Book review: Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander

Phyllida and the Brotherhood of PhilanderPhyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander
By Ann Herendeen
Harper Paperbacks

Calling Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander a Regency romance is like saying La Cage aux Folles is a family history. While the story of Phyllida is in fact set in England in 1812, Ann Herendeen’s comic novel about bisexual relationships involving members of British high society is a sexually explicit farce with elements of the burlesque. The misnomer shouldn’t matter, but when the reader is expecting one thing and gets something entirely different, it can be unnecessarily easy to find fault.

Herendeen explains that she intended her debut novel as a fantasy, but not the sort that tends to be lumped with science fiction and paranormal romance in a category sometimes referred to as speculative fiction. No, she means that writing the book, which was first made available through print-on-demand by the subsidy press AuthorHouse, was a way of indulging her own sexual fantasies. HarperCollins is speculating that enough readers share Herendeen’s intrepid adventurousness. On April 29, 2008, Harper Paperbacks will bring out its new edition of Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, strategically minus the subtitle “bisexual Regency romance.”

There are moments in Phyllida when Herendeen does a credible job of evoking the atmosphere of the haute monde of the period:

Mr. Richard Carrington found his brother on the first try, at Manton’s shooting gallery, where it was Andrew’s practice most mornings to murder a substantial number of wafers.

But the author’s efforts to incorporate history, feminism, and a bit of tutoring in sexual behavior can become charmingly clumsy:

Richard Carrington, slinking in behind the family groupings, managed, after a set of maneuvers that Lord Wellington, in command of the forces in the Peninsula, would have admired, to snag the seat on Phyllida’s free side, next to the divider that separated the Carringtons’ box from the Swains’—more particularly Lydia Swain.

The book’s heroine, a parody of Herendeen, is a feisty romance novelist who strikes several bargains with the story’s aristocratic bisexual hero. The deals include a provision in their marriage contract permitting Phyllida to continue producing novels for her somewhat sordid and desperate publisher. “What choice did he have?” the hapless merchant asks himself. “This book was the one property that might keep his business solvent. The worse it was from a moral standpoint, the better it was for sales.”

Today, some book publishers maintain separate imprints for the steamier subcategories of romance that qualify as erotica. Moral judgment aside, the categories can help guide book buyers. Harper Paperbacks cautions that Phyllida is meant for adult readers but refrains from labeling it erotica, perhaps because the novel has an intricate plot, a large cast of characters, bawdy humor, and (at 544 pages) heft.

Near its conclusion, the book’s heroine attends a social gathering at which her acquaintances discuss the popularity of her Gothic novels, which have been published anonymously. “The author doesn’t waste time on a lot of boring descriptions,” says one partygoer. “She just keeps telling the story. And she doesn’t preach at you, neither. To my mind, that’s a good writer.” Ironically, Herendeen’s one shortcoming as a writer is her reliance on exposition in dialog. The effect is disconcerting and occasionally heavy-handed, though some readers will appreciate the reference librarian’s careful explanations, which leave little to the imagination. Can we expect an adaptation for the stage or screen?

On April 24, 2008, Ann Herendeen guest blogs for a third time at myLifetime’s Romance B(u)y the Book. You can also follow her comments and reader reviews on

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One Reply to “Book review: Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander

  1. So, I’m trying to venture outside of my own blogging world, that’s how I stumbled into yours. Just wanted to let you know that I came by, and enjoyed your blog greatly!

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