The second in Olivia Waite's series of wlw regency romances, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is another bi/lesbian romance — this time featuring two older women, radical politics, and weaponized bees.
Agatha Griffin is a respectable widow, running one of the largest printing companies in England and trying to prepare her son to take over one day. Unfortunately for her, he's much more interested in pursuing radical politics and in her very best apprentice than the administrative demands of the business.
The last thing she needs is a warehouse full of bees, but when she journeys out to their second workshop in the portentously named town of Melliton, that's exactly what she finds. In a world without epinephrine and antihistamines, bees were a lot more frightening to the uninitiated than they are now, so the only solution if she wants to get the business back on track, is to call in a local beekeeper and have them move the hive.
Penelope Flood is the thoroughly disreputable daughter of a merchant and the best beekeeper in town. Dressed in her absent husband's clothing with a reputation for taking long walks in the woods with any number of women, Agatha finds her baffling at first, then intriguing, and then essential to her continued happiness. Soon the monthly trips to Melliton become the highlight of Agatha's otherwise stressful and lonely life, and she keeps finding excuses to drag them out and stay the night.
As their relationship builds, however, so does the danger, and not just to them but to everyone they love. The King and Queen are on the verge of divorce, and public sympathy is largely with the Queen. As are the Radicals, proto-socialists of the era operating under the maxim "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," who see in the royal conflict an opportunity to push progressive social and legal changes.
In London, Agatha's print shop is raided and nearly shut down for publishing seditious satires of the king, while back in Melliton, a protest on behalf of the Queen turns into a riot. It's only after the resolution of the royal conflict when the Queen is restored to her proper place that things become truly dire, and the two women will have to step out of their comfort zones and fight if they want any kind of future together.
One of the clever things Waite does with this novel is create an almost perfect case study in Melliton of how conservative forces can divide former friends and neighbors, turning a previously tolerant place into a very dangerous one for anyone who can't or won't conform. Far from being able to use their support of the Queen to push their progressive agenda, the Radicals, and the marginalized they defend, find themselves on the outs once again, as all the power from her victory goes to her conservative supporters. Using that power, regressive forces in Melliton start hunting down what they consider to be vice and immorality, offering rewards to people for turning in their neighbors.
Melliton goes from being a happy, companionable place to a tense, miserable one as all the worst impulses of power-hungry people are given free rein. What saves the town, in the end, is people pushing through their fear to come together, fighting back with a midnight heist, civil disobedience, and a very clever tactic involving Penelope's bees.
Another thing Waite is good at is cutting through the romanticization of the Regency period and demonstrating exactly how dire things actually were for women. Agatha loved her husband deeply, but even during her marriage, she thought about the precariousness of her position and how only widows truly have any form of security, as everything a woman has is owned by her husband. We meet a woman who isn't so lucky as the novel progresses; her husband steals her earnings with the blessing of the law, leaving her scrambling to feed herself and their son. Agatha's son and best apprentice even decide to forgo marriage entirely, embracing the Radical perspective that marriage is a prison for women and equality best found outside of it, but being an unmarried yet sexually active woman at that time had its own terrible penalties. Waite does the same with homophobia, and poverty, taking the shine off the Regency fantasy without taking away from the joyousness of the character's relationships or the warmth of their happily ever after.
It was also particularly refreshing to read not just a romance between two older women but a thoroughly erotic one. Too often, older women are thoroughly desexed, and when their sexualities are acknowledged, they're insinuated as happening off-page. There's no "fade to black" of "soft focus" with Penelope and Agatha. The realities of their bodies are displayed in text and treated as thoroughly beautiful and desirable. Their sex itself is wonderfully uninhibited, and the depiction of mutual desire building when they both think their affection is one-sided is authentic and visceral.
If you like erotica, left-wing politics, and historical realism coupled with wish-fulfillment, then The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows is for you.