Reading Rose Lerner’s Sweet Disorder, first in her Regency-Era-set Lively St. Lemeston series, Miss Bates recognized Lerner’s connection to Georgette Heyer and what Miss Bates calls the “nouvelle vague” of romance writers, such as Emma Barry: educated, erudite, both entrenched in the romance tradition and bringing new elements to it. Like Heyer, to whose influence Lerner admits in her author bio, she writes a combination of adventure with touches of farcical comedy, also glimmers of pathos, in an ensemble cast, with nuanced villains and – mai oui – a central couple’s romance. (Sweet Disorder feels like a departure from the sombre tone of Lerner’s previous novel, A Lily Among Thorns, and this lighter touch suits her. Miss Bates hopes she keeps it.) Like Barry’s latest series, The Easy Part, Lerner unfolds the romance couple’s relationship in a political arena. The day’s politics inform the hero and heroine’s courtship, bringing them together, setting them apart. They serve as coalescence and disruption. Sweet Disorder, set in the West Sussex riding of Lively St. Lemeston in an election year, 1812, sees hero’s, Nick Dymond’s, brother, Tony, struggle to beat the Tory candidate. The stakes are high for the Whig Dymonds, as they are, it turns out, for their loyal voters, the Knight family, one of whom, writer of sensational tales for Girl’s Companion, Phoebe, now the widow Sparks, is our heroine. (It’s safe to keep reading, Miss Bates has gone out of her way to avoid spoilers. Sweet Disorder‘s plot is vulnerable to them, so there’s not much summary either.)
Miss Bates will start by saying how she faults Lerner’s Sweet Disorder. Lerner’s novel, in keeping with her Heyer’s preferred historical context, the Regency, didn’t feel like a Regency. It felt, at least to Miss Bates, like a Victorian novel. The heroine, Phoebe, a marvelous character, with her sensational-writer’s living, independent spirit, indifference to society’s mores, and sexual appetite (okay, the last two are definitely not Victorian), all delightful to read, was the first indication of Miss B’s discomfiture. Moreover, the lively competition and robustly bunting-infused electioneering felt like a train, instead of a carriage, should chug into Lively St. Lemeston delivering candidates and their advocates to town. Miss Bates is not a historian, except insofar as she’s aware of the development of English literature in a historical context, but this novel’s sensibility felt more Victorian than Regency. It’s a quibbling point, of course, because Miss Bates loved Sweet Disorder … still, it niggled. It weakened, Miss Bates thought, in its cross-class element: it’s true that Phoebe and Nick are not social equals, and that Lady Tassell’s final Catherine-de-Burgh-esque appearance highlights that, but the ease with which Phoebe and Nick navigated/overcame/crossed-over class differences wasn’t always plausible, more Burrowes than Heyer.
What of our hero, veteran of Badajoz and disabled war hero, Nick Dymond, and what brings him to Lively St. Lemeston and Phoebe’s plump bosom? Lerner’s premise is fascinating and original. After languishing in his room for months, depressed over his lameness (his thigh bone had to be partially removed and he walks with a limp and aiding cane), his Catherine-de-Burgh-esque mother, the electioneering obsessive, Lady Tassell, goads and coaxes him into helping his brother’s faltering campaign. Every vote counts in a tight race and Nick can help by convincing Phoebe Sparks to marry in the riding, thereby giving her new husband, now rendered a “free man,” a vote, which, of course, would go to the Whig candidate. The only problem is, once he sets eyes on, and debates Byron with, her, he wants her for himself. Phoebe, too, financially straitened, sees the necessity of making a more comfortable life for herself and her “in trouble” sister, Helen, but she wants Nick.
One of their first meetings sets their respective tones and delights with a debate beloved to a reader’s heart: while Nick recites Byron’s “Childe Harold,” Phoebe’s fiction of choice is Richardson’s Pamela. Of course, Nick is all brooding hero and tragically lame and feels adrift and purposeless; Phoebe, messy, curvaceous Phoebe, is all about the sensational novel, tale of virtue near-compromised and vindicated, like those she writes for a living. Their literary representatives have to change over the course of the novel for their love to stand. Nick must leave brooding on himself behind and find a way to live his life free of the constraints that leave him feeling aimless. In Phoebe are such interesting reversals: unlike Pamela, Phoebe is sexually honest and articulates her needs to Nick; yet, like the idealized heroine, she’s willing to sacrifice for her notions of virtue, erasing herself for another, in this case, her out-of-wedlock-pregnant sister, Helen. (Helen’s story is Pamela’s story gone awry … except Helen has Phoebe as her defender and guide.) But Phoebe has to learn that virtue is not its own reward, that her willingness to relinquish her happiness for another is only her inability to acknowledge her fear of putting herself first. When Phoebe’s notion of self-sacrifice is tested, her integrity is compromised and her sacrifice isn’t needed, or wanted. Phoebe is a loveable and loving heroine. When she eats her humble pie for a second chance at love, the reader celebrates.
Phoebe’s favour, ahem, vote, is curried by Nick, Whig advocate, and Mr. Reginald Gilchrist, Tory election agent. They both set her up with various marriage candidates. Nick’s prospect is the most appealing, but unsuitable-for-Phoebe confectioner, Robert Moon, owner of the sweetshop, “Honey Moon.” Indeed, Robert Moon is a great spokesman for Lerner because he’s the one who articulates the gist of what Phoebe and Nick have to learn. In conversation with Nick, Robert Moon speaks of the Eucharist’s significance. Again, here is a romance novel that uses religious imagery as a segue to a theme without being an inspirational. Miss Bates loves to see that. Robert Moon talks to Nick about the Eucharist as representative of more than sacrifice, of joy and spiritual sustenance. It is a matter of how we feed ourselves and with what we feed ourselves: Nick and Phoebe have to learn to take what they need from each other. Nick and Phoebe have been reluctant to admit to needs for love, comfort, family, support, for taking for themselves. (Food is also delightfully used for comic effect: with Phoebe, who doesn’t have a sweet tooth, gagging over Mr. Moon’s attempts to woo her with sweetmeats. Nick’s appropriateness as her suitor, lover, and husband is obvious when he gifts her a ham.)
Miss Bates thinks that Phoebe and Nick’s inability to ask for what they need and want, love and comfort and desire, stems from their relationship with their mothers. Lerner does a masterful job of working two fraught parent-child relationships into the romance narrative as impediments to our protagonists’ ability to reach for fulfilling lives. Nick and Phoebe show us how we look to our mothers for comfort, acceptance, and championing. They also show how our mother’s expectations frustrate and our minor failures feel harshly judged. The scenes that play out between Nick and Lady Tassell, Phoebe and Mrs. Knight, are beautifully rendered scenarios of families that love each other, but will never understand each other. It is the novel’s strength that there are no halcyon, idealized workings-out of these relationships by the end … Phoebe and Nick’s HEA will have to suffice for the reader because everything else is as messy as Phoebe’s garret and appearance. Lerner pretty much leaves it all in a shambles and Miss Bates loved her for it.
There is so much that Lerner does well; the brushstrokes to her canvas are broad and rich and plentiful. Miss Bates can’t write about them all. As a final panegyric of what works, she discusses William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience as the symbol of Nick and Phoebe’s love-making. Phoebe introduces Blake’s work to Nick. Miss Bates thought Blake a perfect replacement of Byron and Richardson (neither of whom Miss Bates ever embraced). Blake’s visual and poetic masterpiece is a perfect representation of where Phoebe and Nick must moor: as each “song” balances the other, innocence balancing experience, Nick and Phoebe have to reach a connection of equals, balancing each other, equal to each other, working with each other’s strengths, and making room for each others’ weaknesses. Their bedroom joy has to extend to their public and private lives: as safe spaces for fulling being themselves. The love scenes are explicit and not always idealized-comfortable, not everything is perfect because it is difficult to be vulnerable with/to another. Discomfort comes from how Phoebe and Nick are exposed emotionally, but that unease is equally how they are strengthened and renewed.
Miss Bates isn’t averse to explicit scenes in romance, but it is important to her that they make sense in the context of the narrative and advance the hero and heroine’s relationship. Sweet Disorder accomplishes this masterfully and weaves one of Miss Bates’ favourite poets into it too. Blake is, of course, the perfect compromise of Phoebe’s Pamela-side and Nick’s Byronic perspective: Blake is the prophet of a new world, of equality between men and women, of the erasure of class distinction, of a “new Jerusalem.” By bringing Phoebe and Nick together in the manner that Lerner does: in enacting an HEA for Nick and Phoebe, and “justice for the oppressed” (even with a comic/farcical touch) for the rest of the characters, Lerner has written one of the most wonderful romance novels Miss Bates has read this year. 😉
Because Miss B. promised a bit of a review, don’t doubt that she urges you to read Sweet Disorder, in which “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.