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A Lady’s Formula for Love by Elizabeth Everett

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A Lady’s Formula for Love

by Elizabeth Everett
February 9, 2021 · Berkley
Historical: EuropeanRomance

Content warning: Discussion of a trans character who isn’t treated very well by the narrative.

A Lady’s Formula for Love is a story about love, politics, science and the frustrations and difficulties of being a woman in 1840s England. It’s also a story about second chances, and reclaiming yourself after years of needing to be – or believing yourself to be – someone else. Perhaps most of all, it’s a story about claiming the right to be happy, with or without the approval of society. While Claudia, Carrie, and I all enjoyed reading the book, when we started to discuss it, we found structural problems and character decisions that alternately baffled or enraged us.

Violet Hughes, Lady Greycliff, is a respectable widow and has worked hard to become the perfect lady, at least outwardly. She is also a scientist, and the founder of Athena’s Retreat – purportedly London’s first social club for ladies, but in fact a place where like-minded women of all classes can focus on their scientific avocations, free from the obligations of their home duties. Alas, the club has been attracting negative attention from the press, as well as a saboteur. While a certain number of explosions and fires are only to be expected in a building that houses so many experimental chemists, these incidents have increased in frequency, and do not appear to have a basis in the work of the scientific ladies.

Enter Arthur Kneland, international man of mystery, hired by Violet’s stepson to act as her bodyguard. After more than two decades as a government agent, Arthur is looking forward to completing this one last assignment before his retirement. Forming attachments to the people he is protecting is a dangerous distraction, but he is instantly attracted to Violet, and the feeling is mutual.

Claudia: I found the first third or so of this book to be confusing. This may be more on me than on the book, since I started reading it right around the holidays. So pacing was definitely an issue for me and also character overload – I felt there were too many, with a lot of backstories to keep track.

Carrie: Same, Claudia – I feel like this book is working too hard to establish itself as a series. I had a hard time getting into it and found the ending to be problematic, yet the middle was great. I also wondered if holiday drama was part of my problem.

Catherine: Oh, interesting – I found it hard to get into, but I actually liked the ensemble cast quite a bit.

Claudia: Yes, for sure, just that it was all a bit jumbled in the beginning, for me.

Catherine: It did take me a while to get all the Eccentric Science Ladies straight, though.

Speaking of which, I wish they hadn’t gone with the Eccentric Science Ladies trope. I like science ladies! But must they all be impractical / eccentric / a wee bit silly? Are we afraid to have women who are both intellectually brilliant and also sensible?

Claudia: Apparently, we are, because several of the ladies had that mad-scientist streak.

Catherine: Yeah. I felt like there were only two with any common sense at all. Even Violet kept losing her sense of time and place and forgetting to eat…I really wanted to love the club, but that frustrated me, especially given the difficulties women scientists still have being taken seriously today.

On the other hand, I loved that even the servants were studying maths and physics, though I did wonder where they were finding the time.

Claudia: I wondered the same thing. You truly need to have some serious downtime if studying calculus is not your full-time gig!

Catherine: Maybe they are all working part time? And are paid full-time wages by progressive Violet?

Claudia: That would be dreamy, for sure.

Carrie: It sounds like the kind of thing she would do.

Catherine: I mean, she is an idealist. And her club appears to include working-class, or at least non-gentry-class women.

Speaking of, how do you feel about class in this book?

Claudia: I felt it was handled OK for the most part, but I was taken aback that Violet would be working for the government and, in essence, aiding efforts to suppress workers’ rights.

Catherine: Yeees… it was played as though the workers rights stuff was inherently violent, when it wasn’t, necessarily.

Claudia: That made me very uneasy. We are only told in the vaguest of terms that the ones involved were part of a radical (for the times) fringe, and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe Violet should be using her talents to help the worker’s rights movement rather than to hinder it.

Catherine: Especially given her otherwise progressive ways! Though there is also that bit when someone in her club talks about the difficulties of working class women in accessing the club, because of other calls on their time, and it has literally never crossed her mind.

Claudia: To that point – Violet has led a sheltered life, and yet she’s this amazing boss who lets you study calculus in your free time…

Catherine: Well… I’ve worked for people who are REALLY GREAT at accommodating the things that occur to them, and crap at the ones that are outside their experience. I’m guessing she puts herself into the shoes of a young woman and goes ‘I know! She wants calculus! Because I would want calculus!’ But she doesn’t necessarily have the imagination to do the same for a woman with children, or a working class man. I feel like there is something to be said here about awareness and intersectionality, but I don’t know how to say it.

Carrie: I know exactly what you mean. She is helpful about the problems that are right in front of her but not imaginative enough to figure out what other people’s lives might actually be like.

With regard to class struggle and the rights of women, in the end the book catastrophically dropped the ball. I’m of a divided mind here because while I favor nonviolence as a tactic generally, the pages and pages, OMG, so many pages of Arthur and Violet preaching about how the worker’s movement has been poisoned by hate and they can take a third way – it was sanctimonious, self-righteous, and patronizing. It sounded so much like White people telling Black Lives Matter protesters that blocking freeways is a bad tactic because it causes inconvenience. The “just be nice and you will win” theme was offensive to me.

What makes it worse is that Violet and Arthur DON’T take the third way. Their new awareness counts for nothing. They aren’t vowing to set up a system by which the more affluent members assist the less affluent with, for instance, childcare or household help or supplies. They aren’t making plans to fight for worker’s rights or women’s rights in the press or the government. They fail to acknowledge the fact that pitting two marginalized groups against each other (in this case workers and women) being pitted against each other is a classic way that oppressive systems stay in place.

So much of this book hinged for me on whether Violet became more aware and what she would choose to do with this awareness and she chooses to do nothing other than what she already does – which is substantial but narrow in scope. I adore Violet, but because this book essentially pits her against a worker’s rights movement, one which you would expect her to support, I find myself completely frustrated with her.

I also was terribly frustrated by her role in Athena’s Retreat. Violet keeps talking about how her husband made her spend less and less time on science and more and more time on domestic affairs – but that’s exactly how she functions as a leader of the Retreat, and that problem is never addressed. Everyone is always mad at her for not doing enough to support the club and she hardly ever gets to work on actual science.

Catherine: Maps kind of horrifyingly well to being a modern day lab head, though. She has the funding and the seniority, she can direct the research, and she never gets any lab time…

Carrie: The end of this book should have seen a restructuring of the retreat to work on more accessibility to lower-income women, more equal distribution of tasks, and a role for the house as a public advocate of, for instance, shorter working hours and education for women and for the laboring class. I was depressed that this didn’t fully take place. Just because I want Violet to be more intersectional doesn’t mean that I think she should have to take on every conceivable task all by herself, which is what she has been doing to her own detriment.

Claudia: I absolutely agree, Carrie.

Can we talk about Henry Winthram now? Winthram is a trans man who is sort of Violet’s right-hand person (officially, he’s a footman.) He’s also the brother of the leader of the radical workers’ movement.

He was basically rejected by his family, or at least by his brother, which is no small matter. And the book never deals with it at all. It made me uncomfortable.

Catherine: At first glance and from my cis/straightish perspective, I felt like it was nice to have some casual trans representation in there without it being a giant Thing. And it fitted in with some of the book’s themes about accepting yourself and not being bound by gender roles.

But… Winthram also gets a very standard trans person plot, I think. Rejected by blood family, accepted by found family, the end. No space to develop, and not a lot of agency, either. I wish they had made him a scientist rather than a footman!

Claudia: Definitely. He was a part of the story, but very peripherally, and the way the brother kept asking him to return to the family only if he’d live as a woman was off-putting.

Carrie: I disagree that the representation is not a giant thing. Ultimately all we know about Winthram is that he likes Violet and being trans sucks for him. His tragic past is his entire identity.

There was also Arthur’s approach to him which ended in a place of protective acceptance, which is very in character for Arthur if somewhat patronizing (I adored the bit when Arthur longed to go out drinking with him). Still, Arthur was initially less than fully accepting (again, totally plausible for the place and time, but still potentially hurtful to trans readers.)

Winthram’s character portrayal is also problematic because his arc is entirely in service to Violet’s. He models to her the importance of leaving everything behind in order to be your authentic self. I found this to be a real disservice to Winthram.

I felt that Winthram’s character was written specifically for the benefit of non-trans readers, to teach us that transgender people need to be accepted for who they are. While I agree, I also think that for a transgender person, plot elements such as Arthur’s initial dubiousness, the tragic past in service to Violet’s arc, the repeated and gratuitous dead-naming by the brother could be hurtful.

Catherine: Oof. I missed a lot of that, but I think you are right.

So we haven’t talked about the romance yet…

Claudia: The romance was of the insta-lust variety, but in this case, it mostly worked for me.

Catherine: Yes, for me too. I liked that Violet and Arthur are so frank with each other. There is a lot of respect between them, from the start. Especially because Violet always had to hide herself during sex with her husband (or, really, during her marriage in general, which seems to have been all about turning herself into someone else), so it was lovely having that honesty and that tenderness between them.

Claudia: Exactly! I was happy to see Violet embrace her carnal side, which was obliterated during her marriage.

Carrie: It was one of the few romances in which I didn’t skip the sex scenes. I loved that Arthur loves Violet exactly as she is and helps her appreciate that who she is is not someone to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.

Claudia: They both felt seen for the first time. I felt that they would bring out the best in each other and Arthur would continue to be supportive of Violet’s work. But the book relied on one of my least favorite resolutions:

Show Spoiler

which is “I really can’t marry you… Wait a minute, actually, I can!”

Catherine: I’m trying to remember what actually brought about his change of heart.

Claudia: Also not dealt with — what their being together would really mean for the club. We are told that the club’s reputation would suffer, because Violet would be marrying beneath her. And the club was so important to her, it was her life! How do you give up something like that? Very little of that made to the pages.

Show Spoiler

Catherine: But she doesn’t give up the club, in the end. She offers to, which makes no sense to me at all, admittedly, but the plan is to stay in London and fix things, isn’t it?

Claudia: Yes, it was all left very vague. There’s no second in command that could take over, or at least not someone with the same clout. So we are left wondering how the club would fare.

Carrie: I also was confused. Being with Arthur is catastrophic for the club until it isn’t? Okey dokey.

Catherine: I do want to talk about the other relationships in this book, because I thought they were very well done, and one of the great strengths of the story.

I liked Violet’s relationship with her stepson, Grey. I don’t recall a romance where the dowager gets along well with her stepson who has inherited the title – that’s usually a source of antagonism. And I adored her relationship with Grantham, her childhood friend. I love that he is absolutely Team Violet in theory, but nonetheless takes a remarkably long time to recognise that Violet is the one who gets to set Team Violet’s agenda and that she does, in fact, know what she wants.

Also, Arthur figuring out how to make friends with people, much against his instincts and training! I nearly cried…

Claudia: Yes, it would have been so easy for Violet to say yes to Grantham!

Carrie: The black buns! So well-written and also made me hungry.

Catherine: Overall, then, how do we grade this?

Claudia: Violet and Arthur spend 75% of their time on page pining for each other and fearing all the entanglement and consequences, until it’s all neatly tied with a bow. It’s a hard book to grade, because some of it was very enjoyable for me. They were both people who had to put their own lives on hold to serve others, and got to say, “it’s me time now.” I just wish some of that “hell with the world” had been explored more.

Catherine: Oh yes, if only!

To me, this is one of those books that has a bunch of structural and plot issues, but which really works on an emotional level. It has some some really fun ideas and plot threads – the ladies’ science club, the assassination plot, the heroine who Must Science To Save The World – but they don’t quite hang together. The friendships, the romantic relationships, the sibling-like relationships, were all strong and complex and nuanced, and I wanted more. So it’s a really enjoyable read, but doesn’t stand up so well to detailed analysis.

Carrie: Yes to everything both of you said!

Claudia: So, final grade? I am leaning C+.

Carrie: For the most part I enjoyed this book while I was reading it but I closed it and started typing and turned into a rage factory immediately. C+?

Catherine: Yes, this feels like a C+ to me. The fact that this is a debut makes me pretty excited for the next one, though, because I think that while structural issues can be frustrating, getting to the heart of characters is what we read romances for, fundamentally. And that’s done really well here.

Carrie: I think this is a C range book – but I also think that the core of the book, the actual romance itself, was lovely. It’s crammed into a book that is overstuffed with characters and ideas (Mean girls! Fashion! Transphobia! Resistance tactics! Secrets! Sequel bait!) and lacks payoff for almost all of them. But the actual sense that these two people feel peaceful and happy with each other, and the sense of liberation, contentment and mutual acceptance that they find together is lovely.

Claudia: C+ for me, and not to speak for both of you but I think it’s fair to say that all three of us had a similar reaction: Enjoying it for the most part but upon further reflection there was a lot that didn’t sit right.

Catherine: But I’ll definitely read the sequel.

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