The best thing about this circa 1978 quasi-bodice ripper is the Newport cigarettes ad in the middle of it:
Charlotte takes place during the American Civil War in New York City beginning in 1863 or 1864 (both dates are given). For a historical book, it’s historical, but for a romance, the romance is lacking.
This book is only 239 pages long, but the hero doesn’t make an entrance until page 144. And he is missing-in-action for most of it. The back blurb tells you the entire plot of this dreck.
The first 100 pages or so mainly focus on the heroine’s brother, Richard. He is a debauched reprobate who parties for days on alcohol and opium binges.
What else? Oh, he sleeps with a married actress and has a threesome with a teenage bargirl and her 33-year-old mother. Then he participates in the Draft Riots by beating up cops and burning down an orphanage for young Black children. Finally, he deflowers the new virgin maid. He’s an asshole but at least he did something.
The only reason I kept reading this dull book was to relish Richard’s eventual comeuppance. Which he got, but it wasn’t horrible enough.
As for romance? I wasn’t kidding when I said there was none.
Final Analysis of Charlotte
Forget about this one. I already have.
(PS) I searched the web and so far, I only see one copy of Charlotte by Amanda Hart Douglass for sale for $49.95. Whoever is selling it should pay YOU $49.95 to get it off their hands. Yes, it’s that bad of a book!
Lovely young Charlotte Bourne was the apple of her father’s eyes and a belle of New York society. The onset of the War Between the States introduced her to young Liam Brady, whom her dissolute brother Richard had hired to serve as his substitute in the Union Army. Liam and Charlotte fall deeply in love, but before they could marry, Charlotte had to come to terms with her turbulent feelings for the two other men in her life. The raging Civil War echoed the conflict in Charlotte’s heart…
I’m not a fan of the execution of Claiming the Courtesan. I did think, though, what Anna Campbell tried to accomplish in her first book was refreshing.
She wrote a style romance I call a neo-bodice ripper. These books attempt to capture the violent sexual power dynamics of older romances yet are distinctly modern in presentation.
Something Old is New Again
I appreciated what Campbell wanted to create in the anti-hero Kylemore. A handsome, spoiled Duke, he was obsessed with hunting down his mistress Soraya who abandoned him. He was a loathsome, detestable being who cared only for his mad desires.
Initially, his intensity drew my attention. Soon, though, I found him to be a bratty, uncharismatic psycho-stalker.
I seem to be alone in this regard as I yearn for the days of stoic, inscrutable heroes. Those men whose love was shown through their actions. When they did speak, the words meant so much.
I prefer to be in the hero’s head as little as possible. Here, we’re given every angsty thought, every hateful sentiment, or lustful urge.
Soraya/Verity, with her dual personality, was an interesting albeit flawed character. She had to sell her body to help her family survive but wanted freedom.
It seemed as if Campbell intended this book to be a romantic feminist oeuvre, just like any good bodice ripper is. Because, despite their violent and rapey reputation, bodice rippers are decidedly pro-female.
Alas, Claiming the Courtesan failed to achieve what the great rippers of the ’70s & ’80s did: enlighten and titillate. This was too emo, with no thrills. The endless introspection and bad sex scenes became tedious.
The Plot & What Could Have Been
A problem with some modern romances is that authors dismiss what made many older ones great. The reader got to see the plot progress. Claiming the Courtesan lacked tension. The drama doesn’t unfold before our eyes, as the story begins in medias res with Kylemore searching for his missing mistress.
How more engaging if the book began with Kylemore meeting Verity? She would still be a courtesan whom many men desire. Over time, Kylemore seduces her away from her protector. All the while, Verity would be conflicted. Determined to leave her imposed career, she struggles with her feelings for Kylemore.
We’d see into more Verity & Kylemore’s relationship, perhaps a snarky side character or two, and more about Kylemore’s evil mother.
Then–just as the book actually began–Verity would flee from Kylemore, who would track her down and kidnap her. At that point, we’d see how their unusual bond progresses.
Finally, the epilogue would show how they deal with their scandalous relationship in polite society. Perhaps they’d decide to say to hell with the stifling ton and go to the colonies.
Instead, we hear them vow promises for a vague future.
A sex scene or two could have been cut, along with dozens of pages of inner monologue. But there’s your action; that’s a story.
Instead, there are chapters with dumps of internal dialogue.
The plot of Claiming the Courtesan consists of drawn-out events. After Verity is kidnapped (this portion alone takes up a considerable part of the novel), there are two-and-a-half-long chapters where she escapes from her carriage, is chased down in the dark by Kylemore, and is finally caught and brought to the carriage. It felt like watching a hamster run in a wheel, moving but going nowhere.
Introduced later on to add more drama are Verity’s concerned brother and Kylemore’s wicked mother. The characters feel clumsily tacked on.
The final resolution is unsatisfactory. There is a hint of a happy ending; an epilogue was necessary to cement it.
“Verity, you have a choice,” he said gently. “We eat, we talk, we pass the evening with an attempt at civility. Or we fuck. It’s up to you.”
My Opinion: The Decline of Historical Romance
My frustration with so many romances of the last two decades is that they’ve lost the art of storytelling in favor of emotional overload. Nothing happens, but every minor issue is so dramatically addressed. It’s so overwrought.
Why has historical romance degraded to wallpaper irrelevance? Is this what audiences really want? Characters dressed in old-time garments, sipping tea? Books that superficially touch upon manners, but have tons of explicit sex scenes? Heroes asking for consent at every turn and page after page of emotional hand-wringing?
I guess it is, and I’m just not part of the cool kid’s club. Give me food and clothes porn, un-politically correct mindsets, heroes who dare to do wrong, heroines who’ll slap them right back, and salacious purple prose any day.
Final Analysis of Claiming the Courtesan
This book could have sparked a retro genre of 21st-century bodice rippers, rather than just being a gimmick of a plot that led to a bit of controversy. If I want to read a romance with power struggles and dominance issues between the hero and heroine, they rarely exist in historical romances anymore. Those books have been diluted to blandness. Historicals are all so cookie-cutter. I’d have to contemporary-set BDSM romances, New Adult erotica, or paranormal fantasy to look for my spice. However, I’m just not interested in those genres.
This was such a shame. Claiming the Courtesan could have been something special, but it was bogged down in psychological analysis and not enough substance.
A wise rapper, Redman, once said, “If you gotta be a monkey, be a gorilla.” If you’re going to pen a bodice ripper, go balls-to-wall crazy with it. Have no shame about it. Be proud to be outrageous. Otherwise, stick to what everyone else writes because, apparently, it does sell.