(I recently did a podcast on the topic of female highwaymen in history and literature, and the motif in the lesbian romance genre. This is one of several reviews resulting from my reading for that podcast.)
Lawrence Hogue’s Daring and Decorum, stands out in the micro-genre of lesbian historic highwaywomen stories for its solid worldbuilding and the deliberation with which it builds the relationship between the two female protagonists, making both their attraction and the obstacles to it believable and solidly grounded in the social history of the times.
The plot follows what seems to be an obligatory formula for the micro-genre: a respectable young woman (though one with a yearning for something beyond her foreseeable fate) is one of the victims of a highwayman’s robbery, protesting the loss of a piece of jewelry that has deep sentimental meaning. The highwayman, in a change of heart, returns the jewelry, prompting (or encouraging) an inexplicable attraction between the two, and the highwayman is (eventually) revealed to be a woman who took to an outlaw life due to a tragic backstory. They, of course, fall in love, struggle with the personal, social, and legal barriers to their relationship, and eventually work their way through to a happy ending. This is actually the generic formula that applies to nearly every lesbian highwayman story I’ve encountered. What Hogue does is flesh it out into a well-written period piece.
The pacing--especially of the middle section where we learn the backstory of our second protagonist--was just on the edge of leisurely, but only because the adventures are being related to another character rather than being experienced in real time. Hogue notes in the introductory material that he was inspired in part by the Alfred Noyes poem “The Highwayman”, which may add a bit of tension for readers familiar with that work. Certain details of the book’s plot seemed a bit forced to fit the poem’s structure, but possibly not in a way that those unfamiliar with it would notice. Unlike some other similar books, the climax of the story was neither too rushed nor too pat and felt historically plausible as long as one accepts the motivations and actions of a certain third character.
Hogue has a solid grasp of the flavor of early 19th century novels without resulting in any stilted awkwardness of language. His familiarity with the historic and social background raises the book above the “erotic encounter in costume” level that is too common in lesbian historical romance. I’m not a good judge of erotic scenes in books, but those in Daring and Decorum didn’t seem any more awkward or inherently ridiculous than in any other story I’ve read. (Confession: I’m really not a fan of sex scenes in my historic fiction, so I’m not a good judge.)
Content warning: Unfortunately the book got off to a bad start for me with a sexual assault in the opening scene (although it didn’t go beyond groping) which was framed as inspiring the heroine’s erotic desire for the highwayman (much later revealed to be a highwaywoman). Given how much I liked the book overall, I don’t consider that one stumble a fatal flaw, but it’s certainly worth a content warning.
It wasn’t the gender perception issue in the assault scene that bothered me--to some extent when you’re dealing with historic gender-disguise plots in lesbian fiction, it really helps to view the characters as solidly bisexual, because any other framing tends to lead you down some sort of weird telepathic/gender-essentialism road. (The sort that was popular in medieval and Renaissance gender-disguise plots: “It’s ok that she fell in love with someone who she thought was a woman because it was really a man in disguise and she somehow unconsciously intuited this.”) But I digress.
No, what bothered me was invoking the trope that a woman will naturally overlook being forcibly assaulted and will find herself enjoying the assault and later fall in love with the person who assaulted her. Not only did I think that the story could have been made to work perfectly well with a different--or at least much less offensive--interaction, but the assault felt extremely out of character for the highwaywoman, as we later come to know her. It felt like cheap titillation. And given that the reader has no clue yet that this particular highwayman is our love interest (there are several people involved in the robbery), it felt like a slap in the face to readers who came to the book for some escapist woman-centered reading.
That said, most stories in this genre involve a requisite amount of fairly dubious consent, or at least of secretly enjoying a forced erotic encounter. The overall writing quality definitely makes this book worth checking out if you enjoy swashbuckling lesbian romantic adventure.