This book is an unusual find-one that attempts to blend literary erotica with Regency romance and emerges as something else entirely. Fans of erotica may find it too soft. Readers of traditional Regency romance might find it too sensual. I found it to be beautifully written and thought-provoking.
The four novellas that comprise ON THESE SILKEN SHEETS all touch one another and find their premise in a naughty gentleman's club called Harridan House. By choosing this unapologetically lurid setting in a famously prim and proper time period, the author immediately sweeps away any illusions the reader might have. Instead, she shines a light on the seedy underside of the era, and challenges readers to deny that no matter what social mores rule, our basic sexual instincts remain under the covers.
In spite of this erotic indulgence, most of the stories conform to traditional romance genre rules. At least, outwardly. What I found most edifying about Ms. Darby's work is its fundamentally transgressive nature. In every story, she finds some element of the forbidden, and subversively weaves it along with what romance readers supposedly want and expect from a love story. We have the conventional lonely widow, the diligent parliamentarian with a broken heart, and even a single father, looking for traditional love. But alongside these expected romance tropes, we also have some unrepentantly depraved characters, and I loved them best for their utter rebellion against the society in which they lived. (And to some extent, against the society in which their desires would still raise eyebrows.)
Ms. Darby gives us self-actualized women, some of whom have rather standard fantasies and sexual urges, and some of whom would be thought as perverts, even today. Our very first heroine is a voyeur-and there was something courageous about Ms. Darby for exploring the sexuality of a young woman who wants a man she's just seen making love to someone else. We are also given a former brothel madam as a heroine, and although her love story may have been the least erotic of the bunch, it was also presented without hysterics or histrionics about her past.
Of the four novellas in the book, the last one was my favorite. Perhaps it was because it was the bravest and I appreciate the challenges the author faced in writing it. Her hero, in this last story, was the butt of every joke in the stories preceding it. We'd already seen him through six other pairs of eyes, and the impression was not flattering. What's more, our heroine isn't a lady or an heiress, but a lowly maid. And when Lucy the Lady's Maid is offered a position as a mistress to a powerful man, she does not throw up her hands, wailing dramatically about her virtue and honor-but rather, accepts willingly and happily.
Meanwhile, I eagerly await Ms. Darby's next work and can't wait to see what rules she decides to break next.