Review: Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander by Ann Herendeen

HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-06-145136-2

Andrew Carrington is the ideal Regency gentleman: heir to an earldom, wealthy, handsome, athletic—and gay. When he decides to do his duty to his family, he wants marriage on his terms: an honest arrangement, with no disruption to his way of life. But in the penniless, spirited—and curvaceous—Phyllida Lewis, a self-educated author of romances, Andrew gets more than he bargained for, perhaps even love. And when he meets honorable, shrewd—and hunky—Matthew Thornby, son of a self-made baronet, Andrew seems to have everything a man could desire, until a spy and blackmailer tries to ruin him and his friends.

Review by T J Pennington (WARNING: Review has many spoilers)

I get the feeling that this book garnered the attention it did because the romance reviewers were, by and large, not familiar with stories involving gay or bisexual characters and therefore found this kind of romance new and daring. I, on the other hand, have read, proofread, written and published both, and I know a great many people who have done the same. Consequently, I’m not looking at this book as something innovative, but as part of a long-established genre.

Originally published by AuthorHouse on September 12, 2005 (and re-published by Harper Collins on April 29, 2008), it is the tale of a peer’s nephew named Andrew Carrington, who wants to marry a young woman named Phyllida Lewis. Andrew is rich and needs an heir. He’s also homosexual.

We know that the story takes place in 1812 because the Prime Minister is assassinated at the end of the book, and Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, died on May 11, 1812. Now…in 1812, mind you, when homosexuality was a hanging offense and even being rumored to be homosexual got you three to six months in Newgate…Phyllida not only knows that Andrew is gay but talks about it casually and states that she has no objection to men of that sort.

“Well,” I can hear people whispering, “perhaps Phyllida is ahead of her time. Perhaps she is simply less prejudiced than most people in her era. That’s possible, right?” But then the situation with Andrew and Phyllida gets better.

Phyllida agrees to consider Andrew as a prospective husband. He comes to her mother’s house to visit her. Her mother immediately leaves Phil without herself or another older woman as a chaperone (which would be enough to ruin the young woman socially) and exits stage left with Andrew’s friend and lover, Verney. Andrew and Phyllida talk, mostly about sex and marriage, for five minutes. Then he convinces her to sit in his lap, gives her a French kiss, puts her hand on his erection and starts pinching and stroking one of her nipples.

Five minutes after meeting her.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone started forcing me to stroke him and grabbing my nipple five minutes after meeting me, that guy would get a knee to the crotch and a punch in the nose. I cannot think of any society in which Andrew’s behavior is acceptable, never mind the heavily mannered world of the Regency. At the very least, I would expect Phyllida to slap the rude, crude bastard’s face and flounce out of the room, not press herself against his erection. This is a young woman who has already turned down one suitor for being “debauched,” after all.

Never mind the implication that gayness can be fixed by the right woman. Because Phil’s so awesomely female that she instantly turns Andrew, who has previously had no attraction to women, bisexual. *headdesk *

I could accept the idea of a straight man suppressing homosexual impulses for years until one day he couldn’t ignore them any longer. But that’s not the case here. What we have is a gay man in a heteronormative society which is strongly geared toward male/female pairings and marriages who somehow fails to notice until he’s in his mid-thirties that he’s actually interested in women as well as men. I cannot shake the feeling that Andrew should have recognized this attraction a little earlier.

Moreover, we get other contradictions. Phyllida states that she’s twenty-two and “not on the shelf”– which I think is supposed to mean that she’s not yet a spinster. However, the term and the attitude are both wrong. The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue says that at the time “on the shelf” meant “pawned.” And a woman of twenty-two, four years past her first season, would be decidedly long in the tooth as far as the marriage market was concerned.

Of course, the heroine is blessed with every virtue. We are told this before we are shown it. We are informed that Phyllida has inherited her father’s good looks and her mother’s brains, that she is independent, the picture of maidenly innocence, generous, dutiful, modest and the prettiest girl in the county. She is also a somewhat successful writer of gothic romances. The only reason that such a paragon is unmarried, of course, is not that no one has proposed–but that she has never found a man that she wishes to wed.

Phyllida is oddly knowledgeable about homosexuality for a young lady of her time, and oddly casual about it too. I found this jarring. I ended up reading over her first speech about Andrew several times. “Did she really say that the man doesn’t care for women?” I found myself asking. “Does she know what that means? And…wait a second! She ‘doesn’t have any objection to men of that sort’? Moreover, she comfortably engages in “a technical but spicy discussion of the safest way to express unnatural relationships between men, sexual acts not confined to the standard one between men and women, and other interesting topics” at her publisher’s. I tried to imagine Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters having such a discussion with their publishers, and nearly broke my brain.

As I read on, however, I learned that Phyllida’s attitude was not so strange. Phyllida, you see, inhabits the world of OK Homo. It is common knowledge that Andrew Carrington—whose name makes me think of the old soap opera, Dynasty–is a sodomite; this is established early on. Now, according to A History of Criminal Law: The Movement for Reform, 1750-1833 by Leon Radzinowicz, the penalty for sodomy and what was termed “the crime against nature” (a catch-all term which could mean oral sex, homosexual acts in general, bestiality…oh, and sodomy itself) was deprivation of clergy (no last-minute confessions or forgiveness from God, in other words) and death by hanging. Provided that penetration and emission could both be proven, both the top AND the bottom would be hanged…provided that the bottom was aged fourteen or over. If the bottom was under fourteen, he was not guilty of a felony, though the top was.

Yet, despite the fact that homosexual acts are allegedly a crime in this book, as they were in real life, nothing happens to Andrew—or to Monkton, Verney or any of the members of the Brotherhood of Philander. The gay club is never raided, though everyone knows it is a gay club and that sexual acts take place on the premises. Andrew’s younger brother is not only aware of his brother’s homosexuality, but—I suppose jokingly, though it’s not funny—asks Andrew not to expect him to service Andrew on his knees as one of his male lovers would. No, really. He says that.

“Just as long as you don’t ask me to do what your ganymedes do on their knees,” Richard said. “Although considering the fate you’ve spared me [by paying all his debts], I’d accept that as a fair trade.”

Nor is Richard the only one saying inappropriate things. Andrew’s sister Lady Fanshawe gossips about her brother’s sexual orientation to his new bride and thinks nothing of it. Phyllida herself speaks openly and before witnesses about Andrew having male lovers; she’s reproved for speaking “brazenly,” but Andrew suffers no adverse consequences at all. Indeed, his sexuality is discussed openly at dances, at parties, and at the theatre by all and sundry, and it is no more than a topic of curiosity—and a bet. Yes, all of upper-crust society is knows that Andrew has a taste for men, and is betting on whether or not he can consummate the marriage and get Phyllida with child. Phyllida is told about this bet on at least twelve separate occasions. Andrew’s sexual preference is certainly not a criminal matter; it’s a source of amusement. I could not help but wonder why the Brotherhood of Philander, with its devotion to secrecy, needed to exist in the first place.

As the book goes on, it becomes clear that not only is this the world of OK Homo, but also a large proportion of the cast is a) bisexual and b) attracted to everyone else. Phyllida starts things off by declaring that Lady Fanshawe, Andrew’s sister, is “magnetically, erotically fascinating,” which I think is rather hard to misunderstand. Andrew, of course, is proclaimed to be gay throughout but can’t get enough of Phyllida in bed, so I’ll say that he’s bi. An allegedly bisexual actor and his equally bisexual actress sister both find Phyllida charming and fascinating. Lord Isham, the founder of the Brotherhood of Philander is married, and his male lover, Lord Rupert, is the father of one of Isham’s supposed sons. Isham, Isham’s wife and Rupert give Phyllida marital advice and quite a lot of information about how their menagé a trois works. Andrew’s doctor is both the physician for the Brotherhood of Philander and one of Andrew’s former lovers, yet he finds Phyllida appealing and doesn’t doubt for a minute that Andrew could have fallen in love with a woman. And of course, Monkton—a self-described completely homosexual man who reminded me of the camp Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited –tells Phyllida after a few minutes acquaintance that she inspires irresistible lust even in him.

Please note that the common denominator for all of this het lust in the non-straight is Phyllida, for Phyllida is the anti-gay. It even says so in the text. Here Monkton speaks to her:

“Have you looked in the glass lately? I mean within the past five years? You are beautiful. Not perhaps in the current ideal, but in a much more meaningful way, a carnal way, that men find irresistible, even men like me, to an extent. For the majority, those who are closer to the middle of the spectrum, like Carrington, you must appear as a very dainty morsel indeed.”

Look at what Monkton is saying:

1) There’s a spectrum of sexuality—a concept that popularized by the Kinsey Reports [Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948 ) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953).] Monkton mentioning it, therefore, is a blatant anachronism.

2) The majority of people are in the middle of the spectrum and therefore bisexual. This is an anachronistic opinion based on an anachronism—heterosexuality would definitely have been regarded as the norm in 1812. And speaking of alternate sexuality to a respectable married woman after only a few minutes acquaintance? In the heavily mannered world of the Regency? This is not merely anachronistic; it is surrealistic.

3) Beauty means more if it inspires lust.

4) Phyllida is so desirable, she can even make a completely homosexual man lust after her and find her irresistible.

I dislike this last intensely, for it says that homosexuality is something that can be changed if a gay man just meets the right woman. This is not a pro-gay attitude; it’s a reactionary one. It’s the basis of the whole idea that homosexuality is a condition that can and should be cured. That such an attitude exists in a novel rife with homosexuality and bisexuality I find deplorable.

But Monkton doesn’t stop there. I could have passed off his previous comment as exaggeration or sarcasm if he had, but no.

“…you have true beauty, and wit and intelligence. And while you are neither spiteful nor cruel, you have not allowed your natural kindness and generosity to cloud the shining purity of your malice. There is a remarkable openness in your conversation, with just the hint of acid that makes for a perfect bouquet, like a dry wine of superior vintage.”

You would think that anything that praised malice and acidity would be a back-handed compliment at best. However, Monkton has already told Phyllida that he finds most women dull and insipid and that he likes her wit and her sense of humor, so this is praise for what ought to be a flaw, as well as laudation for all of her other virtues.

There were moments that I had to struggle to read on. For example, Phyllida’s mother “eye[s] her daughter in her lush nakedness with gloating admiration” and makes a point of cutting twenty-two-year-old Phyllida’s pubic hair…for no clear and convincing reason. She says that Andrew “won’t want a dirty bush down there”–but since Andrew has no experience with women whatsoever, I don’t see why he would care. It seems more like an excuse to get close to her adult daughter’s genitalia. I’m not a fan of incest, lesbian or otherwise…and yet Mrs. Lewis’s actions strongly hint that this is not your average mother-daughter relationship.

Herendeen also produces quite the worst sexual scenes and sexual descriptions I’ve ever read. The gay sex scenes are brief and vague to the point of non-existence and focus on Andrew verbally flagellating his partners for being willing to have sex with him. It reads as if the author has no idea how gay sex even works, anatomically and emotionally, and is trying desperately to skim over the details.

Yet the het sex is no better. In the honeymoon scene, Andrew coyly refers to his penis as his “beef bayonet,” and acts as if he thinks is a very witty and sexy phrase. He also compares female arousal to “ordinary female sliminess” and thinks of Phyllida’s dampness as “clear mucus.” I found it most peculiar that an allegedly bisexual man who described things in such terms would want to have sex with a woman at all. Phyllida, for her part, thinks of “fucking,” “screwing” and “rape,” terms which a gently reared young lady of the Regency almost certainly would not use, and observes that “[t]he sound of him pulling out” was “a sucking, farting sound.” If any of this sounds even remotely attractive, I’m not telling it right.

It’s very strange, incidentally, that Phyllida thinks in terms of marital rape. The concept simply didn’t exist during the Regency. I can remember when the question of whether a woman could be raped by her husband first arose, in fact—during the 1970s. Before that, a woman was legally presumed to be “in a constant state of readiness for her husband”–that her body was his property, and that by marrying him, she’d already said yes. That, given the time and the place, is the concept that Phyllida should logically have. She doesn’t have to like it, and I do not expect that she would. But she should be aware that any man she married would have total access to her body at all times, because that’s the norm for her world. Instead, she repeatedly protests, screams and whines that she’s been raped…after thinking, time and again, how much she desires Andrew, and after eagerly and enthusiastically responding to her husband’s advances. It’s mad, illogical, anachronistic behavior, and it makes about as much sense as a member of the Boston Tea Party protesting the war with Iraq.

However, when Phyllida actually is assaulted by her husband’s steward, she doesn’t even think of rape, although there is no question that is what he’s attempting. Even more ludicrous is the fact that the attempted rapist blackmails her into silence by threatening to tell all “[a]bout your sodomite husband and all his friends at the Brotherhood of Philander”–even though Phyllida knows perfectly well that everyone already knows about her sodomite husband and all his friends at the Brotherhood of Philander. An author cannot create tension by stressing a danger that’s already been shown to be negligible.

Not only is marital rape a topic in the novel, but so are inheritance, divorce and illegitimacy. Unfortunately, they, too, are mentioned in a way that betrays the author’s ignorance. Francis Newburn (Andrew’s uncle, the earl) states the following:

“Better have it out now,” Newburn said. “No point in having someone else’s brat inheriting the title when it’s too late to do anything about it. Better a divorce now than the entire estate passing to the by-blow of an actor or a libertine.”

Let me count the ways in which that little speech is wrong.

First, the matter of inheritance. Newburn has no sons of his own who would inherit the title and his property. His younger brother, Andrew’s father, would inherit, but he’s dead. Andrew, Newburn’s oldest nephew, is the closest male relative that Newburn has. Assuming that the closest male relative is eligible to inherit—which wasn’t always the case, but seems to be so here–Andrew will inherit both his uncle’s title and his uncle’s estate. The only ways that he could fail to inherit would be if he were a minor at the time of his uncle’s death (and even then he’d inherit when he came of age), a bankrupt, insane, or dead. Francis Newburn has no say in the matter of who will have the title after him. (And being a scandalous and disgraceful person never stopped anyone from inheriting, though Andrew doesn’t seem to know this.)

Secondly, Newburn speaks as if divorce were commonplace and easy to obtain. Prior to the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, divorce was very, very difficult to get. It cost hundreds of pounds, dragged on for years and required the passing of a private act of Parliament. Only four women ever got divorces by act of Parliament. Furthermore, a divorced couple would not be allowed to remarry in the church, as their ex-spouses were still alive. This would rather inconvenience anyone like a peer or a peer’s heir, i.e. Andrew, who needed to sire a legitimate son.

Third, illegitimacy. If a wife had an affair and got pregnant–which Newburn is as good as telling Phyllida he thinks she’s going to do—it was up to the husband to accept or reject the child. If he accepted the child, the child was, under the law, his. (Before the days of DNA testing, it would be rather hard to disprove parentage, after all.) Newburn shouldn’t be focusing on Phyllida; he should be trying to persuade Andrew to reject any child Andrew isn’t absolutely certain is his, because Andrew is the one who can confer or deny legitimacy to his wife’s offspring.

Newburn is protesting situations that do not exist, and is proposing solutions that do not exist, either. I must say that I consider this strange for a work that has been described as “meticulously researched.”

There are other bits that make no sense in the social context of the novel. For example, the matter of servants. Andrew has a staff of twenty at his townhouse, including a butler. Yet no servant ever answers the door or announces visitors, as would be the duty of a footman or butler. Instead, guests—and I use the term loosely–just walk right in off the street and announce themselves loudly to all and sundry, in the hopes of finding the master or mistress of the house at home. (For some reason, Yardley the butler never locks the front door.)

Then, too, Andrew hires Nan, a scullery maid, to act as Phyllida’s lady’s maid. This is patently ridiculous; the two jobs were light-years apart in terms of training and social status. No jumped-up girl from the scullery, whose job would have involved stoking the kitchen stove, emptying chamber pots, scrubbing the kitchen and the pantry, setting the table and washing dishes, pots and pans, would ever be a lady’s maid. Ladies’ maids were companions to their mistress, second only to the housekeeper in terms of status. They took care of the mistress’s hair and clothes, packed for her, helped her change five or six times a day, and accompanied her on trips to country houses. It was an enviable position in the servant hierarchy, and everyone upstairs and downstairs would know it. For Andrew to promote a Cockney scullery maid to such a job, he’d have to be extraordinarily ignorant of the norms of his own class and society, extraordinarily insulting toward his new wife, or both.

Phyllida also isn’t familiar with the society of her day, though she should be. For example, she claims that the Season begins after Easter. This is erroneous. The Season began when Parliament sat for the first time. This could be anytime from after Christmas through January. Admittedly, things did tend to pick up a bit after Easter (and no wonder, given the difficulties of riding in a horse-drawn carriage across unpaved, unplowed, icy roads), but nevertheless, the Season started in the winter.

Stranger than the characters’ vast ignorance of the world around them are the odd contradictions in Phyllida’s personality. She’s a demure and innocent young miss while also possessing a fiery temper, coarse manners and cursing like a stevedore. She is supposed to be a businesswoman who deals with editors and publishers. Yet at the same time, she is so naive that she has no idea that the average upper-class Regency woman is NOT wearing a “low-cut bodice that expose[s] the top of the nipples” or a “net tunic over the sheer underskirt through which the dark triangle at the top of her thighs showed as a dim shadow” in public.

This is not to say that diaphanous clothing never existed in England. It did, circa 1789, during the Directoire period. However, it only lasted a few years. “[B]y 1812,” writes Venetia Murray in An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England, “they [N.B. the English] had gone back to their false bosoms and familiar corsets.”

You would think that Phyllida would recognize that the diaphanous clothes are of a fashion twenty-three years out of date. Most young women would stick at wearing the hopelessly out-of-fashion garments that their mothers used to wear. And surely a young woman brought up in a small, conservative village would press for something slightly more modest. The only conclusion I can draw is that Phyllida is the Regency’s proto-nudist.

I have mentioned Phyllida being a writer of gothic romances. There is nothing wrong with that; gothics were indeed being written at the time. However, gothic fiction of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was very different from the stories that Phyllida writes. Books that readers of gothics would have read—for Frankenstein, The Vampyre, tales by Hawthorne and Poe, as well as Jane Austen’s parody of gothic fiction, Northanger Abbey, had not yet been written in 1812—would have been The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis, The Italian (1797) by Ann Radcliffe, Clermont (1797) and The Children of the Abbey (1800) by Regina Maria Roche, and Wieland (1797) by Charles Brockton Brown.

But Phyllida does not write about terror, curses, ghosts, demons, madness, the evils of science, or the power of the Devil, which would have been typical for gothic fiction. No. She writes about the villainous Lord Iskander who wants Melisande, a woman he is holding captive and with whom he has already had orgasmic sex, to give him a blowjob.

This might qualify as gothic romance nowadays. It is not, however, what would have qualified as gothic back then.

As for sex being so blatantly portrayed in a novel of the time—not in a mainstream press. Possibly in an underground press, but not a mainstream one. The precedent was set in 1727 when Edmund Curl, an English publisher, was convicted for disturbing the peace for publishing Venus in the Cloister, in which two nuns merely talk about sex. Obviously, disturbing the peace is not a felony, and yet a lawsuit is a lawsuit. I doubt if Phyllida’s publisher would agree to publish anything that might get him, his publishing company or foolish Phyllida into legal trouble; mud has a nasty habit of sticking.

Phyllida also speaks of earning her own income through writing. This made me hurl the book across the room in fury, for it’s blatantly wrong, as the 1836 Caroline Norton case attests. Caroline Norton was a member of upper-class society who tried to separate from her husband. After she left her husband, Norton made it impossible for her to see her children, cut off all access to the marital property and charged Caroline and Lord Melbourne with adultery. The court case was unsuccessful, but it wore on for years. Caroline tried getting a divorce from Norton on the grounds of cruelty after the adultery case ended. She failed, for his behavior was not considered cruelty under the law.

Without any other income, Caroline began selling stories and poems. However, Caroline was still legally married—and her husband, as was his legal right, claimed a great deal of what she earned as his property.

The Caroline Norton case was the impetus for reform of the laws regarding married women and property. And the laws were changed, yes. But the Married Women’s Property Law was not passed until 1882…seventy years from Phyllida’s time.

So Phyllida, like Caroline Norton, has no legal rights. Any money she earns from her books belongs to Andrew. Phyllida’s contract with her publisher is now null and void, because any contracts made by an unmarried woman dissolved the day she married; all of her property was belonged to her husband. And Phyllida cannot re-negotiate a new one on her own, for no married woman could make a contract without her husband’s consent, or sign one without her husband being co-signer. It’s most peculiar that the author missed all of this, seeing as how it impacts her subplot of Phyllida as writer. It’s not as if the information were inaccessible. I found it in two minutes.

I must add that Phyllida has a most peculiar morality. She doesn’t understand why her husband’s brother, Dick, is considered a rake when he’s notorious for seducing women and, on at least one occasion, got a widow pregnant with his illegitimate son. I was under the impression that this was the kind of behavior that one could expect from a rake. As far as Phyllida is concerned, however, Dick just likes women, and what’s wrong with that? She also considers Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to be guilty of two sins—the sins of disbedience to their parents and another that isn’t specified…though she seems unaware that the two were married. At the same time, she gets sexually turned on by seeing a young allegedly bisexual actor dry-hump her husband in front of her, and, when the actor apologizes for his behavior, tells him with a soft smile, a laugh and shining eyes, “There is nothing to forgive, Mr. Powyl. I am delighted that Andrew has such an interesting friend.”

Phyllida reminds me very strongly of the original characters who populate every fandom—the ones who are shy yet outspoken, happy yet harboring a secret sorrow, loving yet friendless, calm but ill-tempered. The author seems to want her to have things not only both ways, but every which way. I kept wishing that Herendeen would pick one set of traits for Phyllida and stick with them for the rest of the book.

Also, there is a great deal wrong with Andrew. He is continually presented as having come to terms with his sexuality and having absolutely no shame, yet he angrily addresses the men he has sex with as “sluts” and “whores,” and curses Harry Swain, when he receives Harry’s “Dear John” letter, as a “whoring cunt” and “a goddamned two-timing bitch.” He does this whether he’s talking to a rentboy, an actor or a fellow nobleman. (Personally I found it interesting that all of the words that Andrew uses to revile men are words about women. This goes a long way toward dissuading me that he likes or respects women, much less loves Phyllida.)

He also spends a great deal of time brooding about whether the alleged love of his life, Harry, has been physically faithful to him for the three years that he has been in the army. Yet Andrew has been rather blatantly unfaithful to Harry Swain…with, as near as I can tell, half the male population of England. Nor does he bother to write to the man he supposedly loves and tell him, “Oh, by the way, I’m married now, but don’t worry, I still love you.” He is, to be blunt, a selfish and emotionally frozen creature who lacks the ability to speak to anyone he’s been physically intimate with as if they are human beings.

Yet, at the same time, Andrew behaves like a stereotypical queen. He not only bursts into tears when Harry breaks things off with him because Harry’s fallen in love with someone else—and after three years of playing around, I can hardly believe Andrew is heartbroken–he also goes into shock and needs brandy to revive him, then vomits and faints. This doesn’t fit Andrew’s previous behavior; I can only conclude that Herendeen thinks that this is how a gay man, regardless of his personality, would inevitably act under emotional stress. More practical questions— such as “Why didn’t Andrew enlist in the same company as Harry, if he wanted to be with Harry?” and “Why didn’t Harry get any leave in three years?”–are simply never answered.

Quite a few other stereotypes are trotted out and claimed to be facts, too. For example, Andrew’s doctor, Reginald Stevens, informs Phyllida that “[t]hree years is a ridiculously long time to hold onto the memory of a love affair,” though it’s clear that the love affair ended that morning and not three years ago. Nor does Stevens qualify his statement by adding that it’s a long time “if one of the men is away at war” or “given the fact that couples who love each other can’t be together openly.” This sounds like a reiteration of a stereotype I remember hearing when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s: that homosexual men simply could not commit in any relationship. Phyllida, for her part, wonders whether Harry Swain played husband or wife in his relationship with Andrew…another persistent stereotype.

And then there is Matthew Thornby. He is allegedly the love of Andrew’s life, though he doesn’t show up until almost three hundred pages in. I was not convinced that Andrew loved him; he acted the same way toward Matthew that he did toward all of his sexual partners, swearing at and reviling him. That he was sexually attracted, I had no doubt. I simply did not believe that Andrew could be in everlastingly true love with Matthew after a little small talk and a quick screw outside. I think that a little getting to know each other and building a friendship between the two men would have been nice—but no. Sex first.

Herendeen cannot seem to keep details about Thornby straight. He bounces between speaking the King’s English flawlessly and dropping into the broad accent of a Yorkshire farmer—as if everyone from Yorkshire spoke the same way. He’s described as being quite wealthy, the son of a baronet who earned his money through cotton and of sufficient social stature to attend White’s and Almack’s…yet Andrew tries to hire him as his secretary for two hundred pounds a year on the grounds that “it’s more than you’re getting now” as “a wage slave, grubbing in that wretched warehouse in the City or wherever you go.” And oh, yes, he’s quite serious. He’s trying to place his lover in his household, yes, but Andrew really thinks he’s doing the man a favor by giving him a good job. Andrew never wonders once how anyone who “grubbed in a warehouse” could afford to associate with him in the first place.

But then, there is a lot of confusion in this book. On one page, Phyllida is punching her husband for having sex with her; a few pages later, she’s dreaming about how amazing the sex felt and wondering when they’ll do it again. In another section, Phyllida and Nan dress up like men so that they can get into the Brotherhood of Philander to spy; a page or so later, she’s teaching Nan, one of their neighbors and Nan’s male prostitute lover how to read by using one of her novels as a primer. There is talk about lords wanting a career in politics (members of the peerage couldn’t run for the House of Commons), a muddling of corporal punishment and capital punishment, the suggestion that peers were exempt from hanging (they weren’t—though they were entitled to be hanged with a silk rope rather than one made from hemp), and a convoluted spy plot that involves a government official who deals with espionage putting a spy of French ancestry in Andrew’s house as an employee, and the spy then trying to blackmail homosexual men who are very obviously out. The spy, Philip Turner, was passing on coded messages about the Brotherhood of Philander—no, he didn’t know anything about it until he was brought to the club. Turner is completely straight and repulsed by homosexuality; no, he’s bisexual; no, he’s homosexual and repulsed by women. Turner is an English agent; no, he’s an American and a former slave working for the French, but he’s still guilty of treason because he was spying on England.

The language, too, is somewhat jarring—inaccurate to a distracting degree. For example, there is a reference to a gentleman’s club for gays as “an exclusive madge house.” I looked it up in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811). “Madge” was the slang term for a woman’s private parts. A “madge cull”–someone severed or separated from a woman’s private parts—was a male homosexual. So the club most emphatically has the wrong name—it might as well be called a pussy palace.

On the other hand, readers are also confronted with language that could not possibly have been used in 1812. “Gold digger,” in the sense of “woman who pursues men for their money,” was first recorded in 1915; “plaster saint,” in 1890; “teenager,” in 1941. “Making love,” in the sense of having sex, was first used in the USA in the 1950s; before then, it was a synonym for courting or wooing someone. “Migraine” is surprisingly legal—the word has been around since 1373—but I have to admit that I’ve heard the terms “megrims” and “sick headaches” used more often in books of the time.

A diligent proofreader who was unafraid to use a red pen would have done wonders…but this copy of the book was published by AuthorHouse, and AuthorHouse does not proofread, edit or even read the manuscripts they publish.

Doubtless at this point some people are fuming. I can hear them from here. “You’re being far too critical! She did her best! What do you want, a history textbook?”

No. No, I don’t. However, when a book is being sold as a historical novel—and the blurb cites the fact that this takes place in the Regency twice and praises it for “taking the reader to a little-known side of Regency life” once—I expect the novel to include well-written history interwoven with the plot. I do not like being jarred from a book with a reaction of “Wait, WHAT did the author just say?” every two pages or so. I don’t enjoy finding blatant error after blatant error in a book lauded for its attention to historical detail. What troubles me is that it wouldn’t have been hard to find and use correct historical information, and yet the author didn’t bother to do so—or, if she did, did not bother to incorporate it into the story. I am at a loss to understand why.

The writer herself says in an afterword that since the book is a romance, she considers it to be a form of fantasy fiction. This may well be her wish-fulfillment fantasy—given the idealization of her beautiful, virtuous, sexually desirable romance novelist heroine who is loved and wanted by all men, I don’t doubt it for an instant—but it is not fantasy fiction. That’s a different genre altogether. If the book is being sold as a historical, then saying after the novel is done that it only contains “elements of fact” and that she “wanted to create a mood, not a gussied-up history lesson” by using anachronistic language demonstrates rather clearly that Herendeen is writing in the wrong genre. She should not be writing historicals if she doesn’t want to bother with history or research. Since she could not be bothered to get one thing right in this book, and chose to make excuses for her sloppy work afterwards, I must conclude that she cares nothing for either.

Rating: one star. The best that I can say about it is that the work, at least, was Herendeen’s. It simply wasn’t good work.

A native New Yorker and lifelong resident of Brooklyn, Ann Herendeen has worked as a researcher for an urban planning consultant; an advertising media planner; a public and academic business reference librarian; a trademarks monitor for an intellectual property law firm; and a cataloging librarian specializing in natural history. Ann is a graduate of Princeton University, where she majored in English while maintaining a strong interest in English history.

Buy Phyllida & the Brotherhood of Philander from Amazon UK : Amazon USA

19 Responses

  1. Thank you for this review.

    I heard the story about this book being self-published and then “discovered” by a HarperCollins staffer looking for hidden gems in the catalog. Curious to learn more, I bought the book and read it.

    There go many hours of my life that I will never get back.

    I agree with everything in this review and more…how did you miss “the little man in the boat”? Or the screaming orgasms emanating from the bedroom while the dinner guests were all still sitting around the table, politely tittering at the noise wafting down the stairs?

    Or the ending?


    When I finished the book and closed the cover, my first thought was that the ending was totally preposterous. But then I came to the realization that I could live with preposterous. The ending of this book was offensive, and it made me angry.

    In a nutshell, the last part of the book skips ahead about 7 months. Phyllida has had the requisite baby (a girl though, not a boy, so we know she’ll be pregnant again in no time). Everyone is at a country estate, eagerly planning for an event, which we soon learn is a wedding—in fact, a double wedding! Couple #1 is Andrew and Matthew and Couple #2 is…some random gay couple from the many who littered the pages of this book. (I should point out there were dozens of two-dimensional characters so I found it very hard to keep their names straight although I will admit, I didn’t try very hard since none of them were very interesting, anyway.)

    So, the assembled crowd troops off to the church (!) so that the two couples can be married (!!) by a Priest (!!!)—a priest named Church, no less, as if to really drive the point home.

    Before he performs the wedding, however, Rev. Church gives a lengthy sermon on why same-sex marriage is just fine and dandy, with lots of quotes from the Bible, and what is means to be good Christians and on and on and on. In 1813? Talk about anachronism!

    Think about that for a minute. Preposterous, right? But think some more…Andrew is married to Phyllida. And now he is married to Matthew. So what does that make Andrew? To me, he is a bigamist.

    And that is precisely the point on which I found the ending offensive. I sit here in 2008, reading about with a citizen-initiated referendum (Proposition 8) looming in California to turn back the recent state Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage. One of the arguments that is used by those who oppose same sex marriage is that it will encourage bigamy, polygamy and “create a new legal precedent for ‘anything goes’ forms of marriage.” ( I am at a loss to understand why the author, who I assume is sympathetic towards same sex marriage, would write an ending that plays directly into the hands of those who seek to outlaw legal marriage between same sex couples. What could she have possibly been thinking? Or maybe she wasn’t thinking, which would go a long way to understanding the multiple problems inherent in this novel.

    I would actively discourage anyone from reading this book. Let’s just say…I did the hard work, so you don’t have to.

    And T.J. Pennington—I think one star is generous. My review: 0.

  2. Please note, in the previous comment, it was supposed to be Proposition 8, but the closed parens next to the 8 turned it into a smiley face.

  3. One star is the lowest mark allowable; otherwise, I’d give it a zero. Regrettably, there is no such thing as an F-minus.

    I agree that there were a plethora of things that I did not touch on, including the absurd, offensive, anachronistic ending. If I had, the review would have been as long as the book.

    There actually was a Reverend John Church, and he did perform gay weddings…sort of. However, these ceremonies took place in “molly houses”–lower-class gay brothels. And the “ceremonies” were not particularly formal; often all they involved was the couple going to bed together in front of witnesses. The “Marrying Room” in the brothel called the White Swan resembled a chapel–but it had beds in it. Sometimes the “ceremonies” not only involved the couple having public sex, but the “bridesmaids” having sex as well.

    In other words, such “weddings” were about as far from a romantic and formal wedding ceremony in a real house of worship as you were likely to get.

  4. Thanks for the excellent, thorough review.

    I certainly won’t waste my time on this.

  5. Thanks for this review. Needless to say I won’t be spending my hardearned money on “Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander”. Reading the review made me wonder – Do these writers have editors who tell them the truth?
    I’m really sorry that you had to read through this drivel in order to write the review – I would have given up after the first chapter.

    Too bad you couldn’t give a minus rating – that would have been more appropriate.

  6. A double gay wedding in the early 19th century? Seriously? Seriously?

  7. Frankly, I didn’t get past the sample. Judging from the many author comments that I had read about the story, I couldn’t grasp the underlying motivation for the story, except to insert a female character into a gay Jane Austenish type of novel and have the female character become the focal point of all the male passions, which is a somewhat rude affront to homosexual love.

    As far as I did get in the sample, I was struggling with what seemed like a record number of anachronisms, and a detail concerning Carrington’s fortune – half a million pounds. That is the equivalent, according to a Regency history site, of 43 million pounds in present currency, so Carrington would have been one of the richest men in England. By contrast, the richest man in Austen’s novels, Mr. Bingley, had a fifth of the fortune, and was considered one of the richest men around. That was when I knew that my paltry knowledge of the Regency period, fortified by 10 minutes of Google, had exceeded the ‘meticulous research’ of this novel.

    Which irritates me quite a bit when I think of literally years of research I put into my historical novel, and for which I am still seeking representation. It just ain’t fair.

  8. Donald: Thank you for the compliment!

    Wave: No, AuthorHouse doesn’t edit the people it publishes–not unless the writers pay for it. AuthorHouse, you see, is a vanity press…one of the more notorious ones. It’s right up there with PublishAmerica. AuthorHouse charges by the word for line editing, developmental editing, etc. If you don’t want to pay for one of their “services”–even if a normal publishing house would provide it as a matter of course–you don’t get that service. And their services are expensive. Their standard paperback package starts at $598. Printing a hundred copies of a book–$782. Obtaining a Library of Congress Control Number costs $75. Writers have to pay $1,198 to put their books in hardcover. AuthorHouse even offers a New York Times Book Review ad…for $2,650.

    Hayden: Yes, a double gay wedding. In a chapel. With a minister. In 1812.

    Louisev: Oh, I missed the worth of Andrew’s fortune! Good for you. I hope that you find someone to represent you soon, because you sound quite knowledgeable about the period.

  9. T.J. Pennington: oh, I’m not, I just googled ‘Regency’ and ‘income’ when I saw the thoroughly modern ‘more than half a million pounds’. That just looked way too rich to me, since the average ‘income’ of a middle class family seemed to be somewhere between 50 and 200 pounds a year. My specialty is more 19th century Germany, since I dug so deeply into that for my own books, and spent several years in that country and visiting the locales I was writing about. I don’t know how it is for other authors, but unless I have actually been to a place, seen pictures of it, or been somewhere nearby it is extremely difficult for me to really conceptualize writing about it, and I need to get a sense of place internalized before writing about it convincingly.

  10. “A diligent proofreader who was unafraid to use a red pen would have done wonders…but this copy of the book was published by AuthorHouse, and AuthorHouse does not proofread, edit or even read the manuscripts they publish.”

    Does this statement mean that you are reviewing the Authorhouse version of the book? I hope that’s not the case, because that would be very unfair as I have heard that the Harper version has been substantially edited. If your review is of the Authorhouse version, the coverpic and publisher information at the head of the review should reflect that.

  11. I was a little confused by T. J. Pennington’s comment regarding reading the AuthorHouse version.

    However, I can say–honestly–I read the HarperCollins version and all the anachronisms and errors that T.J. mentions were present in the book I read. Further, there were many things that could have been edited to shorten the book (it was much too long) and the story would have still been intact. The whole blackmailing subplot was very poorly developed and barely made any sense–it could have been jettisoned easily. Also, as I noted in my previous comment, there were far too many two dimensional characters. A good editor would have advised the author to whittle them down to the essential few and then flesh out those who were left.

  12. “Lady for a day” – I asked the author if it was ok to review the Author House copy, or could she send me an ARC or a PDF of the Harper Collins version and she said that they almost exactly the same book, except for the author’s essay at the back. So, that’s why the information is for the HC version as we were assured there were no differences.

  13. I just went back and looked at my copy and there is no “author’s essay” that I can see. There are acknowledgments and the author specifically thanks the copy editor who “worried over every historical detail that I had cavalierly assumed wouldn’t matter in a lighthearted comic novel.” From the comments here, and from what I read, obviously the copy editor wasn’t worrying too much!

  14. This is an excellent, excellent review. You put into precise prose exactly what bothers me about this book.

    I am reading Phyllida… in absolute amazement. I cannot believe that Harper Collins published it and that the establishment reviews have lauded it to the heavens. Herendeen writes well, but the research is so off, the situations so appallingly unrealistic… I am totally, thoroughly puzzled.

    The heroine is simply not a believable Regency character; the themes of the books she writes are unreal; I never heard the term “madge house,” only “molly house”, and I’ve done a lot of research on this topic; I cannot believe that the husband, Andrew, would be so open, so incredibly careless, about his homosexuality, nor that he would choose a woman remotely like this character, Phyllida, as a vessel to bear his children; the term “making love” did not mean, in the 18th century, what it does today.

    There is a large market, I am told by a knowledgeable young friend, for male/male romances and for male/male/female romances, in the e-publishing realm, romances devoured by women, not by men. This is so beyond my ken I cannot address it.

    The only thing I do know about Author House is that a man I know who cannot write an English sentence had a book published by them, so they must also provide proof-reading/editing services. My guess is that Harper Collins saw an unusual book but one that had a ready-made audience (see above), and capitalized on it. I am floored, however, that the reviewers I know and admire who read so much historical romance fiction were taken in by the questionable/unrealistic plot and the so-many inaccuracies. I think that the Georgian homosexual historical record has not been served well here.

    For the record, I am a published writer of historical fiction (Regency romances) and had a long career in research with a major publisher in New York City. My last book was My Lady Scandalous, a bio of the royal courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott. My second Regency, Seducing Mr. Heywood, was voted one of the best romances of the year in the year it was published. I never put anything in my books that I have not researched to the best of my ability. Even then, I’ve made mistakes, but, I hope, not such egregious ones as this author.
    Jo Manning
    PS My non-fiction book was closely fact-checked; as a rule, romance fiction is not that well fact-checked.

  15. Jo Manning: Thank you. I appreciate hearing that this book bothers a writer of historicals as much as it bothers me. And I’m gratified to meet someone else who believes in researching to the best of her ability for her books.

    AuthorHouse does provide proofreading services–for a price. Not all authors want to pay the price. If you send your book to AuthorHouse and don’t pay for editing, the manuscript won’t be edited. You get what you pay for–and what you don’t pay for.

    As for the positive reviews, I think that the problem that the established reviewers had was threefold.

    First, gay romance is still a niche market, and not one that every reviewer has been exposed to. Many sites and organizations are reluctant to review GBLT romances at all, expressing the view that a romance must be between a man and a woman. Some sites (and some publishers, regrettably) are inclined to conflate GBLT romance with GBLT erotica, though they aren’t the same thing. Furthermore, if you don’t read a genre regularly, you won’t recognize the clichés and bad writing for what they are. You’ll only see something unfamiliar–and I think that some reviewers may have mistaken their own genre unfamiliarity for authorial originality.

    On the heels of this–call this example 1.5, if you will–is the fact that not every romance reviewer is knowledgeable about history. Unless the book is overtly wrong–saying that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1776, for example–many will simply assume that the events in a historical romance are accurate. Many, too, will not care if the events are accurate or not, so long as there is a historical flavor; I have spoken to far too many romance readers who protest that they don’t care if the book is accurate or not, and that they don’t want to read a textbook. I have been unable to convince most of them that historical accuracy can lead to better stories, not worse ones. And of course, since so many are assuming that the inaccurate books are gospel, the inaccuracies get repeated in other books, until finally readers and reviewers alike have become accustomed to certain details that are provably wrong. (For example, the proliferation of tartan kilts in tales about medieval Highlanders. Or a Christian claiming not to be a Catholic before the time of Martin Luther.)

    Second, though I have no proof, I suspect that many reviewers were reluctant to say anything unflattering about a book involving gay and bisexual characters, lest they come across as prejudiced.

    Third, it is common in the romance field for reviewers to give relentlessly favorable reviews; on some sites, it is even a policy to give nothing lower than three stars out of five.

    Any one of these things would guarantee that the book would not get the poor reviews it merited. All these things combined guaranteed that the book would receive undeserving praise.

  16. I know from my experience as a librarian and romance fan that many, many readers (especially women–just based on my observation) value novelty above anything else in a book. So I think maybe the positive reactions to this book had to do with it being one of the first mainstream books I’ve seen to star “gay” characters in a “Regency” setting. Every so often the author gets in some good lines, and everybody likes to read about acidly witty gay side characters, so there’s that–but the people who were excited about this book haven’t read actual gay romances OR slash fanfiction or Japanese YAOI. Those of us who have know that this kind of thing has been done better. I’m a lesbian who enjoys erotic depictions of men together, or men and women, or women and women, so I’ve read a lot of wacky stuff. I’ll also forgive a lot–historical inaccuracy, even stereotypical or quasi-offensive portrayals of homosexuality (the women who write Japanese comics stories about male/male relationships seem to think that all gay relationships have tops and bottoms) if the story is compelling.

    Phyllida is a very odd book for many reasons. As a fan of Regency historicals, I know that authors mashing up the laws, history, slang, etc. of the entire 19th century (and even blatantly inserting 20/21st century ideas into their books) is the norm–a good writer can make me not care. The author said in her afterword that she deliberately used anachronisms to give her Regency setting a modern feel–but I shouldn’t need an afterword to “get” what an author is doing. The major problems with the novel were basic–weird, haphazard plotting (what was the point of that spy story?), telling instead of showing, and utterly confused sexual politics. Even I was bothered by Phyllida having a concept of marital rape–not so much because it was anachronistic, but because it came out of nowhere for the character! And let’s not even get started on the idea that everyone really wants to be in a mixed-gender threesome. This wasn’t a gay romance–it was a polygamist romance. 🙂 While I actually know people in three-person relationships, it’s hard to write a compelling love story between three characters. This author couldn’t even handle two…

  17. I think that the librarian and gay/bi-sexual communities got behind this book unequivocally. Librarians — and I know, because I was one for 40+ years — are tremendously supportive of other librarians, and love writers — so, a librarian/writer has a good shot at support from her peers.

    You know more about the gay/bi-sexual community than I do, but I’m thinking this is the same situation here.

    It is almost impossible to find a review that is less than gushy about Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander. The only objections I’ve seen is that it’s twice as long as it should be and that there are some historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. The only other two websites I saw that did not like the story were marginal sites, at best — that is, not likely to be found or to be quoted.

    I didn’t state this in my first posting to this site, as I was so taken by those inaccuracies and anachronisms, but I was very much bothered by the lack of romance in this story, let alone love 😦 I sure don’t love any of Herendeen’s characters.

    I asked three reviewers I know pretty well why they were so positive about this romance so lacking in romance and two of them were defensive; the third said that she would not, now, after reading what’s been said on this good site, give the positive review she did give. All three are librarians; I don’t know their sexual preferences, but they are the kind of people who try hard to be extremely open and fair.

    You all should know, too, that the mandate for romance writers from romance publishers today is to cram as much sex — very graphic sex — into romances. (I attended a Romance Writers of America conference two years ago and this message came through very, very clearly, dismaying several of my romance writing colleagues.) That this book is even more titillating, with the gay and bi-sexual theme, must have been a dream come true for this publisher. And easy, too. I find no evidence of an editor’s hand here.

  18. TJ Pennington said:

    …gay romance is still a niche market, and not one that every reviewer has been exposed to… if you don’t read a genre regularly, you won’t recognize the clichés and bad writing for what they are. You’ll only see something unfamiliar–and I think that some reviewers may have mistaken their own genre unfamiliarity for authorial originality.

    I’ll cop to that.

    it is common in the romance field for reviewers to give relentlessly favorable reviews; on some sites, it is even a policy to give nothing lower than three stars out of five.

    I personally don’t review books I didn’t like, so that puts me in that camp.

    J. Webb said:

    As a fan of Regency historicals, I know that authors mashing up the laws, history, slang, etc. of the entire 19th century (and even blatantly inserting 20/21st century ideas into their books) is the norm–a good writer can make me not care.

    Precisely. They didn’t bother me because you read a wallpaper historical, you know that’s what it is, you just go with it.

    Eh. I liked it. It was fun.

  19. I read the Authorhouse version and enjoyed it. It may not be for every type of readers but it was a ‘keeper’ for me.

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