Pembroke Park by Michelle Martin was a gift from Keira Soleore several years ago.
It is repeatedly cited as the first lesbian Regency Romance, traditionally published by the storied Naiad Press in 1986.
When Lady Joanna Sinclair meets lady Diana March on horseback and clad in male attire, she is outraged. Such bizarre behavior is simply unacceptable in Herefordshire! But she is irresistibly drawn to the headstrong Diana, whose eccentricity cloaks a mysterious darkness in her past. And Joanna learns that Diana’s coterie of “unusual” friends has among them her own brother-in-law, who is in headlong pursuit of the beautiful and elusive Geoffrey. Under Diana’s influence, falling ever more deeply in love with her, Joanna asserts her independence from her brother, the arrogant and overbearing Hugo, who vows to subdue both of these defiant women. But Hugo is up against more than he bargains for in Lady Diana March.
Pembroke Park is longer than the “trad” Regencies being published contemporaneously, and features a much larger cast of characters, many of whom have their own minor sub-plots. I feel the author owed more to Georgette Heyer in terms of length, plot complexity, and period diction, while taking the opposite tack towards conventional society. Aside from the main couple, Diana and Joanna, we are given glimpses of Diana’s prior relationship and of Hildegarde’s relationship with Celeste, as well as some relationships between men. Joanna is a widow with a young daughter, whose relationship with her deceased husband was good but not passionate. Diana is wealthy and has traveled extensively abroad, while being secure in her unconventionality.
Joanna is a fine artist and Diana is a musician, and their artistic talents can stand for everything that they are denied as women in Regency society, representing a way out for them mentally and emotionally. Diana’s shock when she discovers Joanna’s immense talent in drawing and painting represents not only how deeply she sees Joanna, but also is an example of talent being overlooked by society at large because the artist is not paradigmatic for the time and place. Joanna in turn is swept away by Diana’s talent when she hears Diana playing her own compositions. Diana’s music is not something she has previously thought of as valuable others. In both cases, social roles have contributed to suppressing their talent; in effect, they unconsciously self-censor themselves. They each need the other to see and identify that their talents are powerful and unusual, with both intrinsic and extrinsic value. Mutual admiration becomes part of their bond and could be argued to be at its core.
I most enjoyed the story when queer characters interacted with each other, showing the validation of community; among Diana’s friends, I particularly enjoyed Lady Hildegarde Dennison and her witty repartee. However, the outcome of the novel felt somewhat forced to me, because I felt it changed direction rather abruptly from “we shall defy convention!” to “we shall defy convention while pretending we are not defying convention!” And then the book ended. It left what I felt were important questions unanswered, or even fully discussed among the participants. Thus, it was a less satisfying ending than I had hoped, despite being a happy one. On the other hand, the ending did make me think on genre conventions, and the Regency genre, and today’s queer romance novels and the ways in which they approach Regency genre conventions. Definitely an interesting book to read for anyone interested in the history of the Romance genre.