Book Review

Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander: A Bisexual Regency Romance

C+

Title: Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander: A Bisexual Regency Romance
Author: Ann Herendeen
Publication Info: AuthorHouse 2005
ISBN: 1420869639
Genre: Regency

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.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Robin says:

    Great review, Sarah, that really makes me want to read this.

    It’s interesting, though, because I associate any grade in the “C” range with averageness or even mediocrity (I think that’s from years of grading undergrad essays), but this book sounds anything but average from your description of it.

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    It is certainly not average, that is for damn sure. It’s an entirely unique book. But the grade is based not on the quality of the writing but on the flaws I found in the storyline – the multiple resolutions to all the conflicts, and the elements I ascribed to author’s fantasy. The beginning was marvelously promising, and I found myself frequently frustrated by the ending chapters. There’s a lot going on in this book and I felt like I was reading three or four final chapters one after another. But wait, there’s more!

    However, the SB grading curve is also different from comp – it’s not at all like undergrad essays! I’ve graded my share of those!

  3. 3
    Cynthia says:

    I definitely plan on reading this book based on this review.

    Although the review is a C, and I can understand why it is, at the same time I can understand that there were many elements that made this book stand out well enough that I want to read it. All in all, it sounds very good but flawed.

    If I were the author, I’d find the review valuable because if I ever had a chance to rewrite it or write a sequel, I’d know what I needed to fix.

    One of my favorite reviews for one of my books (at another review site—not here) was one that pointed out I had inconsistencies in the world that I had created. Although I winced when I first read it, it did help me to write a better book for the next one in the series and helped answer questions for those reading the first book so that the world made better sense. I am a better writer for it.

  4. 4
    kate r says:

    1. Your husband is so brilliant it makes my eyes hurt.

    “The Brotherhood of the Traveling Brokeback Ya-ya Pants”

    2. I want to read this book.

  5. 5

    I don’t want to be one of those nitpicking authors who respond to a good review by complaining about a “misinterpretation” of some obscure detail rather than with the polite and heartfelt “Thank you”—and I’m also not sure how you feel about authors’ wading into the “Comments” section—so I’ll just start by saying “Thank you” for the terrific first paragraph of this review and for the other great things you had to say about Phyllida.

    I’ll add that I actually agree with the criticism (most of it, anyway), especially the complaint that the book is too long and has too many plot threads, leading to one-damn-resolution-after-another at the end. One reason for this, of course, was that, once committed to writing a “bisexual romance” featuring a hero with both a wife and a boyfriend, I was then required to come up with not one but two “money shot” resolutions of both romances. But that’s only part of the problem. I did the best I could without editorial help of any kind, and gambled that the aspects you praised and that I thought were good—the writing style, dialogue and characters—as well as the crying need for a hot MMF bisexual love story, would carry Phyllida through.

    OK. Now to the nitpicking. I really just have two nits, maybe two and a half, and I’ve brooded for a couple of days about whether to pick at all. (I haven’t been brooding all these days since the review came out. I didn’t see the review right away, so I’ve only been brooding for two or three days, but still.)

    These nits have to do with the declaration in the penultimate paragraph of the review that “certain modern elements in the story were jarring … 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.”

    I felt a response of some kind was needed, if only because abortion is such a divisive topic, and could prevent any straggling potential readers just coming along now from trying a book they might enjoy. In fact, there is no reference to abortion in the book—this was, truly, a misreading—although no doubt my fault for using language that sounded too much like modern pro-choice rhetoric. I also admit that what is being discussed, the “disposal” of a newborn after birth, may not be any more palatable to readers, although it is historically far more accurate, and, I believe, is perfectly in keeping with our upper-class Regency hero’s expedient outlook on such matters.

    As for the final scene, that has genuine historical precedent, despite seeming as if I included it expressly to get in on the most trendy hot-button issue in the gay-rights world. Again, it’s my error for not putting more of the factual evidence into my Author’s Note or even into the more detailed essay on the gay subculture of the past on my Web site:
    http://www.annherendeen.com/Gay_subculture.html

    In this case, I only came up with the idea after discovering in the course of my research that a number of similar scenes had taken place throughout the 18th century and into the exact time of Phyllida. Because I hated to spoil the surprise for my readers I restricted any discussion of the historical background for this scene to a mention that John Church, the instrumental character, was a genuine historical figure.

    On the final point, Phyllida’s lack of disgust at Andrew’s sexual orientation: well, that’s the half a nit. I think we’re too often forgetful that the morality of Jane Austen’s class, which is what most of us think of as the Regency standard, was not the morality of all levels of society. Austen came from the most conservative class, the landed but not especially wealthy country gentry, somewhat like the Republican middle class of the mid-20th century. People at the upper and lower social levels could be much more tolerant in private, if just as loud in their denunciations in public, as the most hypocritical of today’s so-called conservatives.

    While Phyllida’s response to Andrew’s frank proposal and his attractive appearance might be atypical for a young virgin of 1812, I maintain that they are at least possible, given her upbringing, her own nature, and the fact (as I see it) that throughout all cultures and time, not only have there been hot bisexual and gay men, but women who love them. Or, to quote from your recent “Cover snark” on gay romances: “two hot men embracing, looking like they’re about to kiss? Ohgodyessss.”

    Again, thanks to for such an honest and generally glowing review of my book.

    Rather than extend a “comment” into the length of another novel, I’ll put my more detailed defense of these three “modern elements” into my own blog, where any masochistic readers can find them at:
    http://ann-amalie.livejournal.com/4973.html

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