Once a Dreamer
We’ve all complained about historical romances featuring heroines who are little more than modern-day misses, with modern attitudes and ideas, playing dress-up in period clothing. Candice Hern’s novel offers a twist on the formula: this time it’s the hero who comes off as a pre-Regency proto-feminist, while the heroine is firmly – and much more realistically – at home in the book’s setting.
Sensible widow Eleanor Tennant can’t believe that her niece Belinda would fall for the impractical, head-in-the-clouds romantic advice dished out by “The Busybody,” an advice columnist for The Ladies’ Fashionable Cabinet – sort of a Regency Redbook. She tracks down the real person behind the nom de plume, determined to force “The Busybody” to apologize to Belinda and make the girl see that the advice offered in the magazine was just a lot of romantic drivel. Imagine her shock when she learns that the real author isn’t some well-meaning, misguided old lady, but a man, and a political radical and a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, to boot. Then imagine her shock once she discovers that, based on that unsound advice, Belinda has realized Eleanor’s worst fear and eloped with a ne’er-do-well rake!
Simon Westover’s been penning his pseudonymous advice column for a few years, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever be able to unmask him – discovery would mean ruin not only for him but also for the small group of intellectuals who run the magazine. He’s totally unprepared when he’s bearded in his own den by the tenacious Mrs. Tennant (hey, there’s a Regency title for you!), and thrown for yet another loop when the adamant widow blames him for her niece’s elopement and insists on his help in trailing and catching up to the runaway pair. Never one to resist the pull of an attractive woman, Simon sets off for Gretna Green with Eleanor, and along the way they discover that the attraction between opposites is sometimes impossible to resist.
I had one huge problem with the book, and that was Simon’s extremely progressive views on women. It showed up early, in light touches, and I wasn’t too bothered by it at first. The story moved along at a brisk pace, with little twists and turns, good dialogue, and some delightful secondary characters along the way. As a matter of fact, Hern had me going until Simon morphed into a late-Georgian Donahue: “We try to foster strength of mind, heart, and body for all females, for all people,” he explains to Eleanor at about the halfway point of the book. “Not to put too fine a point on it, we believe in women. We trust women.” Don’t get me wrong – I know that this was the age of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, but Simon’s views seemed extreme, even for a romantic progressive of the time. While he was a sympathetic character, very likable, I just didn’t buy his strongly feminist philosophizing, which got laid on a little too thickly for my taste.
I had no such problems with Eleanor; her own philosophy struck me as more likely for someone from the period. I understood the motivations and views of both characters, but Eleanor’s rang more true for me. The events in her life have molded her into a pragmatic, no-nonsense kind of woman, and the conflict she feels at her attraction toward someone whose views are the complete antithesis of her own comes across loud and clear. When she finally throws caution to the winds and gives in to the attraction, it doesn’t feel forced or artificial, either; other writers could learn a thing from Hern about building sexual tension and letting the story (and not editorial demands) dictate the right moment for a love scene.
I can offer a qualified recommendation for Once a Dreamer. If you don’t mind a character who sounds more twenty-first-century than nineteenth, you may not have the difficulty I did with the (to me) anachronistic extreme-radical feminist politics of the hero. As for me, I’d expect to encounter this on MSNBC, but not in the pages of an historical romance.