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Book Review: Frederica and the Viscountess by Barbara Davies

Friday, September 27, 2019 - 07:00
book cover

I wrote something of a mini-review of this when I included it in a podcast for The Lesbian Talk Show on five reasons why the Regency era is great for f/f romances and five books that illustrate each reason. I might as well let it do double-duty:

Reason Why the Regency is Great for F/F Romances: Gender Imbalance

The Napoleonic wars were a major defining feature of the Regency era.  There were significant casualties among the British military (though not as serious as among the French population). Taking the population from the 1801 census as a starting point, as much as 5% of the male population were killed in the next decade, and men of marriageable age were the target demographic for military recruitment. There was also a preference for recruiting single men. This all combined to leave a surplus of unmarried women--many of whom had no hope of ever finding husbands, simply for lack of opportunity. A dynamic like this meant that it was normal, though not desirable, for a woman never to marry. Such women typically would live with a member of their extended family, contributing to the domestic economy of the household. Another option was to be a “companion” to a woman of better means who had no immediate family of her own. While these companion relationships typically would involve a difference in age as well as economic status, it set a precedent for households composed of two women of theoretically equal social status.

Book that Illustrates This: Frederica and the Viscountess by Barbara Davies

Frederica Bertram is at that delicate edge of spinsterhood where she must seriously contemplate that if she refuses the expected marriage proposal from the tedious Mr. Dunster she will never have another opportunity to leave her parents’ roof. Her sister Amelia is still young enough to dream of romantic adventure. Into their quiet country neighborhood comes their neighbor’s scandalous sister Joanna, Viscountess Norland. Her scandal goes beyond having abandoned her husband and infant to go gallivanting around the continent, but also encompasses a taste for sometimes wearing trousers and a rumored duel with pistols. And she attracts visitors like the libertine Lord Peregrine who finds it amusing to turn the head of young Amelia Bertram to no good end.

Why it fits

Frederica and Joanna, of course, fall unexpectedly in love and their eventual solution to what society thinks is for Frederica to take up the post of companion to the Viscountess. Such an arrangement is considered a poor second choice to marriage by friends and relations, but gives both women a more respectable social presence than they had previously. This is a short, very sweet romance that draws heavily on the tropes and motifs of Jane Austen’s books, almost more than on the modern Regency romance tradition.

Further Comments

The book’s homages to Jane Austen novels are endearingly transparent. Mr. Dunster is the tedious Mr. Collins and Lord Peregrine’s attempted seduction of Amelia is a close echo of Lydia Bennet’s willing elopement with Wickham. Viscountess Norland, on the other hand, is a trope solely belonging to f/f historicals: the scandalous cross-dressing devil-may-care aristocratically-privileged icon of Not Like Other Girls. Frederica and the Viscountess is a delightfully tropey addition to the genre.

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