by Sherwood Smith
Cross-time, time-splitting and alternate history themes have become so closely interwoven that it is impossible to discuss them fully apart from one another. “Alternate History” extrapolates “what if” sometimes from pivotal points in history, and sometimes from very subtle alterations. I love the latter as much as I love secret histories, but all can be done interestingly. The ones that draw me are depictions of how the world would look given the changes.
Some alternate histories read to me like fantasy of manners. That is, there is no magic involved, but the story takes place one universe over from ours, the clues being skillfully and subtly offered, so that the reader familiar with the period notes the differences, but someone whose knowledge of the Napoleonic era is general will read happily along without noticing these bumps from our history.
It’s my theory that some of the best alternate histories are those combined with other forms, like Madeleine Robins’ Miss Tolerance mysteries. Here we have an alternate Regency wherein the main character is a detective, so the reader finds a novel of manners and mystery.
Robins skillfully lets the reader know right away that this is not quite the Regency England we know; ‘Prinny’ is not the Regent for Mad King George, his wife is. And in this London, ladies can belong to clubs, where they can sit and read and drink tea, or meet and talk, or just sit and relax.
In the first, book, Point of Honour, Miss Sarah Tolerance is introduced as a fallen woman who ran off at age sixteen with her fencing master. He died—and she’s back, but Society, of course, will not condone one widowed only by the heart. Instead of taking up prostitution, as had her aunt, who gives her a home, Sarah becomes an agent of inquiry, and has a modest business going when a young, supercilious lord comes to her with the prospect of a job, on behalf of someone else.
The job is to recover a fan that a lady of ill repute was given by the mystery client’s father…not, one would think, a job that would trigger off a series of murders—and attacks on Miss Tolerance, who is quite adept with a sword.
The second and third books begin with a little discursion into manners: the fact that a lady is bound by so many invisible, but quite binding, rules. That a gentleman is not bound by the same rules, and that a gentleman may become a Rake, the implication being that any man but a gentleman, by indulging in the same vices, is nothing short of a criminal.
The second case, Petty Treason, poses a puzzle: who killed the Chevalier d’Aubigny? The French émigré was beaten to death in his own bed, found by his retainers the next morning, all the doors and windows of the house sealed tight.
Miss Tolerance uses all her skills to solve this one, while being romanced by a handsome member of the nobility. The pacing builds inexorably, and the ending is not at all predictable.
The third book, The Sleeping Partner, begins when a lady comes to hire Miss Tolerance. This lady, who is obviously using a nom de guerre, hires Miss Tolerance to find her missing sister—but she dares not supply the sister’s name, her place of residence, or who might have taken her. Miss Tolerance’s ingenuity, and her stamina, are put to the test to unravel this one, which one again builds to an unpredictable climax.
We learn a bit more about her past. And along the way Miss Tolerance encountered some persons whose presence in the story was delightfully unexpected, and made me smile. (No, not Jane Austen!)
What are some alternate histories that work for you, and why?