25 April, 2006

The Lady Soldier, by Jennifer Lindsay. Book review

Edition reviewed: Robert Hale, ISBN:0-7090-7825-0.

The Lady Soldier is a historical romance set in 1812, first in Spain against the background of the Napoleonic war, then moving to aristocratic society in London. All the major characters are fictional.

I should say right up front that I don't generally read romances, historical or otherwise. I picked this one up because I read about it on one of Kate Allan's blogs, and because Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series and CS Forester's The Gun (the film, I confess, not the book) got me interested in the Peninsular War.

So how did I get on with this unfamiliar reading territory? Pretty well. The hero, Captain Tony Dorrell, is a classic romantic-novel hero with broad shoulders, tight breeches and curling dark hair the heroine can't take her eyes off (think Colin Firth in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice; I did). The heroine, Jem Riseley, aka Jemima Cullen, is an aristocratic lady who has disguised herself as a man, joined the army to escape her abusive stepfather and is making a name for herself in Spain as a military hero. A promotion brings her into the same regiment as Tony Dorrell, the man she was in love with three years ago in England. The two of them get cut off in French-held territory in Spain, have to battle deserters and French agents to get back to safety, and Jem struggles against the odds to keep her secret. Then the scene switches to Regency London, where Jem's struggle is now to be accepted into high society and to build a lasting relationship with Tony. I won't give away any more of the plot, except to say that it's a romance so you already know that all ends in perfect felicity.

I found Jem the more interesting of the two lead roles. She comes over as courageous, determined, independent-minded and inclined to try to sort out her own problems rather than ask for help, even though she doesn't always succeed. I have the impression that she fitted better into army life than she does into Regency high society, and the Author's Note comments that women who are known to have served as soldiers (yes, there are recorded examples) often had great difficulty adjusting to a traditional female role afterward. Tony didn't work so well for me, in part at least because he has the classic alpha-male traits of arrogance, reluctance to listen and absolute conviction that he always knows best (even when he doesn't), and alpha males tend to annoy me.

I have a few quibbles. Reading Sharpe and CS Forester's Rifleman Dodd and Brown on Resolution has hammered into me that a rifle and a musket are different weapons with different capabilities. The rifle was more accurate but the musket was faster to load. It's clear the authors know this, because they mention it in the text. So it jars to see the terms used apparently interchangeably, "it was an Indian Pattern Brown Bess musket.....she balanced the Indian Pattern rifle" and later, "the recoil from the musket would be savage....The rifle kept hitting her bruises." I'm also a little uneasy that no other man in a year of soldiering apparently noticed Jem's shapely behind in her tight breeches, or that a small woman would be able to carry a scaling ladder on her own. And I would have liked a lot more about the French villain's nefarious activities with the deserters in Spain and his spy plot in London. But that's a personal taste; I'm well aware that a romance has to focus on the central relationship and complaining that it doesn't have subplots is like complaining about the body count in a crime novel.

Jennifer Lindsay is a pen name for two collaborating authors, Kate Allan and Michelle Styles, and I wondered if this would be apparent in the book. It isn't; the prose flows seamlessly and I can't see the joins.

A good read for fans of romance who like an adventurous background.

Has anyone else read it?


Bernita said...

Haven't, but it sounds interesting.
Didn't think scaling ladders were ever carried by just one soldier.
Have you ever read Heyer's "The Spanish Bride" set during the Peninsula Wars?

Alex Bordessa said...

I have read this one, and like you Carla, it was unfamiliar territory for me. I ain't a Regency romance reader by any means.

I liked the bits where Jem was in the army best. As for no-one else noticing Jem's behind, I think people see what they want to see! Presumably, he looked closer because of some sort of attraction. Alpha males annoy me too, so I just found the Captain a bit of a pain. When I write about this sort of chap, I have a hard time avoding sending them up (nope, I'm unlikely to turn to writing romance ... darn ...). I know zip about guns and that period in general, so couldn't possibly comment on that front :-)

I couldn't tell that two authors had written the story either. My (first edition?) copy had an interesting typo - ridicule instead of reticule, I think. So at one point Jem was looking in her ridicule!

Now, look here Carla, if you don't review 'Flight of the sparrow' I'll have to, and you'll regret it - I'm not an insightful reviewer.

Sarah Johnson said...

Haven't read it, but it sounds interesting. I've read a lot about it on various blogs. As has been typical with Robert Hale titles, the Amazon US price is less than the UK one (so not a bad deal for Americans).

Yes, someone please review Flight of the Sparrow - you don't want to know how long I had this on my wish list before I finally found a copy. (Haven't read it yet though.) Or A Casket of Earth would be equally nice!

Carla said...

Bernita - No, I haven't, but thanks for the recommendation. I don't get on very well with the drawing-room type romances - they feel a bit claustrophobic to me - but I read a Heyer called something like The Toll Gate that had a bit more of a plot, something to do with counterfeiting and a limestone cave in the Peak District, and that was quite fun.

Alex - If you've been waiting for me to review Flight of the Sparrow you should have said and I'd have bumped it up the list! I want to read it again before reviewing, and I'm also waiting for a book from the library to check some facts about the chronology. I'll probably get round to it in a month or two, if that's any help. But as far as I know there's no rule that says a book can't be reviewed twice by two different people! Seriously, are you finding these reviews of mine useful/interesting? I'm always open to suggestions on how to make them better.

I liked the army scenes best too, see comment above about drawing-room romances.

Um, the alpha male appears to be the absolute standard in romances. Heroines have got 'feisty' since I used to shelve Mills & Boons in the local library as a student job, but the heroes don't seem to have evolved much (insert comment of your choice here). It was the 'tight breeches' that baffled me - I mean, I think I'd try to find a baggy pair, or at least do something creative with a pair of socks a la Pratchett (!). A female rear is a distinctly different shape to a male one; there's a reason why it's the pelvis that usually sexes a skeleton; and I'd expect a woman in disguise to try to do something to hide that.

That 'ridicule' typo was in my copy too. At first I wondered if it was an 18th-C spelling used for period colour - like Jane Austen uses 'chuse' for 'choose' - but there were lots of other typos, like 'a might puzzled' instead of 'a mite puzzled', so I guess it just hadn't been copy-edited very thoroughly. Perhaps it went through on a Friday afternoon, because the Boudica book I reviewed here was also from Robert Hale and that was pretty much typo-free.

Sarah - I read about it on a blog too. I gather that Kate Allan is something of a marketing expert - it seems to work, as I certainly wouldn't have picked it up otherwise so that's a gain of at least one reader :-). A Casket of Earth is on my list too, but it's likely to be well into the summer before it makes its way up to the top (unless I get a lot of requests).

Alex Bordessa said...

I like your reviews very much! They cover all the relevant aspects. As I said, the very threat of me doing a review should ensure that all Flight readers will review it ASAP in an attempt to spare themselves having to read my review fiasco ;-) For example, I doubt I'd bother to check chronology ...

Wasn't Jem going upstairs or something so that the Cap had a view of her rear? I can't remember. But, yes, females trying to 'pass' would cover their 'particular' parts of anatomy. I think Pratchett's socks would be in order for that era, after watching Sharpe the other day (ahem!). However, The Lady Soldier is a romance ...

Casket of Earth isn't quite as good as Flight IMHO. After reading the latter, I guess my expectations were rather high.

Bernita said...

Perhaps the question of her behind could be answered by finding pictures of the jackets worn by her regiment.
If they were short, the author has a bit of a problem, though I agree with Alex, that people ( was going to say men) see what they expect to see.
One assumes that soldiers had belts with various gear hanging from them which might have helped disguise her womanly curves.
The Toll Gate is fun, Carla.
The Spanish Bride is set almost entirely in the Peninsula and has few drawing rooms, if any, as I remember.It's a campaign novel.

Rick said...

The problem of noticing - or not noticing - a lady's aspect must have been particularly severe in the conditions of military camp life, which aren't exactly strong on privacy.

On the other hand, there are many attested cases of women joining the army and passing as men - most that I've heard of are from the American Civil War, but I suspect that's because it hits the sweet spot where record keeping was extensive but induction medical exams hadn't appeared yet. So it obviously was doable.

Regarding alpha males, the 16th century is particularly demanding - was there ever an alpha-er era? If a male courtier wasn't arrogant, he'd be run out of court.

Carla said...

Bernita - the marvels of Google provide a picture (scroll down the page for the rear view). Short jacket. Can't decide whether the canteen and pouches would have disguised female anatomy or accentuated it by inconvenient bouncing :-) Also note they wore trousers, not breeches. At several places in the book Jem and other characters comment that people see what they expect to see, so that's no doubt the explanation. And as Alex says, it's a romance.

I'll look out for The Spanish Bride.

Alex - I haven't read A Casket of Earth, though it's on my list. I'd guess that St Chad may have been a less colourful subject for a story, perhaps? Flight of the Sparrow is right in my period and I differ in my interpretation of the chronology at some crucial points in the plot. As you know, facts are rare species in this period (!) so I'm content that the (limited) evidence can bear multiple interpretations, but I want to check back on a couple of the sources I used and see if I still prefer my interpretation.

Rick - Good point about compulsory medicals. There are some documented instances from the Napoleonic War (on the French side), and I think one from Russia, there's a case of British woman who was a senior medic and was only discovered to be a woman at her death, and I gather there was a Pope Joan in the 8th century (though I know nothing about her). So yes, clearly do-able, and presumably in other eras too.

Would you say the 16th-C was an era of particularly alpha-plus males, more so than other periods? If so, I wonder if it might be related to the decline of military power as a primary source of status, as paralleled in the shift in domestic architecture we were talking about a few months ago? Maybe a courtier in a stately home felt he had to be more aggressively alpha than a baron in a castle? Or is that fanciful? What do you think?

Alex Bordessa said...

Good to see that pic of the rifleman. I can say from some experience (slinging a shoulder bag and water bottle criss-cross across my chest in re-enactment) that it's likely to bring attention to one's chest. As a late Roman, I ensure I wear a very baggy tunic but I still need to be careful. I arrange the criss-cross high up. What larks.

That said, I reckon, like many modern female athletes, these woman soldiers may not have had big breasts due to the sheer physical extertion of the profession. However, it might depend on how long they had been doing it, and/or at what age they started, and genes, of course.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'd be most worried about the peeing. I mean, men, don't hide behind the bushes for that in presence of other men.

Bouncing buttocks could perhaps been covered and the little snake imitated somehow. ;)

That female pope is a legend, btw. There is one source and that's not a reliable one (have to look it up). And the fact that there's a novel about her doesn't make her any more real. I think it was one of those books that almost flew across the book store because I found potaotes or something when browsing it.

Carla said...

Alex - Good point about female athletes. In this case, the heroine had been a wealthy young lady, though I guess most of the documented cases are more likely to have been from lower down the social scale and thus physically fitter.

Gabriele - Thanks for the warning about the female Pope! I'd only heard of her in passing via the recent novel (which I haven't read), thought it sounded unlikely but that truth could be stranger than fiction so it was possible, and wasn't that interested so I hadn't looked up the sources.

Regarding peeing, it is apparently possible for a woman to pee standing up. See the film The Full Monty for a demonstration :-) Terry Pratchett's Monstrous Regiment also gets several humorous plot points out of it.

Anonymous said...

I liked The Lady Soldier too. I read a lot of Regency romance as well as writing it - usually with an adventure or a mystery attached - and I loved the unusual setting of this one.

As has been mentioned, there are documented cases of a woman passing herself off as a soldier. One such in the eighteenth century is Phoebe Hessell (details in John Ackerson Erredge's History of Brightelmston, published posthumously in 1862 - he had known Phoebe).

Briefly, she fell in love with a soldier, Samuel, who was ordered to the West Indies in 1728. She disguised herself as a man and managed to enlist in the Fifth Regiment of Foot under the command of General Pearce. Her disguise was undetected for 13 years, but when Samuel was wounded in Gibraltar and sent home, Pheobe confided in the Lady of General Pearce, who secured her discharge. When her lover was well, they married, and were happy until his death 20 years later.

She must have been tough, because she lived until the ripe old age of 108.

As for ridicule, it's an accurate alternate spelling of reticule, and was much used in fashion journals of the time eg July 1810 Lady's Magazine, or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, which refers to a "ridicule of painted velvet".

Carla said...

Hello Mandy and thanks for dropping by. I did wonder if 'ridicule' was a period spelling, so thanks for confirming that it is - does the same apply to 'might' and 'mite'?

Phoebe Hessell sounds quite a woman! Does the history say if she served alongside Samuel? I seem to remember reading somewhere that the modern British Army doesn't like couples serving together - something to do with a concern that a soldier might put a partner above his/her other comrades.

Michelle Styles said...

Carla --

Now that I have a moment to breathe, I wanted to thank you for your review.

I was very pleased you liked Jem as I bear the over responsibilty for creating her. Kate created Tony.
About ridicule v reticule, I can confirm that we deliberately choose to use ridicule as Kate feels more comfortable with that spelling and felt that Jem would find them ridiculous.

Carla said...

Ah, a subtle joke! Thanks for dropping in, Michelle, and I'm glad you liked the review.

Alex Bordessa said...

Carla, I was going to point out the Full Monty too! I think it must take a bit of practice to pee standing up. And no, I haven't had a go at it whilst doing re-enactment, despite being camped in the middle of a field, a long, dark way from the nearest loo!

And I think I might be subject to a bit of ridicule, or should that be reticule ...

Gabriele Campbell said...

Lol Carla, I can indeed pee standing. But there's still a wee bit of anamtomy missing. :)

German writer Iny Lorentz' girl disguises a guy novels have the advantage that the girls could perform these things in privacy, so she had never to deal with those pesky little details. Also, the time settings are such as to allow for more loosely fitting clothes.

Gabriele Campbell said...

I knew I has some info. :)

The legend about a female pople first appeared in the 13th century Chronica universalis Mettensis by Jean de Mailly, but it was the version of the Dominican Martinus Polonus (aka Martin de Troppeau; couldn't find a date for that one) that spread her fame. The story tells about a girl from Ingelheim in Germany who studied in Athens, came to Rome (disguised as man) where she became famous because of her knowledge and made a career in the Church. After the death of Pope Leo IV in 855 she was elected pope by the name of Johannes Angelicus. After some two years she gave birth to a child during a procession, died herself and was buried on the spot.

A later manuscript variant has it that she was bound to the tail of her horse and stoned to death by the enraged mob. One manuscript states that her son became bishop of Ostia, and there are other variants in details.

She is also listed in the Liber Pontificalis, but that one is as reliable for the history of the popes as Thomas Malory for the history of the real Arthur. :)

A possible explanation for the legend (if ones doesn't want to delve into Roman fairy tales) is the influence women like Theodora and Marozzia had on some popes at a time where celibacy was not yet required. Or it could have been a satire on the - obviously effeminate - pope John VIII.

In times of the Reformation, Pope Johanna was a welcome means to derogate the popes. Hus used her in an argument against the papal institutions; and she made it onto a fair number of illustrated pamphlets. Unfortunatley also to the heroine in a badly researched novel, Die P├Ąpstin.

Carla said...

Alex - I wouldn't say 'subject to ridicule', it was a very subtle joke and it went clean over my head too!

Gabriele - I'm impressed :-)

Thanks for the briefing on 'Pope Joan'; the associated novel now pretty much slides off my 'possible' list. I like the theory that the myth originated as a dig at an effeminate Pope John; that sounds very plausible. As does the later political use of it in the Reformation.

Alex Bordessa said...

There's a film called 'Pope Joan' starring Liv Ullman, made back in the 1960s. It was shown on tv a couple of months back. It's interesting but not particularly good.

Kate Allan said...

Hi Carla,
Reading reviews of one's own books is terrifying. I'm waiting at the moment for the first reviews of my new novel Perfidy and Perfection to appear with a kind of sick anticipation.

I'm glad you enjoyed the story of The Lady Soldier and it is annoying that there are a few typos still in the final printed book. I hope that overall these did not detract from the story too much. The copy editing was a bit of a nightmare resulting in me getting a different copy editor for Perfidy and Perfection who was super-fantastic. We actually had a debate about ridicule vs reticule and while both words were in use at the time, reticule is better known and I decided to use reticule in P&P as this is likely to confuse people less! (Although my personal opinion is that ridicule is a more fun word :) )