A Monstrous Regiment of Women

One part of the Twenty Weeks of Buzz is a retrospective of the LRK oeuvre—a fancy way of saying that I’ll be looking at each of my twenty books, a week at a time. A Monstrous Regiment of Women was the second Mary Russell novel, published in 1995, and won the Nero Wolfe award.


Some books germinate from a place, others from an episode witnessed or experienced. And some take their beginnings from a title and grow to fit.

In 1558, John Knox wrote a vehement protest against women monarchs entitled, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against a Monstrous Regiment of Women.” (Modern English would use the word Régime rather than Regiment.) Queen Elizabeth I was by no means amused; a “Second Blast of the Trumpet” was never written.

In the winter of 1920, Mary Russell is on the brink of her 21st birthday, when she enters into her majority and inherits the estate left by her parents’ death seven years before. The largest question in her life is that of her one-time teacher, later partner in detection, Sherlock Holmes: What exactly is the basis of their relationship? She herself is not at all certain.

How does one write a romance about two people who are not demonstrably romantic? Particularly when the story is being told by one of them, as an old woman, who closely guards her privacy?

The answer to that lies in the way in which people conceal truths from themselves. Russell sees but does not perceive; she hears but does not listen. A part of her knows that she wishes to extend her partnership with Holmes into the fullness of a marriage partnership; at the same time, she well understands the hazards of affiliating herself with a man of such strong attitudes and forceful opinions. She tries to claim the best of both worlds—a marriage, but one based on rational decision rather than commitment. To her astonishment and dismay, Holmes himself, that utter rationalist, instantly quashes that as an impossibility, a crippled imitation of a marriage that would be doomed from the beginning.

Thus Russell is set onto a quest for nothing less than her future. She begins in her past, with a friend from the University, who introduces her to a woman, and to another possible future life.

Margery Childe gives Russell a clear alternative to the kind of marriage Holmes would entail. As a part of the community around this woman—as a member of a “monstrous régime of women”—Russell would have everything she wants: intellectual stimulation, a family of co-believers, respect, excitement. What else could a feminist ask for?

And since Margery Childe, as Russell comes to realize, is nothing less than a living mystic and worker of miracles, this milieu would even provide her with the solid meat of theology for which she hungers—and which Holmes holds in scorn.

It would have to be one or the other, for becoming a member of Childe’s community would exclude Holmes.

Monstrous Regiment demonstrates why I appreciate the forms of crime fiction, because it gives me an entertaining story to tell, while at the same time unrolling threads of meaning throughout the plot lines. Mysticism, feminist identity, scriptural interpretation, the struggle for equality between the sexes, control and submission, friendship and love: all the colors on the painter’s palette, brought together in service of an entertainment.

Comments

  1. A Monstruos Regiment was the first Mary Russel book I read – or should I say rather, the first Laurie R. King book – and it caught me like very few books have suceeded to, before or after.

    It was the only book I had brought to a week’s vacation with my grandparents, but despite nothing but CNN and German shows on the telly (though we were in a Spanish holiday resort) and no bookshops, I was never bored. I read it five times back to back – finished the last page and started on the first again directly.

    Since then (1997, perhaps) I’ve read it at least once a year. And I’ll probably have to buy a new copy for the next read, because the spine’s practically gone!

  2. Mary Achor says:

    Malin: I sure understand reading Laurie’s books over and over and over…I do it myself…I finally had to get a new “O Jerusalem” as all the pages were coming out. You know what I particularly like? I love seeking out LRK’s beautifully written phrases in the writing and marking them for a future use: one of these days, I plan to write them on parchment in calligraphy and mat and frame them for my office to give me inspiration and motivation for my own writing. Wouldn’t that be great? No more trite phrases for me–well, hopefully…. But hard on the books themselves!

  3. A Monstrous Regiment of Women is probably my favorite book in the Mary Russell series. The plot, the characters and the place all come together so perfectly and the action moves at a good pace that I was very bored. While this is the second book in the series, it was one of the last ones I read. It was very hard for me to find a copy. No library in my area had it and the rest in the state were not willing to inter-library loan their copies. Eventually my AP European History teacher in high school heard that I was having problems finding the book and let me borrow her personal copy. I read the entire book in a little more than 24 hours. While being hard to find, it was definatly worth the effort to find this book. I enjoyed the book and in the process of finding it I found another fan. Thank You Laurie! 🙂

  4. Danita Gorton says:

    Dear Ms. King,

    I have been a fan of the Marry Russell series since my sister introduced them to me. I too read them over and over. What a wordsmith you are. I especially appreciate Mary’s struggle to reconcile the conflict between her theology and her intellect, to accept that is is possible to to love the former without denying the latter.

    As for Holmes intellect, in my opinion, it is the passion in the character Doyle created that truly drives him, not merely his cold intellect alone. His passion for justice is obvious, but so is his deep, if undemonstrative, love for his friends. Recall the rose he attributed to God? The character of Holmes on more than one occasion allowed his own sense of compassion to rule over the law.

    Thank you, Laurie King

  5. ALthough this is not my favorite book in the series, I read it twice in the same month. The dock scene was pure artistry. (I did wonder when Mary would finally add that “H” to her initials.)

  6. The latest episode of “Sherlock – The Abominable Bride 2016” gives a nod to Laurie King when Holmes and Watson are discussing alternative titles for the adventure and Holmes suggests “A Monstrous Regiment of Women”.

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