The Secret Appeal of The Pink Carnation

SEPT / OCT 2014: BY RACHEL SEXTON

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As entertainment consumers, we are all very aware of the mainstream blockbusters in every medium. They take over the advertising time and media coverage we are bombarded with, and they aren’t even always good. What about those good books, television shows, or films that don’t get the most attention? Why are some things underrated? The answer is probably a combination of factors. Projects geared toward women seem to automatically receive second-tier status from the media (don’t get me started on that) and that is probably the reason why a lot of people may have never heard of The Pink Carnation book series. It is a series of historical novels that may be female-oriented but are full of enough action and humor to entertain any reader.

In February 2005, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation was published. Written by Lauren Willig, the novel introduced Eloise Kelly, a Harvard doctoral student in history, in England to investigate aristocratic spies of the Napoleonic era for her dissertation. She hopes to discover the long-hidden identity of one spy in particular: The Pink Carnation. Just like the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian, the Carnation worked undercover to assist England in defeating the French empire under Napoleon. A stash of papers in the possession of the Selwick family gives Eloise the information she’s looking for, as well as the possibility of romance for herself in the form of Colin Selwick. The reader spends most of the novel experiencing the events of early 1800’s England and France as Eloise reads about them. Colin’s ancestor Richard (established here as the identity of the Purple Gentian) meets and falls for Amy Balcourt as she inadvertently entangles herself in his espionage activities. In the end, Eloise and the reader learn who the Pink Carnation is.

The novel was a New York Times Bestseller and the series has continued over 10 more books, with the twelfth—and final (sob!)—installment to be published next year. The modern plot involving Eloise and Colin continues to progress over all the books as she learns all the details she could ever want about the spy work of the Pink Carnation. They only take up a brief amount of page time, though. The focus is the romance and adventure of the past. Each book focuses on a different couple and how they get together amid the intrigues of espionage. The lead characters are connected through family or friendship for the most part—the heroine of the second book in the series, The Masque of the Black Tulip, is Richard’s sister Henrietta, for example—and the character of the Pink Carnation (whose identity I won’t spoil here but it’s a great reveal) appears in nearly all of them.

Why this series has been successful is no mystery to anyone who has read the books. The believability of how Willig presents two people’s feelings for each other is exceptional, and she isn’t bad at making up covert plots either! By far, though, the best aspect of the entire Pink Carnation series is the humor. Willig has a distinct and funny tone that stays consistent throughout every novel and is a treat to read. The reader laughs out loud or at least has a big smile of mirth on their face frequently throughout each of the novels in the series.

Given the setting, it’s obvious that one of the influences on The Pink Carnation is Jane Austen and her six wonderful novels. Romance being center stage in the plot and the presence of plenty of humor serve to reinforce this influence. Nothing recaptures the magic of a great writer writing in their own time about their own time, and Willig’s authorial voice is indeed too modern to achieve an accurate comparison, but the influence of Austen is something to recommend in a work. Another obvious touchstone for Willig was The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy’s classic swashbuckler about the spy himself and his real-life identity as Sir Percy Blakeney. Blending these two types of stories was an inspired idea and Willig executes it with skill.

The Pink Carnation has a female lead character, focuses partly on romance, and was written by a woman, so that has kept it firmly in the “chick lit” section of fiction despite its bestseller status. The series is probably underrated because of this, less likely to come to the attention of as many readers as some other genres might and less likely to be taken seriously by critics as literature. This is unfair because the action and comedy of The Pink Carnation would be entertaining to any reader. Perhaps by the time the publication of The Lure of the Moonflower occurs next year, Lauren Willig’s covert English spy in the Napoleonic era will finally get more overt recognition. ♥

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.

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