Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander - Ann Herendeen Well, this was ...different. I realize that most of my dissatisfaction stems from my misplaced expectations from this book so I'm torn on how to review it. Oh well, review the book that's written, not the book you wish had been written. Spoilers abound, so beware!

"Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander" uses a tried and true marriage of convenience plot to bring together an authoress of romance novels with a handsome, rich heir to an earldom. At first glance this description could fit any of hundreds of traditional Regency romance novels, but the author has put a little twist on this traditional. Andrew Carrington, the heir to an earldom, is nearing 30 and decides it's time to "do [his] duty to [his] family", despite his preference for men as sexual partners. He proposes not only to be completely honest with his wife-to-be regarding his sexual orientation but also to continue his liaisons with other men after marriage rationalizing that other married men have mistresses. The woman he chooses (with the assistance of one of his friends from the Brotherhood of Philander) is the very unusual Phyllida Lewis, practical to the nth degree, "penniless, spirited, and curvaceous."

The Brotherhood of Philander is very much like White's, a refuge where gentlemen like Andrew can be themselves without the prying eyes of society and is replete with rooms upstairs for the members to bring other men without fear of repercussions from society or the law. I enjoyed the scenes inside the club with the other men. There was a genuine sense of camaraderie, a feeling of having each other's backs when trouble arises. Andrew turns to these men when he decides to marry and again when Phyllida locks him out of her bedroom. There's Sir Frederick Verney who arranges for Andrew to meet Phyllida, Lord David Pierce, "a fashion plate" who's "quite short, with carroty hair" but as "fierce as a wasp" and his partner, George Witherspoon with a "face like that of a Renaissance angel". George is one of my favorite characters. George isn't clever, doesn't read well, has a tendency to think very literally but has the kindest, most gentle disposition. Hurting George would be like kicking a puppy so I was happy that Lord David was patient with him as well as protective of him and loved his gentle spirit so much. And there's the dandyish sarcastic and very cynical Sylvester Monkton. Their suggestions for Andrew's marital woes were well-meant but entirely wrong-headed especially as they left Andrew with the desire to just off himself - suggestions like aphrodisiacs, black leather undergarments, the advice of an abbess, or tying Phyllida to the bed.

Andrew is difficult for me to like. He has such an abrasive personality matched only by his arrogance. I appreciated his desire to be completely honest with his wife-to-be, and I understood his reasons for marrying even if they felt a bit contrived. What I didn't care for was his propensity to hurl insults at his lovers and dismiss what felt like abusive language as part of the "game" he plays with them. Although Phyllida shivers in delight when he uses that "...drawling, supercilious voice, the one he used not on his inferiors, who had no weapons to defend themselves, but on those of his own milieu who attempted to control him or judge him or change him" (30), it didn't engender tender feelings from me. Andrew doesn't appear to trust, like or respect Phyllida very much. He mentally excoriates her by saying: "If he didn't know better, he'd swear she was a practiced, lying bitch of a whore." (48). Then a little later, he questions whether Phyllida is genuinely "trembling and faint" or is really an "extortionate, scheming whore." (55) I wondered at Andrew's choice of verbal assaults for all his lovers choosing words like "slut", "strumpet", "whoring c***", "bitch in heat" (163), "impudent Welsh whore" (163), "two-faced bitch" (190). For a man who has embraced his homosexuality, there seems to be quite a lot of anger directed toward not only Phyllida but to all his male lovers. But the author attempts to excuse or explain this as Andrew asserting his role as the dominant partner in his sexual liaisons.

"But Andrew would never address a servant in that tone. He used it
only with equals - men - when he wanted to play the game.
Dominance and submission, teasing, name-calling, the preliminaries
to the rough, forceful sport that men like Harry enjoyed. That most
men enjoyed." (69)

At any rate, it's different strokes for different folks and, truthfully, once Phyllida comes to realize this is Andrew's way of dealing with all his lovers, she soon joins in his game of verbal assault as foreplay calling him "brute", "fiend", and "overbearing odious tyrant" (64) There was a rather amusing scene in which Phyllida attempts to signal her acquiescence to Andrew's marital rights by looking for a way to start a quarrel with him.

"There really was no reason for her to quarrel with Andrew. Perhaps
she could claim it was the wrong time of the month. But what if he
believed her and wouldn't come to her bed? No, that was too risky. 'I
can promise you one thing, Andrew,' she said. 'If you snap your
fingers at me I won't answer for the consequences.'
'What?' Andrew abandoned the paper he had taken up again. He
snapped his fingers. 'Like this?'
'Not now,' Phyllida said. 'Later.' She flickered her eyes to the liveried
footman standing by the sideboard.
'Ah,' said Andrew, beginning to comprehend. 'I wish I had known
before.' He snapped his fingers again. 'Interesting. I never thought.'"

A similar scene occurs towards the end this time initiated by Andrew, with him even trying to snap his fingers at her even though he's just fainted, to show Phyllida he is ready to reconcile, and she readily joins in. When the people around them are shocked by her language, Andrew assures them that “Mrs.

Phyllida is surprisingly forward-thinking for a young lady who hasn't had the advantage of a couple of seasons in London and easily accepts that Andrew is gay, that he's only marrying her to get an heir, and that he will continue to have relationships with men after marriage. The one thing she is passionate about is her writing, and she is somewhat successful at it, having one book published and working on another. I found it amusing that the sticking point was getting Andrew's agreement to allow her to continue writing albeit with a pseudonym. But she isn't consistent in her very modern way of thinking. In the example below, as she reads Harry's letter to Andrew, she wonders which role Andrew and Harry played in their relationship showing how firmly ensconced in gender binarism she is.

"Not the makings of a good husband -or wife - whichever role he
played in the relationship. Did Andrew and his lovers see themselves
in male and female roles, Phyllida wondered. Or was it all men
together?" (204)

Phyllida is different in other ways also. She apparently has a bit of a voyeur in her as she spies on Andrew and Sir Frederick and later Andrew with Rhys Powyl, and I've already related how she becomes sexually excited by the verbal sparring as much as Andrew.

At times Andrew is very ambivalent in interacting with Phyllida. Upon first meeting her, he is pleased, telling her:

"'You forget, my dear,' he said, 'that I am a man for men. I have seen
you, spoken to you, and I have learned that you are pretty, intelligent,
chaste, and much more interesting than I had hoped. That is all I
need to know.'" (26-27)

Yet he is cruel and sharp with her upon their return to London. Phyllida awaits Andrew in his bedroom. His appalled reaction at finding her in his sanctum sanctorum made me wince in sympathy with her:

 "'Good Lord,' he said, 'did I not make myself clear? I will visit you in
your bedchamber. You will not come here. This is where I will bring
my lovers.' He laughed. 'I shudder at the thought of some of my
acquaintances finding a woman - worse, my wife - in my bed. They
would get the oddest notions of my practices." (63-64)

Phyllida doesn't let him walk all over her. She quickly tells him that he's crossed the line, speaking to her "...[a]s if -as if I was just one of your servants. A particularly stupid girl who could not obey the simplest commands." (64) Unfortunately, that ambivalence spills over into their sexual relationship.

Part of his ambivalence stems from, I think, his surprise at finding her attractive. After all, he is a man who had been "initiated into the female mysteries by an upstairs maid when he was fourteen, and had gone on to sample the wares at a couple of London's most luxurious brothels a few years later. Just enough to see that it was not for him." (44) Yet in their first encounter, her "lush, ripe body" makes him "hard, as hard as he had ever been for any man. As hard as he had been for Harry, the greatest lover of his life." (29) On their wedding night, he again is surprised by "...a strange, primitive feeling of lust at the firm, full breasts with their little buds of nipples mashed so forcefully against him. He was erect, hard in a couple of seconds, when only a minute ago he had been feeling the dread of having to perform on demand...." (43) But Andrew is worried that he can't maintain an erection so "[w]hen he was ready, he thought of Harry - that gorgeous blond hunk of a man, even at seventeen a man's body" and "... he spent himself in her with more force than last night, just from the image of Harry on their last night together...." (50)

Honestly, despite his conflicted feelings about performance, I thought that Andrew's sexual history with the upstairs maid and later in London's brothels was a more definitive statement of his sexual orientation so I understood how it was unsettling for him to be suddenly attracted to Phyllida sexually. To complicate matters even more for me were the irritatingly copious compliments to Phyllida's beauty, statements made not only by Andrew but also by other men in the Brotherhood; Andrew's brother; by Andrew's lover, Rhys Powyl; and by Dr. Reginald Stevens, et al. For example:

1. "She was, he realized, a beautiful woman, with the sort of body that
could drive men to ridiculous lengths to win her favors." (49)
2. "...a genuine out-and-out beauty" (94) Dick, Andrew's brother
3. "But if I had known that Andrew had captured Venus herself for his
bride, I would not have welcomed him so warmly." (130) Rhys
4. "this goddess" Powyl (130)
5. "Rhys laughed. 'Let me say, then, that meeting Mrs. Carrington's
has led me to reconsider. You are a very lucky man and a very
wicked one, to marry such beauty and such charm and not to
value her as she deserves.'" (130)
6. "'A muse as well as a goddess,' Rhys said. 'I warn you, Andrew, I
am in danger of falling very hard.'" (132)
7. "You are such a beautiful lady, and so sweet and kind. If we had
known how lovely you are, we would not have had to come, but
I'm glad we did, to see for ourselves. " (155) George Witherspoon
8. "Mrs. Carrington, you are a delight." (181) Mr. Monkton

But the one character whose effusive praise of Phyllida within minutes of meeting her that really surprised me (and not in a good way) was Mr. Monkton.

"You are beautiful. Not perhaps in the current ideal, but in the much
more meaningful way, a carnal way, which men find irresistible, even
men like me, to an extent. For the majority, those who are closer to
the midde of the spectrum, like Carrington, you must appear as a
very dainty morsel indeed." (181) Mr. Monkton

First, is he saying her beauty is beyond remarkable because of her curvy body? That her kind of beauty is better than being, say, a woman who may be pear-shaped or slender? That her "lush, ripe body" soars into an almost deified realm? There were the references (by others) to "goddess" and "Venus" after all. And was there an implication here that Phyllida is that one woman so beautiful that she could lure Andrew (and apparently Mr. Monkton) away from his gayness? Doesn't that play into all those numbskulls who believe that homosexuality can be "cured" or "fixed" as if it's a temporary illness in want of the right concoction? This was puzzling and troubling. I can't imagine the author truly intended for Phyllida to be viewed this way.

The other major problem I had with Phyllida was her deception of Andrew regarding the assault by Phillip Turner, Andrew's secretary. Since there's no way for me to explain without venturing into spoiler territory, consider yourself warned.

Andrew is devastated when he receives a "Dear John" letter from Harry, a young man with whom Andrew was, if not in love with, then emotionally attached to for three years. To give Phyllida credit, she really rallied around Andrew, comforting him as best she could, trying to defuse his anger and hurt. But Andrew suffers from migraines and one is triggered from his severe emotional distress. While he is pretty much unconscious for a couple of days, Phillip Turner, involved in some labyrinthine French spy plot, assaults Phyllida after trying to retrieve the household accounts ledger from her room. The ledger is full of ciphers and coded messages for the French regarding British troop movements masked as his embezzlement of funds. It's also related to some tangential plot off-shoot of Turner attempting to obtain evidence of sodomy against Andrew and the other members if the Brotherhood. The assault escalates when Turner attempts to rape Phyllida. She struggles to escape, but he hits her hard enough that her face is bruised and the skin broken. While she does get away before he completes the act, he threatens to tell authorities about her "sodomite husband and all his friends at the Brotherhood of Philander." (209) Fearing what will happen to Andrew if he's brought up on charges of sodomy, she keeps her silence about Turner and allows Andrew to believe that he hit her in his fit of anger upon learning that Harry loved another, and this goes on and on and on.
Andrew had his faults but I felt he didn't deserve to be put through the hell he went through because of Phyllida's deception. I was aggravated by the feeling that had she been honest with, if not Andrew, then one of his friends from the Brotherhood, then they could have banded together against Turner. Big misunderstandings are just not my cup of tea especially when the misunderstanding could be cleared up and straightened out very easily.

There's an old saying that authors should "show" not "tell", and I wish there had been more showing of Andrew's growing feelings for Phyllida instead of having all and sundry tell her he was in love with her. For example, when Monkton finds out Andrew is allowing Phyllida to continue writing, he says:

"Carrington allowed that? He must be absolutely besotted. You know,
I almost envy him. And that, coming from me, is the greatest
compliment any woman will ever receive." (182)

And Dr. Reginald Stevens,

"What an amazing woman! I congratulate Carrington on his good
fortune. If he has the least bit of sense in that handsome brain box
of his, he'll have fallen in love with you." (199)

And Sir Frederick Verney,

"It seems to me that Carrington's in love." (92)

Throughout all these attestations of Andrew's love of Phyllida by other characters, Andrew's actions and the way he refers to Phyllida do not bear up to a growing emotional connection to Phyllida. He refers to Phyllida's being sexually prepared for him in rather disgusting terms like "female sliminess" and "clear mucus." When she asks him to touch her more before entering her, he is impatient and not eager to explore what may bring her more pleasure.

"He tried, suckling at her breasts - all women liked that - and poking
and prodding around with two fingers in the maze of folds and
crevices between her legs. (...) But he couldn't keep this nonsense up
forever, and before he lost his hardness he tore himself loose from
her grasping hands and thrust in." (50)

When Andrew's brother, Richard, asks if he found "the little man in the boat", Andrew doesn't have a clue what Dick is talking about. In fact, he says:

"'Why would I look?' Andrew asked. 'There's nothing to see. It's just a
lot of mucky flesh around a hole.'" (105)

I understand Andrew's puzzlement, but the words he uses to describe female anatomy and female reactions to sexual desire are not the most complimentary. And how else am I to learn what Andrew thinks of Phyllida other than the words he uses? Even though he does eventually come to a point of true emotional attachment to Phyllida, it's hard to see that happy ending when passages like the one below are so numerous:

"Once she was with child, he wouldn't have to do it with her for
almost nine months, if she told him early. Afterward she'd need
weeks, maybe months to recover. And if, please God, it was a boy,
he might never have to do it again." (51)

I think Andrew does eventually come to care for Phyllida, but the many assertions of his love for Phyllida by other characters didn't make me believe it until his actions fit with his words.

If Andrew takes his time learning to care for Phyllida, he wasted no time at all with the third member of this ménage a trois who doesn't show up until well past the halfway mark of 532 pages. Matthew Thornby captures Andrew's attention and affections very quickly. Too quickly to be believable. In fact, Andrew falls in immediate lust with Matthew and within moments has him alone on a balcony, with his tongue down his throat along with an invitation for Matthew to come home with him, dismissing Phyllida with a careless:

"It's a marriage of convenience. She won't mind at all." (298)

Within 24 hours, Andrew decides Matthew is "the true love of his life" (321), but for me to believe that I would have had to have seen more interaction between them before vows of eternal love are expressed.

Matthew is one character I liked a lot. He challenged Andrew in many of the same ways Phyllida did and pushed him to see past his very rigid social code (like a gentleman not working). He was also the bridge to Phyllida and Andrew finally reconciling. I enjoyed the way he tweaked Andrew's nose and his kindnesses to Phyllida when she most needed them.

There is a lot to like about Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander despite the problems I had with it. I understand this was an homage of sorts to Georgette Heyer romances, and character names like Fanshawe and Sylvester made me chuckle. While I thought it was much too long, and the spy plot was distracting, I really appreciate that the author has put a unique twist on traditional Regency romances.