It is “a dark and windy night” when we first encounter Miss Priscilla Butterworth. Miss Butterworth is no stranger to tragedy—she was born in a town ravaged by pox, a disease that robbed her of most of her family including her father. Her mother would eventually follow him, pecked to death by pigeons. Priscilla also breaks both legs, and is nearly sold into slavery. Worse, she appears to be persecuted by a mad baron.
Naturally, Priscilla Butterworth is fictional. She’s the protagonist of the cliché-ridden Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, a romance novel by one Sarah Gorely. Sarah Gorely does not exist.
Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron first makes its appearance, as far as I can tell, in Julia Quinn’s 2005 comic Regency romance novel It’s In His Kiss (readers of this column will by now have gathered that I read a lot of romance fiction), as the sort of lurid novel enjoyed by an elderly countess. The book surfaces again in the same author’s later Regency novel What Happens in London, in which it plays a part in averting an international diplomatic incident. In her Ten Things I Love About You we discover not only the true author of this volume, but also a list of her other works.
So far, none of this is that surprising. For an author to spoof a genre within a book that is purportedly within that genre itself is something that writers have been doing since at least Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It’s funny and self-aware; it’s a way of sending up both the genre itself, and those who condemn it based on stereotypes. What is perhaps more unusual is that Quinn’s fictional book shows up again, but this time in a book by another romance author, Eloisa James.
Nowadays I find it easier to simply see the Regency romance as a specific sort of fantasy novel instead—to imagine these books set in an alternate universe where there’s less slavery and more cunnilingus.
Dropcap OnFans of horror fiction will be familiar with the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft, whose universe was populated with ancient and terrifying intelligences far beyond the comprehension of man. Later writers built on these stories so that nowadays what is considered the Cthulhu Mythos (Cthulhu being one of Lovecraft’s most memorable creations) consists of the work of several authors. These are not mere sequels; this is the sharing of a universe. Horror writers are neither the first nor the last to do this; comic books from the same publishing house are often set, broadly, in the same universe with characters from one series often crossing over into another. To those of us who are mere casual observers the plot gymnastics needed to keep all this making some sort of sense are mind-boggling. Somewhat more recently, writers of fan fiction have embraced the crossover, creatively manipulating plot so that characters from one book or movie may find their lives plausibly intertwined with those of another.
Readers of the Regency romance often complain that novels in this genre are historically inaccurate in their language and attitudes, particularly with regard to such areas as sexuality and politics (you’ll find few Regency heroes in support of the slave trade, for example). Modern language often creeps in, including Americanisms. To be fair to these authors, many of us (me included) are probably basing our ideas of the period entirely on Georgette Heyer anyway. Nowadays I find it easier to simply see the Regency romance as a specific sort of fantasy novel instead—to imagine these books set in an alternate universe where there’s less slavery and more cunnilingus. When authors initiate their own crossovers, when they pay these small tributes to one another, it’s easy to conceive of all of these stories as existing in one, densely populated world.
A prominent feature of the Cthulhu Mythos is the Necronomicon, a book that contains terrifying and dangerous knowledge about Lovecraft’s universe and the beings that populate it. Lovecraft’s contemporaries cited this book as well, and it has since often been referred to in popular culture. Lovecraft approved of this; apparently he felt the multiple references gave it “a background of evil verisimilitude.”Perhaps Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is Regency romance’s Necronomicon.