While visiting a lover the other day, she told me that she had a book that she wanted me to read, because the main male character reminded her of me. I said, sure, after which she handed me a historical romance novel, Libertine's Kiss, by Judith James.
Being a guy, my normal preferred reading material does not usually include romance novels, but I have read some, particularly to research the occurrences of libertine characters in this genre, which is a fairly common character subtype.
As I took the book from her and read the blurb on the back cover, I immediately had to laugh -- the main character shared my first name. The book's setting is the 17th century Restoration court of Charles II, who could have accurately been called a libertine king. The author's note stated that the main male character, William De Veres, was based on John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a noted libertine and poet in the court of Charles II. He was also the subject of the Johnny Depp movie, The Libertine.
As this book was classified as a romance novel, however, I already knew how the book was going to end -- in a monogamous marriage, at which time the libertine would cease being one. This is what the romance novel industry calls the "HEA"; the "happily ever after" formula, which is ubiquitous to every romance novel.
Because of this, I knew the book was going to be a disappointment from the beginning, as it could not remain true to history, nor to the real person that inspired the novel's male lead if it were to adhere to the HEA formula. Indeed, I could imagine Wilmot's sardonic laughter if he'd been able to read the book and see the character he'd inspired go completely out of character during the course of the novel.
And not only did the characterization of the male lead deviate from actual history, so did the female lead's view of what marriage should be deviate from 17th century norms in general, which I'll further elaborate on later below.
Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead and read it, anyway. The book proved to be an engaging read, with the author throwing in snippets of Wilmot's actual poetry throughout the book. Many times during the book, the male lead expressed thoughts that could have come out of my own mouth; enough so that I wondered if the author had read my blog.
To cite a few examples, when asked why he'd ended up as a libertine, he explained to the female lead that it was simply his nature, which is something I've done many times myself.
In another scene, he proposes marriage to her, knowing that he needed to get married sooner or later if he was to have heirs. He reasoned that he might as well do so with a woman he cared for. When she asks if he would remain sexually faithful to her, he honestly tells her no, respecting her enough to be honest with her. When she protested, he explained that there was a difference between sex and love, implying that one should not be inextricably bound to the other.
And this brings me to the book's flaws. The female lead, who was a widow, rejected his initial proposal because she vowed she would not remarry for anything but love. But such a sentiment would have been far less common in the 17th century than now. People then married much more often for practical reasons and love, if present, was considered icing on the cake, rather than the reason to marry in the first place. A woman of that time would not have demanded sexual exclusivity of a prospective husband, however much she might like it, as random dalliances would have simply been considered the nature of the male beast.
Then there were the trite, cliched plot devices that could have been done away with and still allowed the story to adhere to the HEA ending.
The first cliche was that the male lead was a libertine simply because he was a damaged, psychologically tortured man, having been molested as a teen by his tutor and for having had dysfunctional parents. Rarely in romance novels is a libertine a libertine merely because he like frequency and variety with his sex life. The assumption is that every normal person desires a lifelong, monogamous marriage.
The second cliche that left me rolling my eyes in disbelief was that the male lead immediately lost the desire to have sex with other women the moment he took up with the female lead. He became de facto monogamous at this time, despite his claims to the contrary. This is completely unbelievable, as no person who'd been a libertine his entire would suddenly lose that proclivity at the drop of a hat. Indeed, I would imagine that a libertine who'd made the decision to start living a monogamous life would not lose the desire for sexual variety and would have to work very hard to maintain a monogamous life.
Taken as a whole, however, this book was an interesting read, but I strongly believe the author would have done much better had she written it as straight historical fiction. If she'd done so, she would have been free to write the main characters in a more historically accurate manner, rather than as a romance, where she was hamstrung by the romance novel formulaic HEA requirement.
Indeed, Paula Reed's historical novel, Hester, which takes place along the same time period as Libertine's Kiss, did just that, which served to produce a superior novel. Her libertine character, John Manning, is much more genuine and believable than James' William De Veres.
Just my .02 cents.