Have you ever wanted to be a heroine in a Jane Austen novel, but a version with a queer happy ending? I’ve got just the thing! Live vicariously through the protagonist in Lex Croucher’s coming-of-age romantic novel Infamous. Like Austen’s best work, it’s very funny, very romantic, full of personal growth, and has an excellent scoundrel in disguise who gets what’s coming to him. To top it all off, Infamous has an explicit queer and feminist sensibility that infuses its Regency-set story with a touch of 21st century flavor.
Our beloved heroine is Edith Miller, known to all as “Eddiewp_posts— a gay nickname if I ever heard one. Eddie is a 21-year-old aspiring writer whose favorite person in the world is her best friend, Rose Li. But at their age in the early 19th century, it’s about time to be thinking about growing up. Rose is even talking about marriage and has begun a courtship with a horribly dull older man named Albert Rednock. Eddie is horrified. She wants her and Rose’s life, with their friendship at the centre, to remain just as it ever was. She’s happy living at home with her family, working on her novel, Rose coming over every other night for dinner, and occasionally practising kissing with her in their childhood tree house.
Rose is a delightful character. She’s the type of woman who could easily be mistaken for a wallflower. Sometimes literary attempts at characters like her make them so good that they’re flat and uninteresting. She also could have been overshadowed by the more boisterous personality of Eddie. But she holds her own in the book, proving herself to be exceedingly kind but not a pushover and quiet but very perceptive and intelligent. She also shows herself to be much farther along in that journey to discovering herself than Eddie, providing a roadmap for queer identity.
With Rose out and about looking for a husband, Eddie finds herself out in society as well, if she wants to spend time with her best friend. At a dinner party, Eddie is shocked to meet her literary hero, the poet Nash Nicholson. What’s even more shocking is that Nash takes an interest in her. She finds herself invited to literary soirées and delightfully improper parties full of artists and nonconformers. Nash also talks to Eddie about her writing, promising to help her edit and eventually publish her debut novel. It’s a dream come true for Eddie, and even more so when Nash invites her — along with others in his circle including Rose and Albert — to spend the fall and early winter at his country house.
If you’re a seasoned Austen reader like I am, you recognize the red flags indicating a scoundrel pretty quickly with Nash. The journey of the novel, of course, is waiting for Eddie to realize what you as the reader already know. Narratives like this can easily become a frustrating exercise, especially when the dramatic irony is drawn out for most of the book as it is here. But what Croucher does excellently in Infamous is convincingly illustrate the appeal of Nash. The task is much easier said than done. It’s all very well for an author to tell us that so-and-so charms everyone; it’s quite another to actually create a character who makes the statement believable. This tactic usually works better in film, where the writer can lean on an actor’s charisma to show a character’s allure. But Croucher manages to pull it off splendidly. Despite knowing Nash was bad news, I found myself laughing at his off-color jokes and wanting to think the best of him, even when I knew better.
So, hardly believing her good luck, Eddie leaves the grey London autumn for a sojourn at Nash’s familial estate, along with Rose, Albert, and a number of entertaining and rich secondary characters. These characters include Kitty, a painter so dedicated to her art that she doesn’t notice the walls of Nash’s house literally caving in around her; Levantine, a nonbinary character who loves a good time, has a seemingly endless supply of witty remarks, and functions as a kind of queer elder to Eddie; and Dayo, a Black intellectual working on a treatise about abolition who is altogether too respectable and considerate a person to be hanging around the likes of Nash.
Eddie is expecting to get a lot out of this stay at Nash’s falling apart Gothic mansion, and she does: just what exactly she learns is quite different than what she anticipated, though. For one thing, she gets an education in queerness. At a grand party, she is introduced to Isabella Cliffe, a woman a bit older than herself who is wearing men’s clothes: “Eddie was immediately struck with admiration and white-hot envy; why had she never considered that she might be allowed to wear men’s clothes?wp_postsIn other words, Eddie is learning about queer ways of being, discovering both that it’s a way of living that’s possible at all and discovering that it’s something she wants.
What else does she want that she’s never been honest with herself about? Rose, of course. She can’t quite put her finger on what the feeling is exactly, but throughout the novel she finds herself drawn to Rose, romantically, sensually, sexually, and otherwise. Her journey, like that of her gender presentation, is twofold: she’s figuring out that she loves and desires Rose and finding out that doing those things is a thing that can be done.
Thank goodness for Valentine, who interrupts their constant revelry to have a nice mentor-ish chat with Eddie. When Eddie confesses to them that she was surprised at Isabella’s outfit of breeches and waistcoat and how much she wanted it for herself, Valentine replies:
“Miss Cliffe … has had more time on this earth to think about who exactly she’d like to be. And she didn’t invent the concept of ladies in breeches. She probably saw somebody do it, and thought she might like it, and discovered that she was correct. None of us are true originals, Eddie. We piece an approximation of a person together from finding what we like and eschewing what we hate, and somewhere in that muddle we find ourselves.”
This work of finding ourselves somewhere in that muddle is Eddie’s journey in Infamous. Of all of Jane Austen’s work, Infamous is probably the most like Emma, as the narrative follows a protagonist discovering that the right partner has been in front of them all along. (Although the story also has the bite and humor of Pride and Prejudice). It’s essentially a quest that consists of finding out that you, yourself, are the one who is clueless. Cue Alicia Silverstone’s Cher saying “Everything I think and everything I do is wrong… It all boiled down to one inevitable conclusion, I was just totally clueless.wp_postsIn Croucher’s words: “[Eddie] was starting to suspect that her stupidity knew no bounds.”
If my glowing comparisons to the legendary Jane Austen and the perfect film Clueless haven’t already made it clear, Infamous is a truly exceptional bildungsroman. It’s full of just the right amounts of wit, romance, hijinks, self-discovery, and heart. This is the sapphic Regency coming-of-age book you’ve been waiting for.