Sarah Tolerance: Fallen Woman and Regency Private Eye

Point of Honour, in which we meet Sarah Tolerance
Point of Honour, in which we meet Sarah Tolerance
“It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a Fallen Woman of Good Family must, soon or late, descend to Whoredom.”

The Sarah Tolerance books by Madeleine E. Robins are possibly the most unique historical mysteries out there, because the history in them is, partly, fantasy.  The series began with Point of Honour (2005) and continued with Petty Treason (2006).  After a gap, Robins has published a third novel in the series, The Sleeping Partner (2011), with a new publisher, Plus One Press. 

According to the author’s blog, another novel in the series will follow, and she is negotiating to have the two previous books made available as e-books.  This made me very happy, because I’ve long wanted to revisit the series, particularly in light of how, in years since I originally read them, I’ve become more and more interested in how different genres can be played against each other to create intriguing results.  In this case, mingling genres allows for some fascinating commentary on the constraints of Regency England.

So, you ask, how is Sarah Tolerance’s world fantastical?  Robins began her writing career with Regency romances.  She comments on her website for the Sarah Tolerance series that “I knew too much about the “real” English regency to feel that I could do what I wanted to do within its constraints…[I wanted] a world rooted in our own–with a few twitches to make it a more comfortable fit for Miss Tolerance’s stories.”  In other words, a way to tell her own stories, that were different from anything else out there.

The primary difference from our year 1810 is that in Miss Tolerance’s world, Queen Charlotte becomes the Regent, rather than George (“Prinny”).  This leads to somewhat higher status for women in a few areas.  This allows a woman—if socially unsuited for marriage, like Sarah Tolerance—to become an Agent of Inquiry on her own.  By keeping much of history the same, though, the constraints of the “original” historical world are maintained, resulting in fascinating tensions.  For example, a woman on the respectable marriage market would not have been able to run her own business.

Madeleine Robins, The Sleeping Partner
The Sleeping Partner, the latest Sarah Tolerance mystery
In the series, Miss Tolerance (never “Sarah”!) had status in society, but lost it through running away with her brother’s fencing master.  Ever after, even after her lover’s death, she is known as a Fallen Woman, a semi-official designation.  Most Fallen Women in this world become courtesans, but that isn’t their only choice.  While being Fallen means Miss Tolerance lacks some protections, at the same time it gives her additional freedoms if she is willing to become, essentially, a lone wolf. 

This historical adjustment comments on the “real” Regency society much as noir mysteries in general comment on the societies in which they’re set, with the added benefit of fantastic extrapolation of how things might have been different.  In addition, it allows Robins to fit Miss Tolerance more tightly within the boundaries of traditional noir detectives.  Like them, she moves among different layers of a hierarchical society.  Like them, she has little or no family and few, if any, friends to support her.

Miss Tolerance has some (ambiguous) support, most notably from her Aunt Thea, also Fallen, who runs a brothel.  Aunt Thea lets out a small house in the rear, where Miss Tolerance can both live and see clients, but she doesn’t always provide all of the emotional support Miss Tolerance needs.  No one in the books seems to have pure motives, and they’re usually concealing something, which complicates Miss Tolerance’s investigations.  So far as romantic entanglements go, she’s more noir detective than Regency romance heroine, almost hiding her vulnerability beneath a tough exterior.

Miss Tolerance herself is brave, moral, and a mean hand with a sword.  In proper noir detective fashion, she suffers physical and mental pain stoically.  Finally she always, eventually, solves the case, no matter how complex and dangerous the solution turns out to be.  Despite a few surface distinctions due to the historical setting, I feel Miss Tolerance takes her place squarely  in the noir detective canon.


Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories.  Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice.  Follow her on Twitter:  @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.

Comments

  1. Clare 2e

    I haven’t encoutered this series before, but, as a fan of every genre it bends, I should give it a try. Thanks for the tip!

  2. Laura K. Curtis

    You know, Clare, I was thinking the exact same thing!

  3. Lon Bailey

    I’m glad she’s written another. I don’t usually read the Regency period, but the main character is just so interesting and it drives the story along, despite my dislike of alternative history. I readily recommend these to crime fiction readers who wamted to try something different.

  4. Becca Hollingsworth

    I am so glad there’s a third one of these; I read the first two when they were new and really enjoyed them. I’d been reading a lot of Regency romances and history at the time, so the differences between that and Miss Tolerance’s slightly skewed Regency were fascinating.

  5. Megan Frampton

    So happy to hear about a third book! I loved the first two, and read them back when alternate realities weren’t quite as familiar to me as now, so they were revelatory. I have to buy the third–thanks!

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