought I had foreseen where the plot was going, but Quincy got me!!!

I really enjoyed the opening premise of this book: Alex, a Marquess, disguises himself as a footman in order to find evidence that a mapmaker has cheated him out of his land. He begins to fall in love, however, with the mapmaker’s wife—who we know all along is actually the mapmaker in question, because she does the work for the business while her loathsome husband merely profits from it—and Alex and Rose quickly find themselves drawn closer and closer together. This premise did really interesting things in regard to class. At first, Rose thinks that Alex is below her on the socioeconomic scale and then it is revealed that, in fact, he is far above her in the social hierarchy. This allowed the book to elegantly cover a wide span of the Regency social spectrum in a way that was really refreshing to read, not to mention true to the period. This wide social scope recalled actual nineteenth-century novels in the best way.

This book also does such a good job of modulating plot and emotion. All of the characters’ reactions to what unfolds felt totally natural—I tend to get easily frustrated with main characters’ emotional reactions to plot events, especially when there are dramatic events and revelations, but I felt thoroughly satisfied here with how Quincy renders Rose and Alex’s emotional responses. I also loved the details of this book: Rose’s mapmaking, Alex’s realizations about what life is like for servants, and the way that Rose and Alex share the overlapping aspects of their heritage—all were beautifully done. I particularly enjoyed how their relationship allowed both of them, by the end, to balance the different aspects of their identities in true harmony: their pasts, their families, their work—it all came together for a super convincing and satisfying HEA. Alex and Rose have a real love story and, in particular, you really feel how much he gives to her, but not in a way that felt like it detracted from the strength of her character. Rather, I felt like Alex allows Rose to fully enjoy life and achieve what she wants not just logistically but emotionally…and that was gorgeous to see unfold on the page.

Emily Rath’s Beautiful Things

Okay everyone, this book was a revelation for yours truly. Beautiful Things is a reverse-harem Regency romance, which means that the heroine has not one but—in this case—three heroes with whom she will have an HEA. I had never read a reverse harem romance before, but when I saw Beautiful Things on Instagram, I knew I had to try it. And let me tell you—if you love Regency romance, you have to read this one. Do you ever find yourself getting impatient with the aspects of a historical that are tangential to the central relationship? The genius of a reverse harem romance is that, due to the plethora of main characters, almost all of the book is taken up with the central relationship. Additionally, in Regencies where the tropes feel so well-established and the different types of heroes are familiar, the reverse harem structure really worked because you get to enjoy multiple hero types/plotline types at once. Let me map the different heroes in this book onto Jane Austen protagonists to explain the brilliance of this structure: James is the Mr. Darcy; Renley is the Captain Wentworth; and Burke is the Edward Ferrars—and you, the reader, get to have all of them in one book. And the reverse harem also ratchets up the stakes because Rath has to plot HEAs for four characters and not just two, so the entire time I was like, how is this going to work?!? In typical Regencies, the obstacles seem much more manageable and I loved the extra conflict here. Overall, this book is absolutely delicious and really, really fun. It’s everything to love about a Regency x 3.

And, not only is the concept for this book wonderful, it is extremely well-executed. Rath’s writing is beautiful and the pacing is top-notch. Seriously. Even though this book begins as a bit of a slow burn, it is not at all frustrating—it is super steamy and the character dynamics really work. All of the heroes are friends with one another and I personally really enjoyed reading the passages where they all talk about the heroine together and discuss the intricate emotional and erotic dynamics at play between all four of them. Also, the passages between James and his brother, the Duke (not one of the heroes), were hilarious??? I was very amused by the relationships between the various male characters in this book and seeing the heroine, Rosalie, attempting to navigate these waters was very entertaining.

The heroine herself is also a very well-rendered character. She really doesn’t want to get married and have a conventional love story. I found it moving how her love interests respect her desire to be independent and see her wish to remain unmarried as core to her identity as opposed to an emotional obstacle to be overcome by love. And, when the steamy scenes arrive, they REALLY deliver. Put it in my veins!!

If you enjoy high-steam Regency romances, Emily Rath’s Beautiful Things is a must-read. This is one of those books where, after I finished it, I actually missed the characters. It’s so good that I almost wish that I wrote it…except then I wouldn’t have gotten to enjoy it as a reader and I wouldn’t want to give that up. In short, you really should go buy and enjoy now.

This week I posed a question in my Instagram Stories: have other romance readers/readers of The Viscount Who Loved Me noticed that non-readers of the series/the genre seemed to enjoy Season 2 more than they did? In short, does reading the Bridgerton books ahead of time actually diminish your enjoyment of Bridgerton, the show? I received a range of fascinating responses to my question—and they really helped me think through the issues of adaptation and genre that I have been dwelling on after completing my own viewing of Season 2. In these responses, a lot of people noticed what I had initially observed: that friends/family who hadn’t read The Viscount Who Loved Me and aren’t historical romance readers seemed to enjoy the show more. However, the more I talked to people, the more complicated the picture became: some fans of The Viscount Who Loved Me adored Season 2 and some non-readers had real complaints about the plotlines and arc of the season.

My question was initially prompted by a conversation that I had with my brother. At first (over text), he told me that he loved Season 2, saying it left “a Bridgerton-shaped hole in his life” when he was done. Then, however, when we talked later, he had a lot of complaints about the love triangle and the lack of steam! He said—and I quote—“we are here for the smut!”, which was hilarious to me because my brother is very much not a romance reader and yet he was mirroring a lot of the concerns of those very familiar with the original content of The Viscount Who Loved Me. I also discussed Season 2 with a close friend of mine. While she gave the caveat that she watched “uncritically” and had the show on in the background, she nevertheless felt this season wasn’t as good as the first.

I have been trying to gauge the reactions of other Bridgerton viewers not because I am really questioning the objective quality of Season 2. While it has flaws as an adaptation and as a freestanding story, ultimately I enjoyed the eight episodes and that is a feat in and of itself. In general, I am hesitant to call entertainment I enjoy “bad”—for myself, I don’t think it is fair to call a show “bad” if I happily watch it in its entirety!! A DNF is my reaction to an aesthetic failure, not giving up eight hours of my life—at least in my opinion. (Which isn’t to say that content that I watch the entirety of can’t be many other things besides bad, such as problematic, disappointing, saccharine, cringe-worthy, etc., or that it is immune from criticism.) I think that Season 2 was a very high-quality production and that the acting by Simone Ashley and Jonathan Bailey was truly superb. And, as with last season, the racial diversity of the casting and the newly envisioned world of the show was gratifying to see and a wonderful change to the source material. For me personally, there is no doubt that I will watch Season 3.

I am so interested in hearing the reactions from my friends and family and the histrom community at large, however, because I am ultimately fascinated by what the reception of Bridgerton says about its status as an adaptation of a historical romance novel. What really keeps me thinking and talking about Bridgerton Season 2 isn’t whether I found it successful or unsuccessful as a show, but a different question altogether. Specifically, I keep asking myself: what genre does Bridgerton Season 2 belong within? Because we saw so little of Kate and Anthony together, this season seemed to me much more like a conventional romantic drama than a romance.

And this issue is really my big concern/disappointment--but also point of fascination--with Bridgerton Season 2. Julia Quinn’s original series is squarely in the historical romance genre—published by Avon, the house I always see as the high canon of historical romances modern and old school, the Bridgerton books are completely of the genre and for its readers. The show is pitched as an adaptation of these books and, last season, it seemed committed to bringing the genre to life on screen: we watched Simon and Daphne’s relationship develop with the fine-grained detail we expect from a historical romance. Bridgerton Season 2, however, felt not only more like a conventional soap opera or dramedy (how many times have we seen an engagement break down at the altar??), but also more like an actual nineteenth-century novel. For instance, there is a late nineteenth-century novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells, which has a plot with striking similarities to Season 2 of Bridgerton. In this book, a wealthy man from a prominent, aristocratic family begins to visit and socialize with a nouveau riche family in which there are two daughters. The younger daughter is the acknowledged beauty of the family and everyone assumes that the young man is there to court her. The younger daughter falls in love with him. Both families expect an engagement. Then the young man confesses his love to the bookish, acerbic older sister. The entire time he was visiting for her and not the younger sister; the older sister suspected his feelings and returned them, but had no evidence to support her intuition, especially when everyone seemed so certain he was interested in her sister. Eventually, the older sister and the young man marry, but not before the angst ratchets up to 1000 and everyone involved has endured emotional torture.

To me, on some fundamental level, Bridgerton Season 2 felt more similar to The Rise of Silas Lapham than The Viscount Who Loved Me. And I felt this way not because of any particular scene being left out or any one change, but because of the tone of the whole. The level of angst, the deep emotional inhibition of Kate and Anthony, and most of all the scanty development of their relationship echoed actual nineteenth-century novels more than contemporary historical romances. I love The Rise of Silas Lapham! But it is not a historical romance. And I think this conflict crystallizes my central gripe with Season 2: I want to see historical romances adapted for the screen and Season 2 just did not feel enough like one to me. Bridgerton fans who liked Season 2 say that you have to separate the book and the show and see them as different in order to enjoy both—and I think this perspective is very smart, sound advice. I can totally see the show as a very enjoyable separate entity with characters who are similar to but not the same as those in The Viscount Who Loved Me.

However, that said, I think the reason that many Bridgerton fans and historical romance readers have been so dissatisfied with Season 2 is not because the show changed aspects of the original plot and characters to translate its arc onto the screen—but because the show runners kind of ended up adapting The Viscount Who Loved Me out of the historical romance genre altogether. To me, Season 2 felt disturbingly close to a steamier version of a Jane Austen adaptation (I mean, Jane Austen would never tolerate sister v. sister for her central protagonists, but I digress). Really, it was a Jane Austen-esque conflict with heightened dramatic stakes and a bonus sex scene. And I love Jane Austen and would actually love to see one of her books adapted with a really erotic bent (like the most recent adaptation of Emma x 10), but such a production would still be fundamentally different from a historical romance. Historical romance is a genre that consciously presents its chosen time period to mirror the concerns of contemporary readers, especially its sexual and gender politics. Novels by Austen and other nineteenth-century realist writers aim to depict and comment on their society and its central concerns as they actually existed, at least in the mind of their creators. In the end, I think Season 1 of Bridgerton delivered as an adaptation of a historical romance novel, but I’m not sure that Season 2 did. That doesn’t mean that Season 2 wasn’t enjoyable or valuable, but, as someone who loves the genre and is eager to see it adapted for the screen, I was disappointed.

As always, I am very curious to hear the thoughts of others!

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