Pseudo-Romance Book Club: Behind a Mask


Following up on our discussion of The Odd Women, we’re going to tackle Louisa May Alcott’s Behind a Mask (1866). (Yes, I also own two paper copies of it.) Behind a Mask is a novella of about 40K words or a 100ish pages, which Alcott published under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. It’s essentially a feminist retelling of Jane Eyre, but I don’t want to say much more because you don’t want to read any spoilers. Trust me: it’s tremendous fun.

I can’t find as many e-editions, but it is free at Amazon, iBooks, and Kobo (I can’t find free editions at B&N or Google Play). But fear not! At Project Gutenberg, you can download a range of file formats and then side-load them onto your device. If you want to add it on Goodreads, you can do so here.

Because it’s short, I think we can get away with a single discussion though I wouldn’t be surprised if it runs more than an hour. I propose Monday, June 27, at 9 P.M. EST. I’m not good at pithy hashtags; leave a comment if you can come up with anything good. I’ll see you then!

ETA: Just a note to say “retelling of Jane Eyre” is probably too strong. Alcott has clearly read Jane Eyre, and I feel like Behind a Mask is concerned with that book’s problem: how does a woman who is “poor, obscure, plain and little” make her way in the world? Both Jean and Jane are governesses, they both have multiple suitors, and some other scenarios occur in both. But Jean ain’t Jane, and thus her story has a different ending. I can’t wait to talk about it with you in June.

The Odd Women, Chapters 20 – 31


We held our final discussion on George Gissing’s The Odd Women last night. If you’re looking for them, here are my notes on part 1 and part 2. Since I know some people are still reading, I’m going to hide this under the fold. Read on at your own (spoiler) risk!

Continue reading “The Odd Women, Chapters 20 – 31”

The Odd Women, Chapters 10 – 19

Last night we had our second of three discussions on George Gissing’s The Odd Women (my notes from part 1 are here). We talked about important topics such as:

  • How does Gissing feel about his female characters? Does he like them? Are they caricatures? And specifically, how does he feel about working-class women? Is the book ultimately hopeful about the odd women finding purpose and happiness?
  • Who are the most redeemable and positive characters? (At the moment, Mary Barfoot, Mr. and Mrs. Micklethwaite.)
  • Is Monica’s marriage a cautionary tale? Was she right to leave her job and was Widdowston a viable alternative?
  • How scandalous was Everard’s “free union” proposition (e.g., Rochester’s offer to take Jane Eyre as his mistress, Mary Wollstonecraft’s tumultuous life, etc.)? And how repentant did Everard seem when discussing his scandalous past?
  • Where does Rhoda’s passion for her social reform come from since she is also unsympathetic to anyone who won’t adhere to her code (e.g., the young woman she turns away who later dies of suicide)? Was her fight with Mary caused by the same things as her fights with Everard? And is Rhoda an example of what literary scholar Laura Wexler called “tender violence“?
  • How did the language in Monica and Widdowston’s wedding scene reference virginity?
  • What is the book’s political message and is it uncut by Gissing’s artistic choices (e.g., whose point-of-view we get)?

For next week, I want to know if Everard truly changed. Will Rhoda agree to “a free union”? Will anyone find happiness? Will Virginia say, “Screw you all” and go read “feebler fiction” and drink brandy? See you for our conclusion Monday!

The Odd Women, Chapters 1 – 9

Last night, a motley crew discussed the first nine chapters of George Gissing’s The Odd Women. You can relive (or live) it by reading the hashtag #oddgals, but here are some of the highlights:

  • Dr. Madden: latter day Mr. Bennet (a la P&P)?
  • What is the relationship between work (or maybe purpose) and healthy and beauty?
  • Is Alice Madden’s vegetarianism about poverty or creeping progressivism?
  • We talked about the use of description; at times there’s lot of it, but then it goes missing during pages and pages of dialogue. Why is that? What effect does it have on a modern reader?
  • Why did so many Madden sisters die in chapter two?
  • The text criticizes “feebler fiction.” What’s up with that? (And what books was Virginia reading? Where can we find them?)
  • What is the text saying about morality and the city? How does London–or an existence outside of a traditional family/social structure–shape the lives and loves of the titular odd women?
  • Courtship vs. stalking: where is the line? And is there intentional critique in the text, or are we bringing it with us?
  • Predictions: Widowwson will be bad news, Everard is dissolute, and the money situation is going to get more dire for the Madden sisters.

We also discussed the emotional connection we felt (or not) to our protagonists Monica and Rhoda. The Gissing expert, Clarissa Harwood, suggested that we’d be more engaged emotionally, and not just intellectually, in their journey next week.

So chapters 10 – 19 for next time!

Odds and Ends

  • Our not-quite-romance book club on George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893) starts on Monday. Here are the details. I’d love to see you there.
  • We’re less than a month away from the release of Earth Bound. It isn’t going to be available on Netgalley, so if you’re a reviewer and you’d like to take a look at it, please email me at author.emma.barry (at) gmail.
  • Star Dust is in a promo celebrating Sassy, Sexy, Smart historical romances. Seriously, these books are so good. (I’m trying to keep all my squee inside about this and it isn’t working.) You can get all eight for FREE here. This deal is only good through April 25 though, so click fast.


  • ETA: and I forgot one! Carina Press is running a 30% sale on all the books at their site, which includes The Easy Part series (my DC-set political romances). The deal is good through April 30; use the code RT3016 when you check out. These books rarely if ever go on sale.

Go for Gissing!

Following up on my earlier post, there’s enough interest to commit to a book club on George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893) to commence on Twitter on April 25. We chatted for about an hour starting at 9 PM EST last time; does that still work? And is #oddgals an okay hashtag?

The first nine chapters gets us through the first third, so let’s make that the goal for our first chat. Digital copies are available for free at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Project Gutenberg, iBooks, Google PlayKobo, and perhaps elsewhere.

Pseudo Romance Book Club

picture of books on shelves, including several titles by the Brontes and Jane Austen

So in December and January, a group of us read Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and we discussed it here and on Twitter. As that was wrapping up, we talked about doing two more pseudo-book club discussions:  on George Gissing’s The Odd Women and Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. Spoiler alert: neither of these books have happily ever afters, but they engage with romance tropes and plots. I haven’t read the Gissing (which is set in late nineteenth-century London and addresses romance cross-class), but it looks terrific. And if you’ve been listening to Hamilton non-stop, you’ll enjoy what The Coquette has to say about courtship and femininity in early Republican America. Digital copies of both books are available free on Amazon, Project Gutenberg, and elsewhere.

I’m writing to gauge if there’s still interest in reading/talking about these books. If so, I’d like to propose that we discuss Gissing in about a month (maybe April 25, May 2, and May 9) and then Foster in July (maybe July 11 and July 18). We’d done Monday nights at 9 EST last time; is that still the best option?

Continue reading “Pseudo Romance Book Club”

Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Vol. 3

We had our final discussion of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall last night, and it was so fun! You can read the entire thing by looking at the hashtag #TOWH, but the topics covered included:

  • Why don’t we get much of Helen’s POV after she leaves Huntingdon? She sends letters to Frederick, but they’re not very psychologically revealing. Is Bronte saying that women’s voices disappear when they fall in love?
  • What similarities are there between Hartley and Gilbert? (They both seem confused by no, they both seek to exploit Helen’s vulnerabilities, they even use identical arguments re: her (illegitimate) marriage to make their propositions.) Is the only difference between them that Helen is receptive to Gilbert’s advances?
  • Was there chemistry/affection between Helen/Huntingdon (prior to their marriage) and, later, Helen/Gilbert? Cat smartly argued that the book only works if you assume off-the-charts levels of attraction, and I agree.
  • Related, do we buy Helen and Gilbert’s happily ever after? Is it a conservative end to Helen’s otherwise proto-feminist story? Is it necessary for her to marry again to provide a father for Arthur?
  • Should Toby Stephens star in every Bronte film/television adaptation? (Yes.)
  • Why did every damn character have an H in his/her name?
  • Why was there so much plot (and out-of-character behavior) in volume 3, when volume 2 had been relatively staid? (Also, I looked it up and Tenant wasn’t serialized first, so I don’t think that explains all the craziness in volume 3.)
  • What was up with Lawrence and Esther’s seemingly abrupt marriage? Did Helen attend? Why didn’t Lawrence’s servants know he was getting married? Etc.

We also talked a lot about what if anything to read next. There seems to be enough enthusiasm for me to say yes we should schedule another read along. I was thinking March to give us time to recover.

The general consensus seems to be to do another “classic,” and one that would be of interest to romance readers (though not necessarily one with a happily ever after). Here are a few of the suggestions:

  1. George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859): the blurb on this sounds insane in the best way. It’s a seduction novel wrapped in a murder plot and includes independent women, women preaching, and out of wedlock birth. The downside? It’s 500 pages. If we’re going to commit to a huge Eliot novel, should we just say screw it and go with Middlemarch (my edition of which is 800 pages)?
  2. Helen Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797): it’s an early American epistolary seduction novel, and essentially a right suitor/wrong suitor book that touches on what women achieved in the American revolution and what should happen to fallen women. It comes with a bonus (maybe) appearance by Aaron Burr as one of the suitors. The end is definitely a downer, but it’s only 160 pages.
  3. George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1892): this sounds fascinating. It’s a double romance set in the late Victorian period and includes meditations on independent women and love in the lower classes. It’s 370 pages.

I would happily read any of these books, or whatever else people might be up for. The poll that I set up on Twitter last night ended up as a three-way tie. So let me know in the comments/via email/on Twitter/through a carrier pigeon what you’d like to do.

Thank you so much for joining us, and I’m looking forward to round two!

Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Vol. 2

This week in our discussion of volume 2, we got Helen’s point-of-view and chewed on questions like:

  • Huntingdon: a big jerk or the biggest jerk?
  • Huntingdon as Branwell stand-in (you’ll have to ask Gen for the details on this).
  • How bad/immoral were the other men in this section (e.g., Hattersley, Hargrave, etc.)? Was Huntingdon leading them astray or were they evil on their own? And if they were all bad, is the novel misandrist? Is it saying Helen had no good choices? Is its central wisdom that once a woman saddles herself to a jerk–and particularly has kids with him–she has no good options?
  • For as bad as Huntingdon is, he isn’t physically violent toward Helen; his abuse is psychological. Why did Bronte frame him in this way?
  • How does volume 2 make you see volume 1 differently (e.g., the town’s meddling in Helen’s parenting)?
  • Is Tenant feminist? Can we project a modern term/concept back in time on a mid-19th century book? And does Tenant have anything to offer us as 21st century feminists?

There was also a long side discussion about the novel’s form. Volume 1 is epistolary, though since we never (or at least haven’t so far) met Halford, the conceit is a bit thin. Volume 2 is presented as series of diary entries. There are loads of 18th and 19th century epistolary novels, but there are fewer diary (or at least all diary examples). Go Ask Alice, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and “The Yellow Wall-paper” (ETA: oh, and the Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend) were the only ones we could come up with. I’m curious to see what will happen with the narrative in volume 3.

We also talked about whether to do another read-along. I’m a big fan of obscure 18th/19th century American novels, like Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, EDEN Southworth’s The Hidden Hand, or Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, but I’d also be happy to stick with European proto-romances–and I would definitely be on-board for a session on Balzac’s Cousin Bette, which I think is under appreciated.  There was also a suggestion to read Edith Wharton (I’m always up for Wharton!) or maybe even some early romances like The Flame and the Flower.

So is there an audience for another read-along? If so, what and when? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter. And join us next week for our final discussion of Tenant volume 3!