Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy

The late Kage Baker, after completing the main narrative of her Company series (about time-traveling immortals tasked with preserving that which would otherwise be lost to history), continued writing fiction set in that universe, but focused now on various sidelines to the larger story of the Company.  The novel-length expansion of her earlier novella The Empress of Mars was one such work, as were several pieces dealing with the Company's Victorian-era counterpart, the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, and its Ladies' Auxiliary. Baker's final Company-universe novel, Not Less Than Gods, chronicled the rise of Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax, a familiar character from the main series. That novel, while as engaging and dryly humorous as all of Baker's writing, felt rather tentative and episodic, less a fleshed-out story than a series of engaging but distantly-observed sequences. A similar quality is evident in the two shorter works collected in Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, a trade paperback from Subterranean Press. Not as compellingly structured as her other fiction, these stories are nonetheless briskly humorous and eventful enough to entertain fans of the late, lamented storyteller.

About three-quarters of the volume is taken up by a reprint of The Women of Nell Gwynne's, originally released by the same publisher as a standalone hardcover novella.  Winner of the Locus and Nebula Awards and a nominee for the Hugo and the World Fantasy, it comes with an impressive pedigree, and indeed there is much to admire in Baker's evocation of Victorian society. She captures its formal absurdities without the stiff period prose of much historical fiction. An early passage dealing with the return of a lost daughter is a fine example of Baker's mischievous wit:
Lady Beatrice arrived on their doorstep and was greeted by shrieks of horror. Apparently Lady Beatrice's letters had gone astray in the mail. Her mother fainted dead away. Uncle Frederick's wife came in and fainted dead away as well. Charlotte and Louise came running down to see what had happened, and while they did not faint, they screamed shrilly. Uncle Frederick came in and stared at her as though his eyes would burst from his face.

Once Mamma and Aunt Harriet had been revived, to cling to each other weeping on the settee, Lady Beatrice explained what had happened to her.

A lengthy and painful discussion followed. It lasted through tea and dinner. It was revealed to Lady Beatrice that, though she had been sincerely mourned when Mamma had been under the impression she was dead, her unexpected return to life was something more than inconvenient. Had she never considered the disgrace she would inflict upon her family by returning, after all that had happened to her? What were all Aunt Harriet's neighbors to think?

Uncle Frederick as good as told her to her face that she must have whored herself to the men of the 13th Foot, during all those months in Jellalabad; and if she hadn't, she might just as well have, for all that anyone would believe otherwise.

At this point Mamma fainted again. While they were attempting to revive her, Charlotte and Louise reproached Lady Beatrice in bluntest terms for her selfishness. Had she never thought for a moment of what the scandalous news would do to their marriage prospects? Mamma, sitting up at this point, tearfully begged Lady Beatrice to enter a convent. Lady Beatrice replied that she no longer believed in God.

Whereupon Uncle Frederick, his face black with rage, rose from the table (the servants were in the act of serving the fish course) and told Lady Beatrice that she would be permitted to spend the night under his roof, for her Mamma's sake, but in the morning he was personally taking her to the nearest convent.

At this point Aunt Harriet pointed out that the nearest convent was in France, and he would be obliged to drive all day and hire passage on a boat, which hardly seemed respectable. Uncle Frederick shouted that he didn't give a damn. Mamma fainted once more.
In the aftermath of this unpleasant scene, Lady Beatrice flees and, having no other option, becomes a prostitute. She is, like many of Baker's characters, sufficiently tough-minded that this presents no practical or psychological difficulties, and indeed the difficulties of prostitution, and lower-class British life in general, are but briefly alluded to before Lady Beatrice receives an unexpected offer and finds herself an employee of Nell Gwynne's, a highly respectable house of prostitution whose real business is the secrets that can be coaxed from rich and powerful clients, secrets that are, as far as the women are aware, used for the good of the British Empire.

To help in their tasks, the women of Nell Gwynne's receive various pieces of ingenious technology from their associates at the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, including unexpectedly modern cameras, miniature guns, and other steampunk devices. These inventions prove especially useful when, as is sometimes necessary, the women become involved in activities slightly outside their general line. Just such a situation arises about one-third of the way through the novella, when a reclusive British nobleman who has been spending his fortune on a mysterious endeavor based at his ancestral home invites a group of millionaires there for a demonstration of... something. Naturally, these millionaires require entertainment of the feminine variety, so Lady Beatrice and three of her fellows have been assigned to learn as much as they can about the secrets of Basmond Hall.

The succeeding chapters set up the hall and its inhabitants with the brisk lightness of touch that makes Baker's work so delightful to read. But that lightness can, under certain circumstances, come at a cost to the depth of the narrative. That's especially the case here, in which the conflict is resolved in a quick and straightforward manner that lacks the sheer cleverness of the author's best work. Impersonation, violence, captivity, and international intrigue pass by so quickly that they lack the impact they deserve, and the length of the denouement is seriously out of proportion to the rest of the novella. Still, the quiet resourcefulness and sharp tongues of the ladies balance out the slightness of their adventure.

The same is true of "The Bohemian Astrobleme," a novelette featuring Lady Beatrice that firsts appears in print here, having previously been made available free online by the publisher. In this story, agents of the Gentlemen's Speculative Society discover a new source of a rare mineral that will be invaluable for their work, but the precise location of the mine is held only by a close-mouthed local. So it becomes necessary for a representative of the Ladies' Auxiliary to loosen his tongue...

Even more than the novella, this novelette feels rather like a detailed outline, not a complete story.  There's a possibly-supernatural mystery with a very funny solution, an ingenious scheme to obtain the mine, a roguish fellow agent, and a neat new bit of covert technology, but we're told about them more than shown them, and their charm is thus diminished.

At 165 pages of good-sized print, Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy is a slim title, and the abruptness of its content furthers that air of the insubstantial. For those not yet acquainted with the author's work, it probably wouldn't serve as the best introduction, and readers who have already purchased the novella in hardcover form might be better served by reading the new novelette online. But for devotees of the Company's cheerful anachronism and Baker's wry genius who haven't yet met the women of Nell Gwynne's, this volume is an essential supplement.

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