Miss Bates approaches a new-to-her author, especially a self-published one, with trepidation. Witness? Her DNF posts. But Bliss Bennet is the writer of the Romance Novels For Feminists blog, which Miss B. reads and enjoys. And she was curious: what kind of a romance would a long-familiar blogger write? Given the blog content, will it be “feminist”? Though Miss Bates calls herself a feminist, she doesn’t read romance, or rather she doesn’t deliberately read romance because it carries a particular stance. She went into reading Bennet’s romance with these questions and departed, as she tapped the final page on her Kobo, not really caring how they were, or not, answered. Because she was completely swept up in the story.
Bennet’s late Regency/pre-Victorian romance is set in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre, 1798 Irish Rebellion, and amid the struggle for universal suffrage. Christian “Kit” Pennington, hero, and Fianna Cameron, heroine, are circumscribed by these events. Fianna has sold body and soul to come to London to seek revenge against the man who lied about her father’s betrayal of his comrades in the Irish Rebellion. That man, an English war hero and disabled veteran, Colonel Christopher Pennington, is our hero’s beloved uncle. Aristocrat Kit, Lord Saybrook’s baby brother, was deeply affected by witnessing the Peterloo Massacre and is now a political reformer, hoping to represent the disenfranchised by pursuing a parliamentary career.
Fianna and Kit’s first meeting is anything but cute. Fianna shoots Kit (he suffers only a flesh wound), only to realize “she’d fired upon the wrong man”. She mistook “Christian” for “Christopher,” but when she noted Kit’s youth, realized he could not have been responsible for her father’s execution and maligning. In encounters in radical-patronized cafés, Kit and Fianna’s worlds converge. When Fianna’s dandy-“protector” abandons her, Kit offers succor and shelter. But they each have ulterior motives for entering into co-habitation: Fianna plans to use Kit to get closer to fulfilling her vengeance against his uncle and Kit to figure out why and how she seeks to harm his family. Neither count on attraction, desire, and companionship, a shared love of justice for the oppressed and bringing to justice of the cruel to unite them and, as the Leonard Cohen song says, “bind” them “tight”.
The first 40% of Bennet’s novel is slow-going. The historically-politically complex context dominates the narrative. If you’re a rom-reader who needs to get to the romance and get to it now, you’ll be disappointed. Even Miss Bates had her restless moments where she yearned for insta-rom-gratification. But her patience, and yours, will be rewarded many-fold. In the meantime, Bennet’s characterization of Kit and Fianna’s encounters in divided loyalties and physical attraction, will give a reader impetus to keep tapping pages. Witness, for example, how Fianna notes Kit’s youth and vulnerability: “Easily hurt. this one would be … ” He proves her wrong by showing her strength without dominance and affection without exploitation. Fianna’s beauty overwhelms Kit: ” … surely, such strange, eldritch beauty could belong to no creature of bone and flesh.” Fianna is ethereally lovely, but what Kit learns to respect and love are her intelligence, conviction, and vulnerability.
In Kit, Fianna happens on a man whose place in his family and society is as cemented as hers is in the pale. Fianna is driven to prove her worth to her father’s family. Even at thirty, she seeks approval and love and hopes to win them by redeeming her father’s reputation: “Prove herself worthy of the McCracken family? A real family to love, one that would love her back?” Bennett creates a fascinating creature in Fianna. When Fianna moves in with Kit and witnesses his family’s unity, affection, and loyalty, she mourns harder for what she doesn’t have. She displays, though not consciously to Bennet’s credit, a despairing envy of Kit’s place in his family: “How might her life have been different, if she’d been worthy of such family loyalty?” Bennet shows skillful character growth when Fianna questions the loyalty to the old world values she and Kit have been upholding: “Who was the bigger fool, she wondered as they made their way down the stairs? A man such as Kit Pennington, who believed in justice, and loyalty to family, with such youthful naïveté? Or a woman such as herself, chasing after justice in the hopes of catching hold of a family loyalty always just out of reach?” Bennet thematically opens up the possibility of a new world in Kit and Fianna’s union, one which acknowledges familial and historical burdens (like Aeneas carrying Troy’s sire and gods), but privileges the possibility of renewal and reform.
Bennet illustrates how Fianna questions her old loyalties when she experiences Kit’s compassion and care: “So long, it had been, so long since anyone had spoken to her thus, not with disgust or desire, but with simple kindness. Touched her intent on offering sympathy, rather than satisfying lust.” As Kit stands witness to Fianna’s familial “disenfranchisement,” he becomes the knight who waters her emotional wasteland. He offers everything neither paternal, or maternal family did. This allows Bennet to write of one of the romance narrative’s seminal moments, especially in an enemies-to-lovers trope-treatment. Fianna, the assassin, finds in her “enemy” a recognition of her deepest self: “But something lurked behind his narrowed eyes, something she recognized from seeing it in her own face when she stood in front of a mirror and stripped away her social mask. Something young and yearning.” In recognizing something of herself in Kit and looking upon Kit with understanding instead of enmity, Fianna begins to re-define family: “Was this what it would be like, to truly belong to a family? To be comforted, reassured, sheltered from hurt, even when one did not in the least deserve it?” In redefining family on the basis of what Fianna and Kit recognize as a commonality beyond their social and familial identities, Bennet can play cleverly on romance’s convention of the hero and heroine’s fallen selves, the mistress and dissipated aristocrat. Bennet is not the first to offer this, but she does it awfully well … ahem, Balogh.
Another of the novel’s finest moments comes when Fianna asserts she is no whore and Kit, no rogue. Social strictures diminish by pegging the individual; love and understanding, in the true self known only in the intimacy with/of the other, renews, refreshes, and creates a new world in the romance couple. Bennet penned a beautiful moment when Kit reveals his name to Fianna: ” ‘I’ve heard that the fairy folk need a man’s true name in order to work their spells on him,’ he said, his expression hidden in shadow. ‘You should know, then, that mine is not Christopher. It’s Christian.” Kit lays himself open to Fianna, knowing she can harm him. He shows her trust and appeals to her “younger, yearning” self. Fianna’s anger and pride disband before Kit’s gifts. After the romance’s near-betrayals, recoiling from the pitfalls and abysses of succumbing to social and familial limitations, Kit implores Fianna’s hand by allowing her the freedom to be her true self: ” ‘I see all of you, a woman made of both flaws and strengths, ambiguities and truths … Will you join my family, Fianna? … Will you choose to be mine? As I’ve chosen to be yours?’ ” When romance is done well, as it is in Rebel Without A Rogue, it’s the story of freedom, in choosing the other, and in finding a safe place in which to enjoy our truest and most vulnerable selves. It might’ve taken Miss Bates a while to warm to Bennet’s romance, but, like Fianna and the at-first-callow Kit, the wait for romance’s unmasking was worth it. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Bennet’s Rebel Without A Rogue “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Bliss Bennet’s A Rebel Without A Rogue is self-published. It was released on September 15 and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received a copy from the author. Beyond this exchange and enjoying Ms Horne’s blog, Miss Bates has no further relationship with the author.