Agent of Inquiry
The Sleeping Partner
By Madeleine E. Robins
Plus One Press, San Francisco
It’s harder to write a Regency novel than some might think, especially if your audience comprises modern female readers. If, on the one hand, a writer sticks religiously to the historic modes and mores of the time she’s writing about, she risks alienating the inheritors of two hundred years of feminist struggle. On the other hand, it is very difficult to insert “modern” sensibilities into a heroine from 1810 without making her an anachronism in her own story. Combine this with the tricky business of setting up an alternate history, and any writer might blanch at the challenge. Madeleine Robins triumphs at it, however, especially in this, her third novel set in a slightly different Regency London than that explored by the successors to Georgette Heyer.
Our heroine, Sarah Tolerance, is a Fallen Woman, having eloped in her youth with her fencing instructor. After his death, she resolved not to enter the world of prostitution which Regency society deemed the only fit occupation for a woman with no reputation. With courage and aplomb, she puts her sword and her wits at the service of those members of London society who need discreet inquiries made by someone who knows the world of the ton, a world she now stands outside of, with the outsider’s ironic insight. In her third adventure, she is tasked to retrieve a runaway girl, a young lady who apparently ran off much as Sarah herself did, leaving a sputtering and indignant father to denounce her in absentia.
All is not as it seems, however, and this case turns out to be much darker than most Regency romps, even the earlier Sarah Tolerance novels. Sarah Tolerance shines a light into the roach-infested underbelly of London in the Napoleonic Age. Robins guides us through a world of extremes — of poverty and wealth, corruption and compassion, honor and shame. Her supporting cast continues to round out this rich tapestry: Sarah’s aunt, the madam of an upscale brothel, her friend Sir Walter of the Bow Street constabulary, and other characters whose depth lends authenticity and sparkle to the tale.
Robins does not hammer us with the differences between this Regency London and our own. The entire milieu is so richly described, so alive to the reader, that one can nearly smell the stink of the streets or the breeze off the Thames. Such detail draws us in so deeply that even when we spot something different from our own time, it feels natural to this world. Even when we are introduced to a famous feminist who died early in our world, or when we learn that the Regency is held not by the Prince but by another member of the Royal family, our belief in this world holds up.
A man from Sarah’s past, trouble brewing with her Aunt Dorothea, and a growing intimacy with a handsome friend keep the focus of the story as much on Miss Tolerance as on the odd mystery she is unraveling; we care as much about what happens to her as we do about what she finds out. As befits a woman of action, there is plenty of fighting, chasing and kicking to be had, as well as demure scenes with gossip, tea and biscuits. Altogether, this third Sarah Tolerance is a return to a delightful world of scandal, intrigue, and mystery, seen through the eyes of a charmingly sardonic and spirited heroine. I hope Ms. Robins is hard at work on the next novel with Sarah Tolerance.
Copyright 2011 by Sarah Stegall. All rights reserved.