I think the adage about not judging a book by its cover was probably invented by publishers’ marketing departments. They spend a surprising amount of time and effort on covers, and don’t want that time to be wasted, so you’re told to judge a book its prose. I can get behind that. As a bookseller, I always recommend that people searching for new authors should try a page or two. Nine times out of ten, you can tell if you’re going to like a book after only a few pages.
Of course, that tenth time is a humdinger.
Joan Wolf was one of those tenth times for me. The first time I tried one of her books, I put it down, thinking it plain, undynamic. Fast-forward the better part of a decade, and I picked up what looked like a historical romantic mystery set in Norman England. It too was by Joan Wolf. But this time the prose didn’t strike me as plain, but as unadorned. Subtle and precise. And I was utterly hooked.
Like so many others who got started in the late seventies, Joan didn’t
set out to be a romance writer. After graduating with a Master’s
in Comparative Literature, she taught high school English for several
years. When her son was born, she resigned, intending to stay home
and write her PhD. dissertation. Instead, she wrote a romance novel.
More than thirty years later, she’s still writing them.
Originally, she broke into the genre writing category Regencies. Maybe it was her academic background that helped her develop her refreshingly spare style–who knows? But her voice, clear and unembellished, was a welcome change from the melodrama that held sway at the time. Wolf branched out, writing longer, more intricate historicals, some set around real people and events. Her historical eras of choice were diverse: from the Regency back through the Middle Ages, from the Saxon incursions all the way back to the paleolithic migrations (pre-historicals, those ones are called). As time went on, she also wrote a few contemporary novels, and yes, a couple of Norman mysteries. But she remained, and remains, strongest in the Regency period.
Her novel Golden Girl, a classic ‘marriage of convenience’ story, is a good illustration of her talents. When the Duke of Cheviot assumes the title upon the death of his father, he discovers his patrimony is an enormous pile of debt. Since by1818, the aristocracy no longer had any real money to speak of, he turns to the merchant class for a wealthy bride. Enter Sarah Patterson, the granddaughter of a successful cotton merchant. Although neither of them ever expected to find a spouse out of their own order, they agree to marry. Each feels the bargain is solid: Cheviot will gets money enough to save his estates and tenants, while Sarah, a budding artist, will get a spouse who not only allows but encourages her to paint. It isn’t until later that they fall in love.
What Joan does best, in her clear and concise way, is detail the depth and breadth of the rules and customs that permeated everyday Regency life. The entire book is about one the biggest of these: the separation of the classes. Cit (merchant class) and Ton (aristocracy) were expected to interact in only the most superficial of ways. Neither class understood the other, in any way. It’s hard for us to comprehend today, but to the English gentry, the making of money was inutterably lower class, and sordid. And until much later in the century, the merchant class believed that too. William Patterson himself, wildly successful, shrewd and canny, was not immune. Joan
writes: “He was fiercely proud of being a self-made man, but he was, after all, English. The superiority of the aristocracy had been bred into his bones.” It is absolutely worth it to him, to part with four million pounds* in order to gain such a title for his granddaughter. Because although Sarah will have bought her way into the aristocracy, her children will be born into it. Their bloodline will be inherently, impeccably noble. Thus will Patterson himselfl be able to partake of the glory, in a sort of retroactive way.
But the little rules also get play, revealed by the clean lines of Wolf’s prose. Cheviot, for instance, is ‘Cheviot’, or ‘Duke’. Only to his closest family members ever call him Anthony. Imagine that – being a role, instead of a person. Having spent most of his adult life in the army, where the class lines and distinctions are perforce a little blurred, he values Sarah’s ability to see him as Anthony first, and as his title a far distant second. He comes to rely on it. For her part, Sarah appreciates his innate understanding of the importance of art, and specifically, of her need to paint. In her world, any activity that does not make money is worthless. Unsurprising, then, that what seems to the world to be a simple commercial transaction is, becomes, to its principals, an extraordinary match of minds and hearts.
Wolf’s Regency is not the present wearing fancy dress. Its social mores are as fixed and as invisible as our own. That’s what makes her such a good read. I’ve enjoyed seeking out Wolf’s out-of-print early work. Not only is there the fun of the treasure hunt itself, but the prize seems doubly valuable, now that I see what my younger self missed.
*For a rough estimate in today’s money, add a couple zeroes