A Forgotten Genius and the Most Epic Prank Ever

Every era boasts its own cast of colorful characters – of people we wish we could have met, if for nothing else than their fascinating audacity. If Regency London could have nominated only one person for that role, it surely would have been Theodore Hook.

The son of a composer, his precocious nature and scathing wit began to win him admirers at a young age. At 16 years old, he co-authored with his father a successful comic opera. He continued writing prolifically, producing 38 novels, multiple operas and comic plays, and various journalistic publications.

So, yes, the most infamous character of the Regency era was, of course, a writer. My chest swells with pride.

Young Theodore

Hook was a cultured class clown and a brilliant prankster. In 1840, he designed a postcard that ridiculed the postal workers who would have handled it and sent it to himself. The postcard was rediscovered in 2001 and determined to be the oldest known picture postcard – perhaps the first. It also has affixed to it the oldest preserved “Penny Black” – the world’s first adhesive postage stamp. It sold at auction for 32000 pounds in 2002, a fact that likely would have tickled Theodore.

Worlds’ First Postcard

Hook possessed an extraordinary gift for improvising witty songs on any subject at a moment’s notice. This skill so charmed the Prince Regent that he declared that something must be done for Hook. As a result, Hook was appointed the accountant-general and treasurer of Mauritius, a tropical island off the coast of Africa, with a generous salary. He arrived on the island in 1813 and immediately became the life of the party there. However, in 1817 a sum of 12000 pounds was found to be missing and Hook was returned to England on a criminal charge. The fact that the theft was the work of a deputy official allowed Theodore to avoid significant punishment, but he remained responsible for the debt.

In an attempt to repay the debt, he launched in 1820 the now-famous newspaper John Bull, in which he championed Toryism through a brand of political satire not seen before, but which is now central to British journalistic style. Despite a good income from the immensely popular paper, he was arrested for debts to the state and sent to a sponging house – debtor’s prison – for two years. It was during his stay there that he launched his career as a novelist, and he succeeded to the point of becoming England’s best-selling novelist just prior to Charles Dickens.

Did I mention Theodore Hook was an infamous prankster? This reputation was cemented by one of the most audacious pranks in history. On November 27, 1810, at 5 o’clock in the morning, a chimney sweep arrived at the house of a well-known widow of means, Mrs. Tottenham, at 54 Berners Street in London. The maid who answered the door said that no such services had been requested and turned the man away. Minutes later, a second sweep arrived, and then another and another – twelve in all. After the sweeps there arrived an armada of carts carrying large deliveries of coal, followed by a stream of cakemakers delivering large wedding cakes. After them came a series lawyers, doctors, vicars, and priests who’d been summoned to minister to a dying person in the house. These intermingled with a horde of arriving fishmongers and shoemakers, along with the delivery of a dozen pianos and a pipe organ. In the midst of the chaos, summoned dignitaries began to arrive, including the Governor of the Bank of England, The Duke of York, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Lord Mayor of London. Adding to the crushing congestion was a growing crowd of curious onlookers, bringing a large portion of London to a standstill.

Berners Street Hoax

The architect of the chaos was none other than Theodore Hook, who bet his friend, Samuel Beazley, that he could transform any house in London to the most talked about address in a week. He accomplished the feat by sending out 4000 pieces of correspondence in the name of Mrs. Tottenham with notes such as:

“Mrs. Tottenham requests Mr. – will call upon her at two to-morrow, as she wishes to consult him about the sale of an estate. -53, Berners-street Monday.”

And: “Mrs. Tottenham requests that a post-chaise and four may be at her home at two to-morrow, to convey her to the first stage towards Bath. -54, Berners-street, Monday.”

And: “Mrs. Tottenham begs the Hon. Mr.– will be good enough to give her a call at two to-morrow, as Mrs. T. is desirous of speaking with him on business of importance. -54, Berners-street, Monday.”

Meanwhile, Hook and Beazley rented the house across the street to watch the chaos unfold. As the story goes, when a “fervent hue and cry” arose for the perpetrator, Hook skipped town to “convalesce” in the country.

Now, as with any good writer, we should expect a twist. Though this story was circulated by the press, there is little direct, first-hand evidence that the event ever occurred. An article appeared on November 28, 1810 in the Morning Advertiser describing the incident, including the visit by the Lord Mayor but no other dignitaries. Virtually every other journal of the time appeared to source this article, but with ever-growing embellishments. However, a visit by the Lord Mayor and the subsequent dispatch of constables should have produced a public record, but it seemingly did not. Also, consider the sheer time and expense needed to pull off such a hoax, as well as the personal ramifications for embarrassing high-ranking nobility.

On the one hand, I desperately want the account of the Berners Street Hoax to be true and accurate. On the other hand, I applaud Hook if his real hoax was to invent a compelling story and make the entire world believe it. Either way, Theodore Hook was an audacious character of the first order whose contributions to Regency London society should never be forgotten – whether true or not.

Man, Woman, Diplomat, Spy: The Chevalier d’Eon

Readers of historical romance have long assumed that the Georgian era, including the Regency, was a time of strict binary sexual identity. This view has been aided by romantic novelists from Heyer onward who rarely strayed from that perception. As a writer of Regency fiction, I am complicit. However, the last two decades have opened the door for a more realistic interpretation of the times: that the spectrum of human gender identity was no different then than it is now. No person of those times better reflects this reality than the Chevalier d’Éon.

Born Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont in France, d’Éon defied limits from a young age. Though the son of a poor nobleman, he rose quickly to notice through his remarkable intelligence and insightful political writings. In 1756, he joined a network of spies called the Secret du Roi (the King’s secret), a clandestine organization reporting directly to King Louis XV and often subverting official French policy. Shortly thereafter, his androgynous features, skill at mimicry, and iron nerve allowed him to infiltrate the Russian court as a woman. Although this claim by his biographer cannot be absolutely substantiated, the remainder of d’Éon’s life provides ample evidence of its probability.

Upon his return from Russia to France, d’Éon resumed his male persona, joined the French dragoons, fought in the Seven Years War, and was wounded in battle. Not long after, he was dispatched to London to draft the treaty ending the war, a role that earned him the title of Chevalier – effectively knighthood. However, when the new French ambassador to Britain humiliated him on apparent orders from Louis XV, d’Éon fought back. He threatened to release publicly a slew of letters describing the Secret du Roi, a move that would have deeply hurt the king’s standing with an already disgruntled French public. The British people, meanwhile, supported d’Éon and ridiculed the French ambassador over his treatment of d’Éon.

In time, rumors began circulating in London that d’Éon was really a woman – a modern day Joan of Arc – despite the fact that he dressed in military uniform. A betting pool was begun and he was invited to settle the bet. d’Éon declined to participate, saying that the examination would prove dishonoring regardless of the result. In short, he left the question unanswered because he believed his gender should be of no consequence in how he was treated. In 1776, he returned to France after Louis XV’s death – as a man. However, soon after his arrival he claimed that he had been female at birth and was raised male so his father could inherit from his in-laws. He demanded to be recognized as female by the French court. The new king, Louis XVI, agreed but under one condition: that d’Éon dress according to the claimed gender. When the king offered significant funds for a new wardrobe, d’Éon agreed.

d’Éon returned to England in 1785 where she would spend the rest of her days. Identifying now as a woman, she reclaimed her popularity with British nobles and commoners alike. She participated in fencing tournaments until suffering a serious injury in 1796. Painter Charles Jean Robineau produced a remarkable painting showing d’Éon fencing in a gown against Monsieur de Saint-George at Carlton House in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

The chevalier’s fortunes waned when her stipend from the French government ended with the French Revolution. She slipped slowly into poverty and suffered partial paralysis after a fall before dying in 1810 at the age of 81. The surgeon who examined d’Éon post-mortem provided the long-awaited answer of d’Éon’s gender – but it was not what anyone of the time would have expected or understood. While possessing of fully-formed male organs, d’Éon had many feminine characteristics, including “breasts remarkably full.” As such, d’Éon was possibly intersex.

The Chevalier d’Éon teaches us many things in hindsight. She taught us that gender fluidity is nothing new, nor is the extent to which others willfully misunderstand it. She showed us that a society willing to label people as “other” risks losing contributions from some of its best and brightest. Mostly, however, d’Éon demonstrated that intelligence, courage, and accomplishment are not byproducts of gender or gender identity, but rather of the human spirit. As she might have said, gender and gender identity should be of no consequence in how we treat one another. We are all just human beings adrift on the sea of a boundless universe, and so should cling to one another with grateful appreciation for everyone’s unique story.

Weird Regency: The Hammersmith Ghost Murder

Everyone loves a good ghost story. People of virtually every society over the entire course of human history have told and believed ghost stories. The years surrounding and including the Regency era were no different. However, one particular story resulted in a series of fantastic twists that played out over the course of 180 years.

This particular ghost story began with apparent hysteria in the Hammersmith area of London in 1803. A man who took his own life had been buried in the Hammersmith churchyard, a move opposed by many who said that suicide victims could not be interned on consecrated ground. They feared his restless soul would haunt the cemetery. Not long after, two women, one elderly and one pregnant, reported being seized by a tall white ghost near the churchyard. Rumors spread that the women later died of shock (though this appears to be untrue). A brewer’s servant, Thomas Groom, reported that a spectral figure rose from behind a tombstone and grabbed his throat. Night-watchman William Girdler reported pursuing the ghost near Beaver Lane. Public hysteria mounted. Because London did not have an organized police force, local citizens formed armed patrols to find and perhaps exorcise the ghost.

Late in the evening of January 3, 1804, Girdler encountered a citizen patrolman, Francis Smith, who was armed with a shotgun and expressed his intent to find the ghost. Girdler joined him briefly before they parted ways. Shortly after, Girdler and another man heard a gunshot and hurried toward the sound. There they found an agitated Smith and a ghostly figure lying prone on the ground.

Twist #1: On closer examination, the ghost proved to be Thomas Millwood, a local bricklayer. He was clad in the clothing of his trade: white linen pants, a white waistcoat, and a white apron that covered most of his midsection. He had just left from a visit with his parents and sister when Smith challenged him: “Damn you. Who are you and what are you? Damn you, I will shoot you!” Smith fired his weapon and the shot to the jaw killed Millwood instantly.

Francis Smith was arrested and put on trial for willful murder. At stake was the question of self-defense. If a man feared for his life and took action, was he innocent, even if his life was never in danger? Substantial evidence was offered from both viewpoints. Millwood’s widow admitted that she had told her husband not to wear white, fearing he would be mistaken for a ghost. Many spoke of Smith’s good character. However, Millwood’s sister overheard the exchange, and reported that Smith shot her brother immediately after issuing the challenge, leaving no time for Millwood to reply.

Twist #2: After one hour of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of manslaughter. The judge rejected the verdict, telling the jury that they must find the defendant guilty of murder or acquit him. The jury eventually returned a second time with a verdict of murder, with a mandatory sentence of hanging and dissection. However, owing to the odd circumstances, the chief judge referred the case to the King. King George commuted Smith’s death sentence to one year of hard labor.

Twist #3: Due to the publicity of the case, the actual culprit stepped forward. Alas, it was not a ghost, but a shoemaker called John Graham. The shoemaker’s apprentice had been frightening Graham’s children with ghost stories. To exact revenge, Graham had dressed in a white sheet to frighten the apprentice and then others. The attacks near the churchyard were his doing. There is no record of Graham ever being punished.

Twist #4: In 1984, 180 years later, the courts heard a case where a man saw two men dragging another man down a street. He intervened to help the victim, where he injured one of those dragging the man. It turns out that the “victim” was a thief and the two men were dragging him to the police. The attacker was charged with assault. However, the court eventually ruled that the attacker was innocent of assault because he believed he was acting in good faith for the sake of the community. The ruling was written into law in 2008, and referenced the Hammersmith Ghost case as prior precedent. Ironically, the ruling would have saved Francis Smith from a guilty verdict – because he acted in good faith for the sake of the community.

Ghosts, murder, twists, and turns. The Hammersmith Ghost case featured them all, and took 200 years to resolve. A good ghost story, indeed!

Once Upon a Time…In the Regency

In his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino transports us back in time to an event that plunged the psyche of a nation into darkness, and then reimagines a better outcome. The stain of the Manson murders still lingers in the American public consciousness even fifty years later. The people of Regency Era Britain experienced a similar moment of collective descent into darkness: the death of Princess Charlotte. Her shocking demise left a mark on the public spirit that lingered for years.

Princess Charlotte’s extended family was the very picture of chaos. Her once-beloved grandfather had disappeared from the public eye as he battled the ravages of mental illness. Her father, the Prince Regent, had become a national joke. He entertained a parade of mistresses, spent a fortune on amusements, drinking, and gambling, and became obese and syphilitic. His marriage to Charlotte’s mother, Caroline, was a sham. The couple expressed mutual disgust for one another and came together only long enough to produce a single pregnancy. Charlotte grew up largely without her mother, who was the subject of one scandal after another (some hearsay, others not).

This dysfunctional family of Caligulan proportions somehow produced Charlotte, a veritable rock of normalcy and stability in that sea of chaos. By all accounts, she was intelligent, witty, vibrant, and warm-hearted. She energized every room she entered. As a child, she was an unabashed tomboy who rode horses recklessly and engaged in fisticuffs with the boys. Once, as crowds gathered to see the young princess, she slipped outside and joined the crowd unnoticed and unrecognized. Lady Charlotte Bury, a lady-in-waiting to Caroline and a diarist whose writings have survived, described the Princess as a “fine piece of flesh and blood” who possessed a candid manner and rarely chose to “put on dignity”. Despite her father’s dismay, this array of characteristics made Charlotte immensely popular with nobleman and commoner alike. Deeply disappointed with their current rulers, the British public began greatly anticipating the day their beloved Charlotte would take the throne. Many referred to her as “Britain’s Hope and Glory”.

When Charlotte reached 18, the Prince Regent tried to push her into a political marriage with William, Hereditary Prince of Orange. Although initially agreeing to the arrangement, Charlotte came to despise William and decided she would rather marry for love. She broke off the engagement and fled Carlton House in a hackney cab (with the help of a passerby, because as royalty, she didn’t know how to hail a cab). Her escape became the talk of London, and everyone sided with her against the Prince Regent. Adoring crowds treated her as if she was already queen. Eventually, she convinced her father to allow her to marry the impoverished Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who earned his living in the Russian cavalry. It was apparently the love match she had sought. On the day of the wedding, May 2 of 1817, crushing crowds descended on London in perhaps the greatest social spectacle seen in that city before or since. True to her wit, she giggled during the wedding ceremony when the prince promised to endow her with all his earthly goods – of which he had none.

The happy couple soon set about to produce an heir. Charlotte wrote that Leopold was “the perfection of a lover”, and the two were rarely apart. He spoke to her tenderly and wrote of his love for her. After two miscarriages, Charlotte carried a baby to term. As the birth neared, she was attended by Sir Richard Croft, the equivalent of a midwife. When Charlotte’s labor neared the two-day mark, Croft forbade a doctor from intervening to save the life of both mother and child. After 50 hours of labor, Charlotte delivered a stillborn boy “of uncommon beauty”. Hours later, her health declined and she died at the tender age of 21, likely from internal hemorrhaging.

Her shocking death plunged Britain into deep mourning. The general populace felt as if all hope for the future of the kingdom had died with their princess. That sense of malaise would linger for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the Prince Regent’s brother, Edward, saw an opportunity. He abandoned his mistress, married, and produced an heir. That heir would become Queen Victoria, who ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901. Initially, Victoria was not nearly as popular with the public as Charlotte had been. Her isolated and repressed upbringing left her unable to relate to the common people. She evolved over time, and eventually won the kingdom’s loyalty through stubbornness and longevity. More importantly, she became the central icon of the new Victorian morality which established a dichotomy of proper public behavior but repressed private behavior, individual morality but national moral ambiguity.

But, what if?

What if Princess Charlotte had survived? What if she had ruled in Victoria’s stead? What if she had presided over the massive technical and cultural shifts of the 1800s? What if her vibrant personality had illuminated the path of that change? Would Britain have become a different version of herself under the auspices of a beloved queen? Would the wider world have become a different rendition of what it is?

These questions are unanswerable. However, I like to imagine an alternate reality where Charlotte’s labor was handled differently, she gave birth to a healthy boy, and she survived and flourished. A reality where Queen Charlotte ascended the throne and led her adoring subjects with the warmth, energy, intelligence, and passion she possessed in abundance. A reality where the world benefited from her singular leadership.

Alas, we are left with a nothing more than a ‘what if’. For such a reality exists only in a fantasy place – once upon a time in the Regency.

First Manuscript Sale!

I recently sold my first manuscript to a traditional publisher. Entangled Publishing purchased Fair Weather Enemies for publication on February 10 under their Scandalous imprint. Editing and artwork are in progress.

Fair Weather Enemies features two people whose families have been feuding for generations. When they join forces to avoid mutual financial ruin, sparks fly! This is a Regency era HEA romance.

Because this is my first sale, every step of the process is a new found land. I’m like a goose: I wake up in a new world every morning.

How Ross Poldark Left Me Clueless

I have a confession to make. I am writer, and yet have no clue what I am doing. Seriously. Not a clue.

Three years ago, I decided to become a writer of historical romance; Regency era in particular. I still can’t fully explain that decision, but blame Ross Poldark. A binge watch of the first season of Poldark followed by a binge read of twenty or so Regency era romance novels precipitated the event. I had no clue at the time what I was doing, but began the writing process anyway.

Since then, I have penned four manuscripts, entered a couple of dozen contests, queried perhaps twenty agents, and joined the RWA, the Austin RWA chapter, and the Beau Monde RWA chapter. During that time, I really had no clue what I was doing. I attended local RWA meetings, met some nice fellow writers, and gained much valuable insight. Each of my four manuscripts finaled in or won at least two contests. Every single agent said some variation of, “No, thank you. Best of luck.”

A couple of months ago, I entered one of my manuscripts in a pitch contest spnsored by my local RWA chapter. That led an editor at Entangled Publishing to request the full manuscript. She passed it along to another editor, who requested more information. At the end of a whirlwind three week period, Entangled Publishing offered me a contract on the manuscript. Now, ahead of me lies the laborious process of working with my editor and publisher to somehow transform the manscript into something worthy of reading. I’m a lot excited and a little intimidated.

Because, I still have no clue what I’m doing.

Saving Scotland: How a Regency-Era Writer Preserved Scotland As We Know It

When considering Scotland, one cannot help but imagine kilts, bagpipes, Highland games, and clan tartans. However, the Scotland as we know it nearly faded from history two centuries ago until a Regency-era writer saved it nearly singlehandedly.

To understand the context of Scotland’s fall and rise, we must travel back in time. Scotland warred with England for centuries, led by familiar heroes such as William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. During that period, Scotland devolved into effectively two cultures: Highland and Lowland. Highland culture featured the romanticized life of clans we associate with Scotland today. The more populous Lowlands largely reflected the culture of English cities, distinct from the Highland culture. During the 1500’s, Protestantism swept through England and the Scottish Lowlands. The Scottish Highlands remained staunchly Catholic. When young Mary Queen of Scots inherited the Scottish throne, the Lowlanders did not accept her Catholic roots. They eventually deposed her in favor of her infant son, James, who was raised Protestant.

When Queen Elizabeth I of England died in 1603 without heirs, James also inherited the English throne, making him the first king of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. His great-grandson, James II, converted to Catholicism while exiled in France during the English Civil War. When he finally ascended the throne, Protestant England rebelled and he fled into exile once again. His Protestant daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband, William, ruled jointly in his place. However, many in Scotland and England longed for the return of James II. Their reasons were diverse: religious, political, nationalistic, sexist, and economic. Regardless of reasons, this group called themselves Jacobites, taken from the Latin name for James. Over the course of the ensuing decades, Jacobites launched a series of unsuccessful rebellions to return James II or his male descendants to the throne. During that period, England and Scotland unified into the United Kingdom in 1707 under Queen Anne (of the recent film, The Favourite). This union further agitated Jacobites throughout the kingdom.

In 1745, the grandson of James II, Charles, arrived in Scotland to start a new Jacobite uprising. The charismatic “Bonnie Prince Charlie” amassed a loyal army and enjoyed surprising success. His army routed royal forces, invaded England, and drove to within 120 miles of London. However, expected Jacobite support in England never materialized, so the army retreated to Scotland. In 1746, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army was utterly destroyed at the Battle of Culloden, recently made world famous by the Outlander novels and television series. Prince Charlie escaped and was smuggled to the island of Skye by Flora MacDonald, an event immortalized by the Skye Boat Song (the theme song for the Outlander series, incidentally). Regardless, the rebellion had ended in failure.

In the aftermath, the British government took a hard look at what had caused the Jacobite rebellions. Despite the complex reasons and Jacobite support in all corners of the kingdom, the government wanted a simple answer with a simple solution. They decided that the Scottish Highland way of life was to blame for all the kingdom’s ills, and passed laws effectively banning Highland culture. Concurrently, the government began the Highland Clearances, a depopulation of the Scottish Highlands. This latter practice lasted a century, reducing the population of the Highlands from 1.5 million to 300,000 through starvation, forced emigration, and transportation. Many Highland Scots ended up in America and Australia, playing critical roles in the founding of those nations. The net effect, though, was the near-extinction of the Highland culture in Scotland. By the Regency era, Highland culture was perhaps a generation away from disappearing from the collective memory, and Scotland was on its way to becoming merely Northern England.

Enter Walter Scott. Already a famous poet, Scott harbored higher ambitions as a writer. While growing up in the Scottish borderlands, he obsessively collected stories of Scottish lore and desired to somehow novelize them. In 1814, he published the first of his Waverley novels. The story follows an English soldier during the Jacobite rebellion who falls in love with the Highlands and switches loyalties to the Jacobite cause. The novel became a smash success across Britain and romanticized the public perception of the Scottish Highlands and its people. Among the book’s most ardent fans was Prinny himself, the Prince Regent. The prince demanded to meet the “author of Waverley” and thus became one of the few to know the author’s identity.

When the Prince Regent was crowned King George IV, he quickly called for a state visit to Scotland, driven largely by his love of Scott’s novels. No English monarch had visited Scotland in nearly two centuries, so this was an astonishing turn of events. George appointed none other than Walter Scott to prepare Edinburgh for his visit. However, Scott faced a serious problem. The Scotland of his novels no longer existed due to the aforementioned laws to erase Highland culture. Not to worry. With a royal carte blanche in hand, Scott pulled together a Highland pageant the likes of which Scotland had never seen before, complete with clans, kilts, bagpipes, and Highland games. King George was delighted by the display, and even appeared in public wearing the kilt of his Stuart ancestors (at Scott’s convincing). Although British media lampooned his appearance in a kilt, the grateful Scottish people went wild for it. George found in the Scots something he failed to find elsewhere in his kingdom: adoration.

The aftermath of King George’s visit proved dramatic. The royal house and the beau monde began adopting Scottish traditions, particularly kilts and bagpipes at formal events. The people of England began viewing Scotland as a romantic place rather than a backwater. Most importantly, the Scottish people rediscovered their national identity. Not only did Highlanders resurrect their traditions, but Scottish Lowlanders embraced the Highland traditions as their own. In short, the Highland culture came to define all of Scotland and influence the nobility of the rest of the kingdom.

George’s niece, Queen Victoria, followed in her uncle’s footsteps. Also an avid fan of Scott’s Waverley novels, she wasted little time in making Scotland her favorite holiday spot, and purchased Balmoral Castle as a royal family hideaway. She is even said to have given the order to raise soldiers’ kilts from below the knee to above the knee. She claimed it eased their movement in battle, but you decide her motives. Victoria’s embrace of Scotland created an explosion of tourism from other parts of the kingdom. Soon, all of the British empire became enamored with Highland culture, a culture that defines Scotland to this day.

In gratitude to Walter Scott, the Scots built him a striking monument in Edinburgh. At 210 feet in height, it is the tallest monument to a writer in the world. The monument is appropriate for a best-selling author of the Regency era who had rescued his homeland’s culture from oblivion. After centuries of war, Scotland was saved not by a sword and the fire of a cannon, but by a pen and the fire of imagination.

Why Men Should Read Romance

Men don’t read romance novels, and if they do, they don’t admit it.

That statement is both truth and fiction, reality and myth. I am living proof. For context, the primary arc of a romance story is the development of a romantic relationship between two characters (or more) where the characters achieve a Happily Ever After. According to 2018 survey results from Romance Writers of America, only 16 percent of romance readers are men. Although statistics show that the average woman reads more books per year than does the average man, the difference does not remotely account for the statistical imbalance.

Why, then? Why do men generally eschew reading romance in favor of other genres? I am no sociologist, but that won’t stop me from playing one on the internet. Given that disclaimer, let me offer a few untrained observations on the subject of “why”.

During early childhood, boys and girls are exposed to similar stories. Mice and cookies, brown bears, cats in hats, and so on. As their appreciation for “story” takes hold, they turn their attention to more sophisticated tales. Disney Corporation expertly taps into this next level of sophistication with a library of classic films. What is the common thread among these films? You guessed it. They are love stories, pure and simple. Even if what the story portrays is not traditional romance, they all send the same message: Love conquers all. The underlying theme is one of cooperation: we are better together than we are apart.

From this common base, however, boys begin to deviate. The prevailing Western male culture begins taking hold as boys age into society. Boys are taught to prize tactical traits over cooperative ones. These include physical strength, emotional guardedness, competitiveness, individuality, a willingness to fight, a desire to win. Thus, while girls continue developing a more cooperative and connected mesh of relationships, boys are thrust into the hierarchy of the male social ladder. Once on the ladder, boys are taught three lessons:

  • Your worth is dictated by your position on the ladder.
  • You must identify who is above you on the ladder so you may challenge them.
  • You must identify who is below you on the ladder so you may repress them.

Of course, this is a gross generalization, I know. However, it does express the world of adolescence experienced in some form by the bulk of Western males. The underlying message is, “Conquer or be conquered.” In this context, boys gravitate toward stories of adventure, battle, achievement, glory, and other themes that inform them how to survive on the ladder. Somewhere along the way, they all but abandon stories of romance. Why? As Leonard Cohen wrote, “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” Love means surrendering. Love means turning loose of those prized traits, trading conquest for connection, competition for cooperation, winning for the wonder. It means offering vulnerability in the give-and-take dance of two souls. None of this seems particularly useful on the male social ladder, particularly in light of the behavior of societal leaders who drag this insidious ladder onto the world stage.

These prized traits, however, hide a terrible truth. Achievement through conquest leaves the individual more isolated, paranoid, and hardened as a result. These prized traits exact a terrible price.

The remedy? A return to those days of childhood when achievement came through cooperation and when love could surmount any barrier. Romance stories tend to feature some common elements. In particular, most romance novels see the characters become willingly vulnerable, bend toward one another’s dreams and desires, sacrifice self to cherish the other, and overcome all obstacles between them, all in the name of love.

When surveyed about which traits they prize in a boss, most workers do not list “ability to win” or “emotional guardedness”. Instead, they identify honesty, emotional intelligence, willingness to admit fault, self-awareness, and ability to make a personal connection. In other words, the opposite of those traits so prized on the male social ladder. Not surprisingly, surveys of the most desirable traits in a romantic partner feature this same list in some form.

Why should men read romance, then? Romance stories present an alternative view of the world that directly contradicts the lie of the male social ladder. Reading romance novels allows men to reshape their thinking, to undo destructive societal training, to return to the notions implicitly understood in childhood. This reshaping, undoing, and returning allows a man to step off a two-dimensional ladder into a three-dimensional matrix of interconnectedness. It allows him to put the prized male traits in proper perspective and bring new prized traits into the mix. It allows him to become a better leader. It allows him to become a better follower. It allows him to become more attuned to the one he cherishes most. It makes him a more active participant in the give-and-take dance of love, opening depths of relationship previously hidden from view.

In short, reading romance makes a man a better man. We should all strive to be better men. Our world, our families, and our lovers are all counting on it.

The Memory of Blue Wins Beau Monde Readers’ Choice

This past Spring, I submitted three entries to the Beau Monde Royal Ascot and Readers’ Choice contests. The Royal Ascot is the mother of all Regency romance contests, accepting entries in several categories of sexual expliciteness. Regardless of category, the four top-scoring entries are named finalists. Much to my surprise, both The Memory of Blue and Finding Wychwood made the finals. After final round judging, Finding Wychwood placed second and The Memory of Blue third. As a bonus, The Memory of Blue was named Readers’ Choice winner for Sweet and Mild Regency. Although the category sounds like a salsa, I’ll take it! I like salsa very much. And I am grateful to the Beau Monde for a wonderful contest.