Spring Flowering by Farah Mendlesohn is a gentle, domestic Regency romance, more in the vein of Jane Austen with its parson’s daughters and the family dynamics of middle class families “in trade”, than in the vein of Georgette Heyer’s dashing aristocrats and gothic perils. Ann Gray’s life is disrupted by the death of her father, the village parson, and she joins the bustling household of her cousins in Birmingham where the family business manufacturing buttons, jewelry, and other small metal accessories becomes the framework of her new social life. Until her father’s illness and death, Ann’s life had been taken up by the responsibilities of ministering to the needs of her father’s parish. Her future is open and unsettled now, with only the formalities of mourning to give her a breathing space to consider the options. Her loved ones--both the Birmingham family and her beloved special friend Jane, who has recently married--expect her to jump at the impending offer of marriage from the young curate who has taken her father’s place. But Ann thinks she doesn’t feel as she ought toward a man with whom she would spend the rest of her life, and an offer of a very different nature has arisen from the handsome widow, Mrs. King, soon to be a business partner of her uncle.
Mendlesohn’s novel is a refreshingly different sort of lesbian romance, depicting the attitudes and mores of the times with a social historian’s eye. The characters are neither anachronistically modern in their self-awareness of sexuality, nor anachronistically tormented and angsty about it. The physicality of Ann’s romantic friendship with her friend Jane is portrayed as completely ordinary for her times, but just as ordinary is Jane’s expectation that Ann will share her joy in her marriage. Through Ann’s explorations of new ties in Birmingham, we see how women who longed for same-sex friendships to be primary in their lives communicated and negotiated those feelings without needing to challenge social rules, as well as how families all too aware of the gender imbalance in the wake of the Napoleonic wars could encourage and approve of “surplus women” creating their own domestic arrangements. There are several very tasteful but explicit sex scenes that are well integrated into the overall emotional and self-realization arcs.
Although romance (with a few surprises) is the culmination of this novel, it is not the dominant theme throughout. Spring Flowering is a quiet tale of families and everyday life in Regency England, sweeping the reader into a world both familiar and intriguingly different in its details. There are a very few places where those details seemed to bog down the already leisurely pacing with a touch of “researcher’s syndrome,” but never in a way that derailed the story, as long as you approach the book as the story of a life rather than as a genre romance.
If you’ve longed to read stories of women loving women in history with happy endings that ground their love and their happiness in the spirit of the times, then Spring Flowering will be a breath of fresh air and a hope for a new wave of lesbian historical fiction.