Spoiler: They Make Babies

Shut up, Miranda.

Posted in Romance Review by spoilerbaby on February 11, 2010

I bought The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever, by Julia Quinn, because of the back of the book:

“2 March 1810…
Today, I fell in love.”

At the age of ten, Miranda Cheever showed no signs of Great Beauty. And even at ten, Miranda learned to accept the expectations society held for her– until the afternoon when Nigel Bevelstoke, the handsome and dashing Viscount Turner, solemnly kissed her hand and promised her thhat one day she would grow into herself, that one day she would be as beautiful as she already was smart.  And even at ten, Miranda knew she would love him forever.

But the years that followed were as cruel to Turner as they were kind to Miranda. She is as intriguing as the viscount boldly predicted on that memorable day– while he is a lonely, bitter man, crushed by a devastating loss. But Miranda has never forgotten the truth she set down on paper all those years earlier– and she will not allow the love that is her destiny to slip lightly through her fingers…

It has several of my favorite romance tropes: the smart girl who isn’t traditionally pretty, lengthy amounts of pining, and a hero in appropriate amounts (vast!) of manpain.  Many of the reviews at Amazon say the same thing — the tropes drew them in — and many of them agree with me that the book was a real letdown.

I read the first half of the book relatively quickly.  It is, as the positive reviews on Amazon indicate, a real page-turner.  At around the halfway point, however, I put down the book and never picked it back up.  It wasn’t that I was offended by the book — I’ve read worse — I was just bored.  I don’t need much sturm und drang in my romance novels; I don’t love Jane Austen for her gay orgies and bridge explosions.  I do, however, require that I actually find the characters interesting. The plot had its moments; the characters, unfortunately, did not.

Miranda Cheever falls in love at age ten. Her absent-minded father and dead mother make her the perfect ward for the Rundland family; her only fair-to-middling looks make her perfect for Nigel “Call Me Turner, Dammit” Rundland.  Turner compliments her, telling her she will one day be as pretty as she is intelligent.  Miranda responds, intelligently enough, by falling head over teakettle in love.

She continues to love him through his idiotic marriage to Leticia, that Nasty Witch Who Breaks His Heart.  Leticia cheats on him, repeatedly, and then dies in a accident.  All of it just tarnishes the hell out of Turner’s bright and happy soul.  He becomes a cynical wretch, good for nothing but drinking and groping his near-sister Miranda.

Turner is afflicted with something common to Regency romances: the Boner of Truth.  The Boner of Truth knows things that the mind isn’t ready to acknowledge.  The Boner  of Truth leads the man to whom it is attached to do strange, even out-of-character things.  In this case, it leads Turner — who has been avoiding Miranda, out of a very intelligent desire not to sully her virtue — to get stuck at a hunting lodge with her, have sex with her, and impregnate her.

Up until this point, the book had taken a page out of 1990s sitcoms — The Fresh Viscount Learns a Lesson — but it was at this point where the book threatened to take a deeper and more profound turn.  It doesn’t.  Miranda runs to her father’s house, then runs to Scotland, while Turner totally avoids his duty over in Kent.  While Turner’s being lazy (his words!), Miranda loses the baby and mentally shrugs.  It happens to women in her family, you see.  When Turner shows up, he initially wants to marry her for the baby’s sake, but when she reveals her miscarriage, he… gets right back to demanding she marry him, since she’s been Sullied by his Boner of Truth.

To her credit, Miranda initially refuses his offer.  She’s eventually shoehorned into marriage by her grandmother, grandfather, and Turner himself.  She gets into a small snit near the end of the book, when Turner won’t say “I love you,” but that’s solved with relative expediency, and all ends well for our couple.

What I ended up finding the most appalling about this book is not its boring characters, for all that I bitched about it while I was reading.  Sure, Turner’s a whiny self-absorbed asshat, and Miranda’s diary is about as interesting as a bucket of maggot puree.  Sure, the side characters are largely included for the sake of convenience.  These things are not uncommon in your average crappy romance, unfortunately.  What really made this book startlingly bad were the historical inaccuracies.

I know, I know, you’re shocked and appalled.  HISTORICAL INACCURACIES?! IN A ROMANCE NOVEL?!  CALL THE BATMAN.

I will disclaim, then.  I’m not someone known for my attention to detail.  I am the sort who will blithely overlook all sorts of continuity errors and inconsistencies.  In the past, I have said things likes — AND I QUOTE! —

…stop trying to attain realism in your novel about a scarred sea captain and the amnesiac who believes herself to be his long-lost cousin. Have the heroine be wildly attracted to him despite his missing legs and his wonky eye and his tendency to make hollow whistling noises when he stands in a steady wind. I know that in Real Life Victorian Times (RLVT), she would make screeching noises and run for the hills. In RLVT, she would be trapped in a house tatting lace, and would not know how to run a fully functioning lighthouse on her own at all (which wasn’t introduced until the late 1880s anyway, so what the actual hell).

In other words, while I am extraordinarily well-versed in the realities of 19th-century American and British life — it’s sort of my job — I don’t give a fig or a filly for accuracy most of the time.

That being said, this was the most bizarre Regency I’ve read in some time.  There were enough historical inaccuracies to make me actually guffaw:

  • The heroine repeatedly refers to a “unplanned pregnancy.”  Look, before the twentieth century, there was no such thing as an unplanned pregnancy.  According to the popular view, Jesus planned your pregnancy, and your readiness didn’t even enter the equation.
  • She would not have shrugged off a miscarriage.  Aside from the psychological difficulties associated with losing a baby, to which I cannot personally speak, in this period the whole point of ladybits was to have babies.  That is: the whole point of existence if you’re a lady is to have babies.  If you don’t have babies, your existence is in question.  I’m not looking for the rending of garments or the tearing of hair, but there’s got to be more than a shrug.
  • The heroine and her adopted family are invited to a house party.  Fair enough.  But the hostess closes the event with a scavenger hunt, consisting of male/female pairs that are randomly drawn from a bag.  WHAT.  Only a damn slattern of the highest order would attend such a party.  It would consist only of rakes and comfortable widows, and in no universe — NO UNIVERSE EVER, NOT EVEN QUANTUM LEAP — would a mother allow her daughter to attend such an event.
  • The heroine’s friend, Olivia, says highly insulting things to society members.  Fact: she would have no dance partners left, much less enough to fill a night with dancing.  Propriety is only maintained through strict adherence to snubbing the offenders.
  • In order to scold their daughter for saying offensive things, Olivia’s parents ride with Olivia, leaving Turner and Miranda to ride alone in a carriage for two hours.  OH HO HO it is to laugh.  It doesn’t matter if they’re like brother and sister– you don’t put an unmarried woman and an unmarried man in the same carriage.  Period.  No, no “but.”  PERIOD.
  • The thing that really made me cackle, though, was a casual reference to a dentist.  Not that there wasn’t dentistry, but it was usually performed by barbers or doctors until the late 19th century, and it consisted mostly of extractions.  The hero would never caution the heroine not to grind her teeth, lest she have to see the dentist.  In a historically accurate romance, the heroine would have responded to this statement by violently beating the hero about the head and neck with her reticule, because clearly he is possessed by Satanic forces.  Then they would give him a good old-fashioned trepanning until he stopped being so crazy and/or died.

I could probably go on, but you get the drift.

I’m not sure why it all offended me so much.  If I had to make a guess, though, I would say that it was because the historical inaccuracy got so bad that even I noticed it.  Locked in a hunting lodge and forced to have sex by the Boner of Truth?  Fine.  But a dentist?  Come on.

In closing: Miranda’s diary was incredibly boring.  I wouldn’t even study it.  Not even if  it would guarantee me a sweet publication in a peer-reviewed journal!  What it did make me want is a story about a prim and proper miss who is secretly the author of a racy serialized epistolary novel for one of the penny dreadful men’s papers, like the National Police Gazette.  No one knows her secret vice!  It could be a backstory for the main stage romance!  Plus you could have excerpts with phrases like “she raised her skirts the barest inch, revealing her ankle.”  Oh god, I’ve got the vapors.

— First Mate Jess

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