Alternate History and Miss Tolerance

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?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe

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Alternate History and Miss Tolerance — 19 Comments

  1. Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. If you’re not paying attention you might think it’s near-future our world (OK, except for the vampires…), but she tosses out clues in a graceful manner and your head spins around a couple of times and you realize it’s not only a different time, it’s a different place entirely.

  2. For ‘time-splitting’, I’ve been intrigued by Eric Flint’s ‘1632’ series. The historical detail is wonderfully crafted.

    Although some of his fictional characters are of the stereotypical 20th Century white US redneck ilk I can get past that because of the depth of his cast of supporting characters.

    What’s really intriguing though is that he opened the series up to his fan-fic writers, and a whole universe has been spawned.

    It’s a fascinating experiment.

  3. Naomi Novik with her Temeraire series. Of course you can’t mistake books about battle dragons for true history but the feel of the Napoleonic era is there all right.

  4. I’ve not read these fictional alternate histories–although they sound intriguing, so I’ll look for them, but there’s a newish sub branch of academic history called “contrafactual,” wherein historians can have fun playing what if.
    Most of it gets way beyond what if Germany had won WW II by the way.

  5. I just finished Allen Steele’s The Tranquillity Alternative, which posits an earlier and far more aggressive American space program, similar to some of the early 50’s visions of atomic rockets, moonbases and wheel-in-the-sky space stations. But when the novel begins, their 1995 is pretty much the same place our present is in — after the Soviet Union came apart and ceased to be a serious rival, everything’s shutting down. For something written in the mid-90’s, it’s eerily prescient, even catching the growing problem of North Korean ambitions. The only thing that’s missing is the War on Terror and the attendant continual compromises of our civil liberties.

    And the glimpses of a popular culture strangely askew from our own are often as interesting, if not more so, than the main storyline, which is pretty much a Clancy-style technothriller. Elvis still alive and playing with U2, John Lennon as an actor, etc. It’s making me think about how I’m approaching my own alternate history stories, at least those set in contemporary times.

  6. Walter Jon Williams’ “Days of Atonement”, now out in eBook format, set in small-town New Mexico in “the cosmos next door”. That it’s an alternate reality New Mexico just slowly creeps up on you, unless you believe that one of the town’s major religions really exists in RL. Wonderful piece of work, but I think too weird for the publishers (all of whom are back East, note) when it first came out.

  7. Jo Walton’s fairly amazing Small Change triology: Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown, in which she builds a thoroughly convincing alternate fascist Great Britain. For such a large-scope AH, it’s remarkably down to earth; the sense of peril in every day life, of how dangerous it is to be an outlier, sort of lodges behind your shoulder blades as you read, and never lets you go. I found myself wanting to talk to some of the characters, advise them not to do something chancy….

  8. A big ‘alternate history’ thing that I’m into is the ‘steampunk’ category. For example, Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, or Gail Carriger’s ‘The Parasol Protectorate’ books. It’s a widely developing subgenre that I really enjoy!

  9. I only came across the term ‘secret history’ very recently, and now I have it, I’d think you could describe the Dobrenica Duology (also just discovered that) that way, maybe? Granted, it’s a whole country that’s hidden from the historical record, instead of an unknown event. It works for me, anyway – the series and the classification both!

    It’s so great that there’s a new Sarah Tolerance!

  10. I think Guy Gavriel Kay is the standard by which I measure any other alternate history…his stories and his writing are so beautiful. They all have such a strong sense of place and time, even if the places and times they describe never really existed in that way.

    I have read the Sarah Tolerance books (the two available to the public now, anyway), and while I like them generally, I’m not terribly fond of the Prinny alternate history storyline. So far, at least, it doesn’t seem like a big enough “what if” to be worth the effort of inventing it in the first place. I find myself more distracted by the historical inaccuracy, and wondering why in the world it is supposed to matter, than swept up by it. I’d be curious to hear a little more about what you like so much about it or what you feel it brings to the story…maybe I’m missing something!

  11. Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite books (“The Wolves Chronicles”) are set in an alternate 19th century, where initially James III is king of England and the villains are the dastardly Hanoverians. It’s steam punk from before the term was invented. Great fun.