Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Review Tuesday: Standish by Erastes

Standish by Erastes
Lethe Press, 2013

Historical settings have long been popular in the erotica and erotic romance genres. There are many potential advantages to using the Victorian era, the Regency period, medieval France or ancient Rome as the site for a sexy tale. Plot, character, and setting elements that would be difficult to justify in a contemporary story fit naturally in the past: corporal punishment, kidnapping, and slavery; ruined gentlewomen and debauched nobles; exotic costumes and accessible undergarments; romantically isolated castles and conveniently private carriages; candlelight instead of electricity; hand-penned missives, scented and wax-sealed, in lieu of email.

Many "historical" erotic novels, however, merely adopt the trappings of their chosen period while retaining a modern perspective. The attitudes and actions of the characters are not consistent with the mores and assumptions of the historical period.  Even the language is frequently contemporary, using modern conventions that eschew description and favor a third person limited-omniscient point of view, focused on one or two characters.

Standish, a homoerotic romance set in England in the Regency period (roughly 1800-1830), is the real thing, a genuine historical novel in which the characters are believable creatures of their era. In Regency England, buggery was a capital crime and duelling was an accepted method for settling disputes. Society was divided between a wealthy aristocracy renowned for its excesses, and a rabble of poor, uneducated commoners who lived in unbelievable squalor and misery. A fledgling middle class struggled to emulate the respectability and extravagance of the nobles. Position and reputation were supremely important. The world was a dangerous and uncertain place as Europe looked back fearfully on the bloody years of the French Revolution.

Standish is set against this background. It chronicles the relationship of Ambrose Standish, a bookish, sheltered former aristocrat fallen on difficult times, and Rafe Goshawk, wealthy, cynical, and highly susceptible to beautiful young men.

From the very first, Ambrose and Rafe are in implicit conflict over Standish, the elegant Dorset estate that should have been Ambrose's birthright. Rafe's grandfather won the estate from Ambrose's grandfather in a reputedly rigged card game; the elder Standish was later killed in a duel when he accused his opponent of cheating. Ambrose lives with his spinster sisters in a modest dwelling on the fringes of the Standish property, the main house always before him like an unachievable dream.

After living abroad or in London most of his life, Rafe decides to move to Standish with his young son Sebastien. Unaware of Ambrose's family history, Rafe hires Ambrose as a tutor. As soon as the worldly aristocrat sets eyes on the handsome young scholar, Rafe desires him, although Ambrose is cold and formal. Rafe's schemes of seduction are derailed when he suffers a serious fall and is bedridden for several weeks. Ambrose cares for the invalid Rafe, and gradually falls in love with him. Eventually Rafe recovers and realizes that Ambrose is more than simply a conquest, that he loves the man and that his passion is returned.

All this happens in the first dozen chapters. The novel continues in the typical mold of a romance, with obstacles and misunderstandings arising between the lovers, which at long last are resolved. The obstacles, however, are far from typical. Just as he is learning to enjoy the physical aspects of loving Rafe, Ambrose is brutally raped by one of Rafe's discarded paramours.  This sets off a chain of events that culminates in Ambrose narrowly escaping the gallows for buggery and being imprisoned in the notorious Newgate.   On one level, Standish is a classic romance. Rafe and Ambrose are truly and deeply in love; this is a conjunction of souls, not merely a physical dalliance. At the same time, it turns romance conventions on their heads. In this period, Rafe and Ambrose risk their lives if they love openly. Homosexual desire is a mortal sin; homosexual activity is a crime punishable by death.

The historical authenticity of this novel is enhanced by Erastes' stylistic choices. She writes in the third person omniscient, with extensive descriptions and passages of bridging narration or backstory that would be out of place in a contemporary novel, but which  fit the current tale perfectly.  Erastes is not Jane Austen, but I could almost believe that this book had been written in the period that it describes.

The minor characters add to the effect. The clergyman dedicated to educating slum children; his gentle and self-sacrificing sister; the dissolute soldier who is ruined by his infatuation with Rafe; the scheming Irish prisoner who controls the Newgate occupants through   bribes, threats and carnal favors; these characters are familiar figures from stories of the period.

The one aspect of the book that is likely not historically authentic is the sexual description. The sex scenes are much more graphic than anything one would be likely to find in a mainstream Regency novel, though they are less explicit than what one finds in contemporary gay erotica. Erastes doesn't mince words, but Rafe's and Ambrose's encounters tend to be sensual and intense rather than crude and raunchy.

I read a lot of erotica. For me, Standish was refreshingly different from the froth of recreational sex or the edgy post-modernism that characterize much of what I read.  It is a well-executed period piece with stimulating characters and a surprisingly unpredictable plot. Even though I knew that this was a romance novel that should end happily ever after, I wondered up until the very end whether Rafe and Ambrose really would manage to be reunited.

If you are the sort of person who gets impatient with description and annoyed with an author that tells a story rather than focusing solely on the action, you probably should skip Standish. On the other  hand, if you sometimes prefer the more leisurely pace of nineteenth century novels, and you're interested in gay male themes, then you will probably enjoy this book as much as I did.

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