25 November 2007

I ♥ Madeleine Brent

Someone posted up to Fiction-L looking for a novel about a British orphan girl in China around the time of the Boxer Rebellion ...
Patron recalls a memorable line about heroine being asked if she like cats, and saying that she finds 'they don't yeild [sic] as much meat as rabbits.'

She thinks the same author also wrote another Victorian romance about a circus (the memorable line she recalled from this was the girl worried about becoming 'fat, white and spotty.'
Now, I quite liked the line about cats (who wouldn't?) and the very idea of a Victorian circus romance tickled me so I set out to find a copy of Moonraker’s Bride as soon as possible. Much to my pleasure, I discovered nine copies in my system. Put in my interlibrary loan request and less than a week later Moonraker’s Bride was mine ...

What a wonderful book full of daring-do, romance, and humor! Some parts Bronte, some parts Dickens, and all parts fantastic. I devoured it and went looking for more information about my new crush, Madeline Brent. Searching Gale’s Biography Resource Center, I found several profiles for Madeleine Brent and was amused to discover that “she” was actually a “he” -- Peter O’Donnell. While most of the profiles focused on O’Donnell’s work as the creator of Modesty Blaise, the profile in Twentieth-Century Romance & Historical Writers provided a quite fantastic analysis of Brent’s works. I was particularly taken with the description of Brent’s heroines which seems totally spot-on when I think of Lucy Warring -- an intelligent, compassionate, and gutsy woman completely unaware that there's anything unusual about her:
Brent's heroines, though modest and self-effacing, are role-models of feminine virtues: daring, determined, resourceful, and spirited but also patient, persistent, and enduring. They have left behind (or never had) the trappings of ‘proper' upbringing, see the world with alien eyes, and in fact learn to look with humour on Victorian hypocrisies and proprieties, particularly pretences that ladies are not sexual creatures with hearts and minds. They are honest and warm-hearted, trading innocence and naiveté for the experienced wisdom of heartbreak. They patiently endure social restraints, but yield to their instinct for right: befriending servants and social outcasts, saving children from hunger, cold, abuse and war. They speak honestly without forethought, but glare like alley cats when angered.

Because of their blunt honesty, grim realism and alien experiences, people dismiss them as liars, but the advice of older males proves invaluable. With time, their virtues are rewarded, their place in society confirmed. Jani, for instance, the heroine of Merlin's Keep, though raised as a half-caste orphan in Tibet, turns out to be a deposed Indian princess, whose parents were murdered for their fabled jewels, and other Brent heroines prove heiresses as well.
While Wikipedia was no real use (Madeleine Brent as footnote), I did find a rather nice webpage titled "Who Was Madeline Brent?" which helps to explain why Peter O’Donnell started writing under a pseudonym. I am amused that O’Donnell was not initially enthusiastic about writing Gothic novels, because he did such a fine job with Moonraker’s Bride (his 2nd gothic) and I hear nothing but praise for his first Gothic, Tregaron’s Daughter.

I’m really looking forward to reading more Brent. I think my selection will be Stormswift in which “Jemimah Lawley, the wealthy heiress of an English estate, sees her parents slaughtered by Afghan soldiers; sold to Hindu traders, then to a mad Kafiristan ruler, she becomes slave to a captured Italian doctor.” What fun!


"Madeleine Brent." Twentieth-Century Romance & Historical Writers, 3rd ed. St. James Press, 1994. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC