“Right after reading it,” Jennie says in her wonderfully positive DearAuthor review of Janet Mullany’s Mr. Bishop and the Actress I thought it was an A- (perhaps because my natural inclination is to think a straight A read requires more angst).”
But, she continues, since a few weeks later the book has still stayed with her (no small thing, I should imagine, for a reviewer who must have to gorge herself on enormous, highly sweetened servings of romance fiction just to stay current) — and since “just thinking about” Mullany’s hero and heroine Harry and Sophie still makes her smile, “an A it is.”
As well it should be, in recognition of the art and the heart of this love story between two servants in a genre (Regency romance) that usually limits itself to the teeny tiny ton-y tip of the social iceberg that called itself the Polite World.
“Nothing for kings,” as the Sondheim lyric from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum has it, “nothing for crowns/ bring on the lovers, liars, and clowns.” You can get the whole song in this Youtube clip — and I’m delighted to suggest that you do so, because I think Sondheim’s bawdy neo-Roman vaudeville that goes up and down the social scale like a slide trombone is exactly the right context for Janet’s wicked comic skills.
Here (as large numbers of English people were in the 18th and 19th centuries) our lovers are servants. In this case upper servants: Harry (whose parents run a mildly seedy London hotel) just been hired as Viscount Shadderly’s steward, or right-hand-man around the estate. While the ex-actress and recently dumped courtesan Sophie barely and not quite honestly manages to slip into the Shadderly household in sort of governess position.
A household, I should point out, in Sondheim’s words, where there’s “nothing polite.” If you’ve ever felt impatient with the kind of romance-novel imagination that supposes in a past life you yourself would have been received without question at Almack’s, you need to visit Janet’s world.
The boggy country estate where Lord and very pregnant Lady Shad (from the earlier novel Improper Relations) live with their outspoken adolescent wards and sweet, mostly unwashed, pair of little boys is a haven of cheerful if not quite hygienic chaos. Quite the most appealing Regency setting I’ve yet encountered, it reads like a hilarious extended send-off of a rapturous romance novel epilogue. After honest Harry imposes a little order and shrewd, decent Sophie injects a bit of style, I’d move in in a New York minute.
As might you, if you have any interest at all in the endlessly inventive ways that middling people like you and me make life livable and even romantic, told in a wise, delicious, take-no-prisoners comic voice.
And especially because you just might win autographed copies of both Improper Relations and Mr. Bishop and the Actress, just by entering my new contest.