A Tale of Two Minervas

In ancient Rome, March 19-23 was the Festival of the goddess Minerva. This year, I’m celebrating that holiday with this post.


On Tuesday, March 27, these books will both be released. The publisher’s branding is pretty noticeable, isn’t it? Add to the cover image and font similarity one other: both romances feature a heroine named Minerva. And that’s no accident. Not that I think these authors colluded to name their characters the same — indeed, that would be impossible, since both Minervas were created as secondary characters. Miranda Neville’s Minerva Montrose first appeared in her 2010 novel The Wicked Viscount, and Tessa Dare’s Minerva Highwood made her fictional debut in A Night to Surrender in 2011. But I think each author chose the name Minerva because it fit her character, inviting comparisons that I think illuminate both of these enjoyable novels.

The name Minerva appears on a number of lists of women’s names used in the United Kingdom in the 19th century; it is still used in the US and the UK to this day, although its popularity has declined pretty steadily since the 1880s. It was never a popular name, as such things are measured by researchers, and I suspect that most parents who chose it, did so for its classical allusion. Minerva was the Roman (by way of the Etruscan) goddess of wisdom, poetry, medicine, commerce and crafts, the equivalent of the Greek goddess Athena. The goddess Minerva is a logical symbol to choose for intelligence, resourcefulness and independence in a woman, because she was patroness of those qualities even in a society that looked for them primarily in men. She appears today on the State Seal of California, the Medal of Honor, and numerous other signs and seals, including a number of institutions of higher education. In the early 20th century, the Société Anonyme Minerva Motors in Belgium built motorcycles and cars (including my favorite, the Minervette) — Wikipedia says that Charles Rolls started out as a Minerva dealer. One of my favorite pubs in the West of England is the Minerva Inn in Plymouth, which opened in 1540 and is built from timbers that were part of the Spanish Armada. But I digress.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, one of the most well-known namesakes of the goddess was Minerva Press, publisher of sentimental and Gothic novels. So parents in the early 1800s who named a daughter Minerva were inviting thoughts of the goddess of wisdom AND of sentimental novels; for our two authors to have so named their literary creations (no, I won’t say their children! Books are not babies!) seems to invoke the same. Appropriately.

Both Minervas are intelligent, and passionate about their fields of study — Minerva Highwood is a geologist, interested in rocks and fossils, while Minerva Montrose is a keen student of politics. Each faces real challenges in making a contribution to her field — the Royal Geological Society doesn’t accept women as members, and of course the only way women can influence politics is through their politically active husbands. So to pursue their intellectual passions, both women need to put themselves in the hands of men: Minerva Highwood needs a man to travel with her to present her paper to the geological symposium in London, and Minerva Montrose needs to marry a man who is active in the government.

Each Minerva also has an older sister named Diana who is beautiful, socially accomplished, and more conventional. Diana was the Roman goddess of chastity, hunting and the moon, a much more traditionally “female” aspect of the divine. (Thankfully neither author chose Venus instead.) Neither plays a huge role in her sister’s story, but each Diana serves as a foil against which to measure Minerva’s unusual qualities.

For all that these characters have in common, however, there are ways in which they are quite different. The most striking to me from the books preceding these is the difference in the Minervas’ families. The Montrose family is eccentric; Mrs. Montrose is the Master of the local Hunt, known for her riding ability and for the foxhounds she breeds, and they encourage their children to study what interests them and to pursue their passions. This Minerva has her family’s complete love and support in whatever she does. By contrast, Mrs. Highwood is a very conventional widow, concerned about keeping up appearances and making good marriages for her three daughters; she is constantly finding fault with Minerva and has no sympathy or understanding for Minerva’s scholarly interests. Thus, in these two characters, we see different aspects of the “bluestocking” heroine: while Minerva Montrose is confident and fairly sure of herself, moving easily in society and ready to take on the masculine world of politics, Minerva Highwood is withdrawn and somewhat anti-social, overlooked and underestimated, without the confidence to demand the place to which her abilities entitle her.

Minerva Montrose’s story is a forced marriage. Early in the book, a particular incident makes it so that to avoid social ruin, she must marry the Marquis of Blakeney, her sister’s former fiancé, who is heir to a duchy but with no interest in government or politics. She wants to make the best of her marriage, but she doesn’t want to give up her dreams of influencing the direction of political and social reform in England. And while she is confident of her intellectual and social abilities, she is uncertain about the sexual side of marriage, and she knows that her husband has a great deal of experience with women. Blakeney is determined not to let Minerva know certain things about him, so it takes her quite a while to figure out the man to whom she is married and how they can shape a shared future that makes them both happy.

Minerva Highwood has two goals; she wants to deliver her paper on fossil finds in Spindle Cove to the Royal Geological Society, and she wants to prevent Colin Payne from marrying her sister. She thinks she can accomplish both if Colin will accompany her to Edinburgh, where she plans to win a cash prize for her scholarship that she will give to Colin so that he need not marry in order to get his inheritance early. Traveling together, of course, brings them very close; events on the journey force them to trust each other and to share things that neither had planned.

One thing I appreciated about both of these books is that the heroines never stop being intellectual; that’s their approach to life, whether it’s with books or with people, including men. Including sex. Part of each Minerva’s journey to her happy ending involves learning to understand another person, and to trust, which is something that goes beyond rational thought, but there’s never a suggestion that intelligence should be disregarded. Indeed, each path to a happy ending includes the hero embracing and defending his lady’s intellectual passion, as well as helping her find the kind of passion more expected in a romance novel.

One last thing: I don’t think a reader is in any danger of confusing these two books, despite the similarities I’ve used as a framework here. Each stands on its own, and both are well worth reading, whether or not you’ve read the books that come before.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. quiltpcp
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 03:03:17

    This was fascinating! I have both books pre-ordered, so now I’m doubly anxious for Tuesday to arrive. It will be hard to work that day!

    Reply

  2. sonomalass
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 08:39:06

    I liked both books very much, and the serendipity of the names was fun. In a quick look via Google and Twitter, I found quite a few Minervas in historical romance. I suspect many of them are scholarly “misfits.”

    I look forward to hearing what you think when you read them!

    Reply

  3. littleasian
    Mar 23, 2012 @ 17:32:53

    Courtney Milan tweeted that her heroine in The Duchess of War is also named Minerva!

    Reply

  4. Trackback: Spring Pleasures: Miranda Neville, Oscar Wilde, and Easter Goodies | Something More

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