It seems that every decade or so, historical fiction set in the Regency era comes prominently into fashion. This genre is supposedly born out of homage to Jane Austen, and likewise when the genre comes into fashion it corresponds with a surge in Austen fan fiction and movie adaptations. But just because a book, movie, TV show, etc. is set in the Regency period (and centers around domestic matters) doesn’t mean it’s either fair or accurate to compare it to Jane Austen. Unless a historical novel is specifically trying to echo classic literature, I’m happy to let it occupy its own, completely valid category. And that’s where Minerva comes in.
A few months ago, when I read the outstanding saga The Midwife, I described my idea of the perfect historical fiction novel. More recently, when I read The Shadow of a Lady (also Regency-era historical fiction), I bemoaned the fate of the historical novel whose author is overly interested in showing off research, and as a result the story gets put on the back burner. It’s a fine line, people, and in my experience not always smoothly walked.
Fortunately, here’s an author who knows what she’s doing. If you’re looking for something frothy and fun, with a fine array of historical details—petticoats! toxic cosmetics! dueling strategy!—look no further than Minerva.
Minerva marks the first book in The Six Sisters series, which continues the story of the Armitage family. Marion Chesney (pseudonym M.C. Beaton, among many others) is still living and seems to still be writing. So the good news is that after Minerva, you can read the five later books in the series, plus a whole collection of Chesney’s other Regency series and standalone novels, plus a whole lot of historical mysteries published under those various pseudonyms.
But I think Minerva is a very nice place to start. Minerva is the eldest child in the Armitage family, and up until now her life has been quiet, sheltered, and full of domestic duties. Her father, a vicar, is considerably more interested in fox hunting and breeding hounds than he is in being a good vicar. Minerva is much more devout, but her devotion carries the air of martyrdom about it. In addition to writing her father’s sermons every week, Minerva runs the household. Her mother gave birth to six daughters, one right after another, then ended it all by producing twin boys. Rather than expiring from this arduous task, as many women of the time did, Minerva’s mother pursued a different option: she became a professional invalid. Ergo, Minerva has been left to raise her siblings, see to parish duties, and keep the household in order.
One day Minerva’s father realizes that things cannot go on as they are. The last two harvests have been poor, and he’s deeply in debt. His sons are now of age to be sent to Eton, but there’s no money to send them.
The vicar spends a solid day furrowing his brow over this matter. Everyone else says, “It’s easy: sell your horses, sell your hounds.” To the vicar, though, this is so inconceivable—horses and hounds are life!—he doesn’t even consider this route out of debt. Instead, while giving his Sunday sermon, he is struck by divine inspiration. His eldest daughter must marry a wealthy man.
The problem is that this family is firmly entrenched in the country, and to Minerva London is nothing more than a fairy tale. She is very pretty, but she doesn’t know how to attract a man. Flirting, to her, is akin to lying, and everybody knows that’s a grave sin.
In hopes of giving his daughter some flirting practice, the vicar takes Minerva to a horse auction. While there, Minerva accidentally meets and has some terribly embarrassing encounters with a Lord Sylvester. Chiseled, single, and incredibly wealthy, Lord Sylvester clearly presents a great opportunity for Minerva. The only problem is that he is only interested in her in a lazy sort of way; he’s a bit of a renowned flirt. And Minerva is so offended by his manners and speech, she decides to ignore his good looks and cast him out of her mind.
As promised, Minerva goes to London for the season. She stays with a distant relative, Lady Godolphin, a wealthy woman married thrice, widowed thrice, and now contemplating a return to the marriage market. Lady Godolphin is a hilarious and somewhat grotesque character. She’s famous for her frequent, oblivious confusion of words, like when she says the British forces stormed the French “fornications.” Or this one, which makes me laugh every time I read it:
‘I don’t know,’ said Lady Godolphin. ‘But chacun a son goat, as we say at St James’s.’
‘Gout,’ corrected Minerva, weary of her hostess’s malapropisms.
‘Goo where?’ demanded Lady Godolphin in surprise.
‘Miss Armitage was merely wondering if you had any social engagement this afternoon,’ said Lord Sylvester maliciously.
‘Not for this afternoon,’ replied Lady Godolphin with a puzzled look at Minerva. ‘You must be very careful not to let your accent slip, Minerva. Go, not goo. Rustic voices are not the thing.’
This gentle, poking-fun-at humor is definitely the author’s forte. (Her straight prose, incidentally, suffers from the opposite syndrome of Delderfield’s: lots of tiny, one sentence paragraphs!) She introduces a varied cast into both the London and country scenes, and all of the characters—even the main characters—are heavily but amusingly flawed.
Historic research seems to be another of Chesney’s fortes. I gathered so much strange new information on Regency fashion and beauty practices (wax cheek pads, anyone?), I wish Chesney would write a non-fiction book focusing entirely on these subjects. In particular, Minerva encounters quite a few dandies in London, and Chesney’s descriptions of these men are vivid, fascinating, and funny.
Mr Bryce was a tall, young man with a formidable pair of cavalry whiskers. His face seemed to be a little bit to one side; his nose bent a little to the right, his eyes were focussed a little to the right, and his mouth was twisted up on the right. He had very long legs encased in extremely close-fitting black tights, and during the dance, these legs seemed to be everywhere, waving about in the air like those of an injured insect.
But when Minerva offends the dandies, these absurd men band together and become interested in something besides the cut of their well-tailored jacket: they become determined to put this girl and her holier-than-thou attitudes in place. The language of their plotting is more explicit than I’ve ever read in a Regency-era historical novel. Minerva definitely strays from the genre in how openly it discusses sexual matters. Nonetheless, the author does a superb job of creating a believable Regency backdrop.
In all, I’d call Minerva a fun story, with amusing characters and unexpected plot turns. My library has quite a few Chesney/Beaton books, and I definitely see myself checking them out in the future.