on re-reading Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series

I first stumbled across Elizabeth Hoyt’s romances back in grad school. I’m pretty sure I started with The Ice Princess, as I was locked in the cage match of a library school job hunt; I moved from there to the rest of the books in the Princes series, and then on to Maiden Lane. I have those fogged grad school memories of lying awake in the few hours of sleep I could snatch, reading Hoyt’s romance because even if I couldn’t actually sleep, at least I could relax. I don’t recall doing a hell of a lot of analysis of them, back when I was reading in the wee hours to try to keep my sanity. I don’t even think I did as much as I should have as the final few books came out. And then I re-read them all, starting in December of 2020 and finishing a few days ago, and oops.

I re-read all the time: it’s one of my great pleasures. It can also be a bit startling. And it turns out that after spending the years since 2016 reading a lot of Jeannie Lin and Tessa Dare and Beverly Jenkins and Courtney Milan and Alyssa Cole and Helen Hoang and Sonali Dev and so many others—well, Maiden Lane was rather jarring. There were little things, at first: cross-class relationships that felt, to me, quite impossible; ladies gallivanting around places where they’d really not be, not even at a good time of day, with strong footmen. Aristocracy gettin’ things done, which is simply not a very aristocratic thing to do. (One of the things about Jeannie Lin’s heroes? If they’re getting things done, it’s because they’re spies, or military leaders, or the sort of scholar who putters around his yard. It’s not because they’re fantastically skilled, but because those skills come naturally in their profession.)

There were strange little things that bothered me, this time around: it turns out I rather despise a few of the heroes, and can’t see what the heroines see in them. The series takes place at a time when enslaving other humans was legal, both in England and its colonies, and the references to slavery, to people of color, and to the treatment of genteel poverty among ladies of the (white) quality, read as a kind of whitewashed historical revisionism that, well, isn’t great. (Race is a problem in historical romance: I mean, hello, folks, there have been people of color all over the world since forever. They were there! And when we write entirely white worlds, or pretend that, lo, the Empire is not thriving on the labor of enslaved people, well, that’s really, really wrong.)

I also ran into a few examples of the magical curative power of love, which is just an oh God no thing for me. I’ve read some really nice examples of magical healing love, but, I mean, for me, that doesn’t take place in a page or two, but rather as a slow growth throughout the course of a book. (And, yes, there are romance novelists who are fucking fantastic at this—including the ever-fabulous Alyssa Cole, who’s done it in more than one book. Including her short sci-fi romance.) Place didn’t always make a hell of a lot of sense: I mean, what’s the likelihood that these elegant sorts would be hanging around the slum at all, let alone as often as they do here? And, oh, good gravy, but I don’t enjoy the white savior trope, which meanders across the series.

But did I read Maiden Lane hella fast? Damn right I did! I think the longest it took me to make it through a novel was a few days, which was entirely contingent upon how fast I fell asleep at night. (They’re good before-bed reading, honestly.) Did I still like the nastiest heroes best (St. John! the Duke of Montgomery! the dudes in the last two books, at least kind of!) and still despise the Stuck Up Rich Guys? You bet! Did I enjoy them, even as I was cringing to beat all hell? Also yes! They’re a super problematic pleasure. (I’m not even going to get into Bridgerton here: when I picked up The Duke and I and got, oh, halfway through, I remembered why I’d never finished it before. But I will! Eventually! I might even finish that damn book before I watch the show, feeling guilty all the way!)

And I do still find things to like, or love, in Maiden Lane, even if it now makes me cringe. I still love some of the most theoretically vile of Hoyt’s heroes! I really, really do despise the Duke of Wakefield; I like Apollo a lot, even if I don’t always find him believable. St. John is great and pretty unbelievable, as far as aristocracy goes—although I still think he’s a pretty nuanced portrait of grief. Brief forays into worlds outside the aristocracy—the pleasure garden and the theater, namely—are a pleasure, though I must say that Saint Giles is never quite believable to me. (I gotta say, I had a lot of the same feelings about Hoyt’s When a Rogue Meets His Match, which I read in a night and which is also super problematic.)

The thing is, though, not all romance is like this! So if you’ve grabbed Maiden Lane, and wanted to pitch it across the room because the Duke of Wakefield is a piece of shit, or Trevillion is an impossibility, or because how the hell are there so many masked, caped bros capering around on the fucking rooftops of London—well, just remember that this is a problematic and troubled bonbon, and there are a lot of stronger, better, more elegant candies out there, just waiting to be devoured.

And since I’m writing about romance, that could totally be a double entendre, couldn’t it?

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