Ann Herendeen has written a very clever, highly articulate, historically sharp and delightfully entertaining romance, one that would make certain factions of the RWA tear their hair out in massive clumps. Forget one man and one woman. We have two men and one woman, a few men with other men, another man and a woman and a few other men, and a butler. If these folks ever got around to playing Twister, the video rights would sell for billions.
Phyllida begins with Andrew Carrington awaking in his home with “no memory of the previous night” and a young male prostitute named Kit in his bedchamber. He’s horrified that he’s once again gone so far down the path of debauchery that he’s blank on the last few hours and seems to have brought his evening’s entertainment into his own home, something he’d never do. Andrew is, however, cordial but guarded with Kit, and is very frank that he’s not a member of the peerage but is “a sodomite, just like you.”
The scene changes to Andrew in the back parlour of his club, the Brotherhood of Philander, where he announces that he’s decided to marry. The members of the Brotherhood are all sodomites, and the club was founded to give them a safe place to socialize and also…socialize. The brotherhood members are appalled at the idea that a dedicated gay man would risk alienating and lying to a woman for an entire marriage just to secure an heir. Andrew does have several points in his favor regarding his ideal marriage, however: he wants to be honest with his wife so he can live his preference without, as he put it, becoming a fugitive in his own country. More importantly, he stands to inherit an earldom upon the death of his uncle, which gives him a larger choice of women, since some families would tolerate just about anything so long as the title and accompanying wealth were guaranteed.
While some of the members of the Brotherhood think that the line might be drawn a few yards away from permitting a sodomite husband, Andrew is not concerned. He doesn’t want a peeress, or even an heiress. He wants an attractive, sophisticated virgin who was brought up to be a lady. His friend Verney has a suggestion: a young woman in the country, the eldest of three daughters of a woman of somewhat questionable reputation.
Phyllida is a wise young woman who immediately suspects the letter Verney sends her mother detailing Andrew’s offer of marriage: if it seems too good to be true, it is. But when she receives Andrew in person in her parlor, fully aware that he’s gay, she finds herself attracted to him anyway. And he is captivated by Phyllida, by her honesty and her bluntness.
The girl nodded. “I see,” she said, smiling as if she had heard good news. “And so you would rather purchase a wife with whom you can live honestly.”
Andrew raised an eyebrow. “This amuses you?”
“It is more of a relief,” she said. “I worried that if you were traveling so far out of your way to find a wife, there must be a sinister reason.”
“And the truth does not worry you?”
“No. I had rather have a marriage based on honesty.”
At first I was very surprised at Phyllida’s ability to accept Andrew’s open preference for men, something that to any other young gentrified lady would be news so shocking she’d pass out cold. I wasn’t sure why she was so open-minded, though perhaps it is attributable to the questionable reputation of her mother.
But Phyllida has some surprising secrets of her own: she’s a gothic novelist, writing under an assumed name. In fact, Phyllida is so proud and protective of her career that she almost refuses to marry Andrew and accept an astonishing windfall of marital wealth if he will not stipulate in the prenup that he will permit his wife to continue her secret career.
Phyllida and Andrew are married almost immediately, and author Herendeen is as brave as Phyllida: she goes right to the part that any reader would be curious about. How will Andrew fare in the bedroom? Will he be able to consummate his marriage with Phyllida with any degree of success, since he is already attracted to her?
I won’t spoil that which for this reader was some very clever writing. But I will say that the scene where Andrew seeks advice from his brother, who is equally a rake but after a different gender, had me practically in hysterics.
The conflict in the story doesn’t actually come directly from Andrew’s relationship with Phyllida; the intricacies of that relationship are only one of the forces acting against their happy ending. There’s also a much-talked-about bet placed at White’s against the success of their marriage, plus Andrew’s deep attraction to another man, the involvement of the Brotherhood in all of their lives, an individual who has intentions of blackmail, allegations of treason and spying, and of course the everyday danger of living in a society where any number of sexual sins are tolerated so long as those sins are heterosexual in nature. To live one’s life as an admitted sodomite, and to frequent clubs and brothels full of men, was to risk just about everything in terms of social status – hence the founding of the Brotherhood.
All these different problems required solutions, and by the end of the book I felt like there was one resolution after another, to the point where the story felt like a miniseries gone three episodes too long. Moreover, some of the resolutions were Big Misunderstandings, and some were very very clever, and the inconsistencies were glaring.
However, there was a great lot to like about this novel, beginning with the writing style. Herendeen has a writing voice that matches the tone and restraint of the Regency, and her descriptions and dialogue are fantastic. Furthermore, the plot was fast paced, but each character had a degree of depth such that no one character was wooden or stock.
Phyllida in particular was an interesting character. I alternated between liking her a lot and wanting to bash her over the head with a hardback for her stubbornness. As a writer who publishes in secret, she has a great deal of courage and belief in herself and in her talent, and thus she is very frank and honest – a perfect match for Andrew. While reading the book I noted in a margin, “Phyllida has balls in all senses except the one that would matter most to Andrew.”
And speaking of balls, there is a third almost-protagonist to this love story: Matthew Thornby. Matthew is the son of a rich merchant-made-baronet, and he and Andrew are immediately attracted to each other. While this is a bisexual Regency, and Andrew is as much a member of a couple with Phyllida as he is with Matthew, Matthew’s entrance into the story and role from then until the final chapter is almost secondary to the much more intricate and clever relationship Andrew shares with Phyllida. But as the title states, this is Phyllida’s story as much as it is Andrew’s.
My problems with the book came at the end, though a solution for how to view those issues came at the end, too. Herendeen has said she was writing a book she always wanted to read, and in the post script notes, “as a romance, it is also a form of fantasy fiction. However, since ‘Phyllida’ is set in a real place and time, certain elements of the story are necessarily based on fact” (529).
I usually skip the Author’s Note at the back of a novel, but I’m glad I read this one because it made a difference that the author acknowledged her own inclusion of fantasy. Against the backdrop of very real and very severe penalties for sodomy in Regency England, certain modern elements in the story were jarring, and could only be accommodated in my mind by this admission of fantasy. Andrew’s position on abortion, for example, and the final scene that creates a happy ending for Phyllida, Andrew, and Matthew were as off-putting to me as Phyllida’s initial comfort with the idea of marrying a sodomite.
However, due to the elegant writing, the otherwise detailed historical accuracy and the likeable Phyllida and Andrew, I enjoyed Phyllida and the Brotherhood of the Philander. There were several, “Oh, come ON, now” moments, but overall, I looked forward to reading more of this novel every time I pulled it out of my bag.