Read the series that Courtney Milan called “meaty historical romance . . . must-reads” and “Like nothing I’ve ever read before.”
*All books are standalone HEAs (happily-ever-afters) and do not have to be read in order. Try before you buy: read a few teasers from the series!
The Oriente is the finest hotel in Manila… but that’s not saying much.
Hotel manager Moss North already has his hands full trying to make the Oriente a respectable establishment amidst food shortages, plumbing disasters, and indiscreet guests. So when two VIPs arrive—an American congressman and his granddaughter Della—Moss knows that he needs to pull out all the stops to make their stay a success.
That won’t be easy: the Oriente is a meeting place for all manner of carpetbaggers hoping to profit off the fledgling American colony—and not all of these opportunists’ schemes are strictly on the up-and-up. Moss can manage the demanding congressman, but he will have to keep a close eye on Della—she is a little too nosy about the goings-on of the hotel and its guests. And there is also something very different about her…
It is 1902 and Georgina Potter has followed her fiancé to the Philippines, the most remote outpost of America’s fledgling empire. But Georgina has a purpose in mind beyond marriage: her real mission is to find her brother Ben, who has disappeared into the abyss of the Philippine-American War.
To navigate the Islands’ troubled waters, Georgina enlists the aid of local sugar baron Javier Altarejos. But nothing is as it seems, and the price of Javier’s help may be more than Georgina can bear.
Find Under the Sugar Sun at Amazon.com. (And if you’ve read it and want to know more about Javier and Georgina, check out these extras.)
A Missionary and a Sinner
Jonas Vanderburg volunteered his family for mission work in the Philippines, only to lose his wife and daughters in the 1902 cholera epidemic. He wishes his nurse would let him die, too.
Rosa Ramos wants nothing more to do with American men. Her previous Yankee lover left her with a ruined reputation and a child to raise alone. A talented nurse at a provincial hospital, she must now care for another American, this time a missionary whose friends believe her beyond redemption.
Did doctors of the day believe in “virginity tests”?
Did they understand a woman’s body and how to bring it pleasure?
Did they think that sex should be pleasurable for women in the first place?
Finally, how did they feel about masturbation, or self-pleasure?
In my unscientific, random sampling of (cishet) primary sources, the Gilded Age scored 2.5 out of 4, which was a little better than I anticipated. Let’s investigate:
The hymen does not start whole—a perforation is needed to allow menstrual fluid to escape, after all—but a woman can easily tear and rub away the rest through an active lifestyle. Horseback riding, yes. Sneezing? Eh, probably not. But it was nice that Dr. Foote erred in her favor. It is also nice that he acknowledged that the hymen test was “cruel and unusual.”
However, it is depressing to also note that, due to “popular prejudice,” even the best physicians concealed the whole hymen truth. This led some fearful young women to try to “tighten” their vagina with alum, something I found discussed in a magazine of 1880 erotica (written by and for men). The alum suggestion wasn’t new—women had been encouraged to try this since medieval times—but it didn’t work then, and it still doesn’t. It just dries you out. There is no virginity test other than asking a person.
a woman’s body:
This may be the Gilded Age quote that surprised me the most. I had thought for sure that today’s popular culture would be more knowledgeable than 150 years ago, especially regarding the clitoris, but no! In fact, did you know that even in the eighteenth century, the most widely printed medical book in Europe and America informed men about the clitoris? Yay, cliteracy!
Fortunately, my heroine Allegra will have a Gilded Age anatomy book (the one above) to guide her explorations. Every virgin should have one! Her hero, Ben, will appreciate her sharing her new knowledge with him, too. This is why I love writing romance, a genre that prioritizes the needs, strengths, and happiness of women. Real romance doesn’t ignore the clitoris! I’m going to cross-stitch that on a pillow someday.
A woman’s pleasure:
Pleasure and procreation may coincide, but one is not required for the other—for women. Herein lies a problem with how we teach (or don’t teach) women about their bodies. Even today, students may be taught reproductive biology, but that curriculum illustrates a prudish bias: a woman’s anatomy is described like plumbing, with pipes only used for pumping out children. In this narrative, only the male’s sexual pleasure is required for procreation, leaving the impression that men are the only ones who experience desire (or who should experience it).1
How sex-positive were Gilded Age experts? Did they think women should receive pleasure from the act? Dr. Foote, author of the above quote about the clitoris, believed that all aspects of sexual interaction—from friendly conversation to full, pleasurable intercourse—were absolutely necessary for good health: “I place sexual starvation among the principal causes of derangements of the nervous and vascular systems,” he said.
Now let’s check in with a woman, “sexual outlaw” Ida Craddock, who was sent to jail for sending “obscene” sexual education materials through the mail (to subscribers).2 Craddock’s description of a woman taking an active part in intercourse, even to the point of describing specific motions, is refreshing. She also claims that these motions will improve a woman’s sexual passion, which is encouraging. But—and this is a big BUT—Craddock believes the woman’s passion is irrelevant. A fortunate by-product, yes, but unnecessary. Bummer.
In fact, Craddock believed so strongly that sex was for procreation that her vision of contraception was coitus without orgasm—for both partners—for the entire duration of pregnancy and two years following. She thought this sexual brinksmanship would make both partners stronger. Three years of deliberate sexual arousal without release? No wonder Anthony Comstock, self-appointed male protector of American postal virtue, had her thrown her in jail.3
Overall, I’ll give the Gilded Age half a point here, and that’s being generous.
Your own pleasure starts with you:
Rosa did not have a lot of experience—none very good, at least—but neither did Jonas, it seemed. And Rosa knew something he did not. She knew what she liked.
“Look,” she said. She parted her lower lips to reveal the ridge that gave her the most pleasure when she was alone.
Or was this too much? To admit such a dirty secret, especially to a man—had she not learned her lesson? When she had tried to show Archie, he had lectured her about sin and a woman’s shame. Now she risked her husband’s disapproval, too.
Jonas looked up. “Show me what you want,” he said.
If Rosa could do it, so could anyone in the Gilded Age, right? Well, maybe not. Masturbation has long been considered a sin in the Judeo-Christian tradition, ever since Onan spilled his seed on the ground (rather than give his brother’s widow an heir) and God smote him (Genesis 38:9-10). In many traditional sources, the act is called Onanism. Thus, we are back to the idea that sex is only for procreation, a mission that made sense for the small, struggling band of Hebrews trying to survive the rough-and-tumble world of the ancient Near East.
A more recent concern by the Catholic Church about masturbation is the idea that it draws away from the sexual relationship—a withholding of yourself from what should be the most intimate aspect of marriage. It is considered “radically self-centered.” While, yes, an addiction to masturbation may be unhealthy, the knowledge of one’s own body cannot help but lead to a better shared experience. A shocking idea, I know.
And it was shocking in the Gilded Age. Edwardian prophets took the above warnings and turned them into near paranoia. The same level-headed, seemingly enlightened Dr. Foote who criticized the hymen test, described the importance of the clitoris, and said sex was healthy—well, he had only dire warnings about masturbation in 1887: “Many a promising young man has lost his mind and wrecked his hopes by self-induced pleasures.” Another author agreed: “That solitary vice is one of the most common causes of insanity, is a fact too well established to need demonstration here.” (That logic is convenient: it’s so true that I don’t need to prove it. Hmm…)
Dr. Jeffries (1985) listed more terrible symptoms of this vice: a slimy discharge from the urethra, a “wasting away” of the testicles, ringing in the ears, heat flashes, large spots under the eyes, nervous headache, giddiness, solitariness, gloominess, and the inability to look the doctor in the eye. Others added cancer (!), acne (yep, that old hogwash), and a craving for salt, pepper, spices, cinnamon, cloves, vinegar, mustard, and horseradish. That last one is a head-scratcher. So if you wanted to eat anything with flavor at all, that was a giveaway? I’m in trouble.
Speaking of food, did you know that Corn Flakes were invented in 1898 to keep you from masturbating? For real.4
The John Harvey Kellogg quoted above is the Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame. His obsession with sexual purity was so extreme that he never consummated his own marriage. He and his wife slept in separate bedrooms and adopted their children. By the way, who did Kellogg believe were the worst masturbatory offenders? Foreigners, of course. Russians especially. Add eye roll here.
The cure? Clean living! Rising early in the morning, eating the recommended bland breakfast, abstaining from smoke and drink, keeping busy, avoiding solitude, and circumcision. This is why the procedure became routine in American hospitals in the twentieth century and still predominates today. It is not good medicine but good morals. Or so they said.
There is still a bit of taboo in talking about masturbation today—well, maybe more than a bit. In 1994 President Bill Clinton forced his Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders to resign because she said that masturbation should be taught in schools as a preventative for teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases. Still, I think we are a far cry from saying it causes cancer. And we’ve sweetened breakfast cereals beyond recognition, so there, John Harvey Kellogg! More and more parents are questioning routine circumcision for non-religious reasons, though the procedure has traction because it is what people in the US are used to.
All this brings me to an interesting realization: if you asked me which parts of my books would have most shocked real Gilded Age readers, it would have been the openness most of my characters have toward masturbation. And, guess what? I’m not going to stop writing it, historical accuracy be damned. Long live romance!
(Featured photograph is a close up of a Fallopian tube and ovarian ligaments in Henry Morris’s Human Anatomy: A Complete Systematic Treatise by English and American Authors, 5th edition, 1914, p. 1270.)
1. What follows is a whole domino chain of bad decisions, including a teenage “hook up” culture that emphasizes sexual trophy hunting (most often by boys), rather than two people finding mutual pleasure in a mature relationship built on respect and trust.↩
2. The law against this distribution of “obscene” materials, the Comstock Law, is still on the books in a modified form. It no longer covers sexual education or contraception, the latter of which became a legally protected right—to married couples, originally—under the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v Connecticut, also known as the Birth Control Revolution. Good thing, too, because this post would have gotten me jailed.↩
3. And she was not the only sexual rights crusader to have disturbing ideas. Marie Stopes believed in eugenics and forcible sterilization for those “unfit” to carry on their genes. She even “disinherit[ed] her son when he married a woman who had poor eyesight.” Yikes. And Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger dabbled in eugenics, too, by the way. We need to question everything from this period because racism, classism, and ableism were pervasive.↩
4. The original purity food was the graham cracker, which was nothing like your s’mores building block of today. It was made of unrefined flour with no sugars or spices—deliberately bland. Because that contained sexual desire, didn’t you know?↩
When I was writing Under the Sugar Sun, I imagined annotating it with all sorts of fake documents: telegrams, ledgers, even Javier’s high school report card from Seminario-Colegio de San Carlos! Yep. Apparently, I thought that needed to happen.
I was looking through these documents the other day, bemoaning how much time I wasted making them, and then realized: I have a website. Junk is what the web is for, right? So, here you go: Sugar Sun extras! Enjoy.
I hope you enjoy the little tour into my obsessive brain. Thanks for reading!
While I was drafting Under the Sugar Sun,I made character sketches and background briefers on the whole Altarejos and Romero family tree. Before I even knew the end of my book, I knew who this family was.
Let’s look at Javier’s household a little more closely, in the center lower portion of the family tree. Wait, you’re thinking, isn’t Javier an only child? If you remember, he is the only surviving child. Lourdes’s other three died at birth or in infancy—a tragedy that would have been all too common at this time. In Sugar Moon, we learn a little more:
The last delivery had been so traumatic that it almost killed the doña, too. Left with only one healthy son for all her effort, Lourdes had spoiled him with indiscriminate love until young Javier was hustled off to boarding school to grow up. When Javier returned home for his first vacation, he found a new little “sister” in the bedroom next to his.
That “little sister” is really his cousin, Allegra, the heroine of Sugar Moon. Her true story is not really even on this tree:
Early in Under the Sugar Sun, while Javier was flirting with Georgina at the Luneta, he explained that Allegra’s real father was a Spanish friar:
“My aunt never made a public accusation, of course. And my grandparents managed to marry their daughter off to a respectable, if not terribly intelligent, man. Unfortunately, even he could add. My aunt named the baby Allegra, hoping her husband would believe the child a miracle of rapid gestation. As you might imagine, their marriage was not a happy one.”
In fact, the marriage was so unhappy that Allegra’s mother, Raquel, ran off with a Spanish soldier. Horatio Alazas returned the child that wasn’t his to the Romeros—he had given Allegra a last name, and he believed his duty done. Lourdes took her sister’s child as her own, and that is how Allie ended up at Hacienda Altarejos. This whole backstory was inspired by a real Filipina friend of mine who raised not only her sister’s children, but one of their children, as well. Anything for family.
And then, of course, we have Padre Andrés. In Tempting Hymnit explains:
The biggest secret of the Altarejos clan, though, stood at the front of the nave: Padre Andrés was the late patriarch’s bastard son. Since the priest’s legitimacy was never openly questioned, neither was his ordination—but no one who looked at Don Javier and Padre Andrés side-by-side could miss the fact that they were brothers.
More about Andrés’s family will be coming in the upcoming Sugar Communion (expected 2018). I know this is eagerly anticipated by a few readers. I promise that I’m working on it!
One day I might tell more about Lourdes and Lázaro’s marriage, but suffice it to say that Lázaro Altarejos came by adultery honestly. From Under the Sugar Sun:
[Javier] sat in the heavy wooden chair in his office and examined a painted miniature of his grandfather, the first Altarejos hacendero—though Altarejos was not even the Spaniard’s true name. When Capitan Hilario Vélez y Perales resigned his Army commission in Manila, he had balked at the idea of returning to his sowish wife and homely children in rural Altarejos, Spain, so he reinvented himself as an eligible feudal lord on the new frontier of sugar. Hilario “de Altarejos” eventually dropped the preposition from his nickname, won himself a thousand acres of virgin soil for saving the life of the alcalde-mayor, “married” a lovely mestiza who never knew that she was only a mistress, and planted himself a legacy.
That’s the Altarejos clan. Soon I will be making family trees for Javier and Georgina’s children…and more! I can’t wait.
I should disclose that I minored in economics, so trade and business history is my jam. I got really into the weeds with my made-up documents, but it does prove something you might not expect about the hacenderos of yore: times were tough.
Even before the Americans arrived in 1898, Hacienda Altarejos took on debt to buy an expensive sugar mill—the one that Jonas Vanderburg fixes in Tempting Hymn. Of course, I had to make a bill of sale for the mill. How? Well, I found an advertisement from the Brisbane Courier and combined it with a receipt from Nambour, Queensland, and adjusted the numbers for inflation. Voilà, a sugar mill invoice from a real company that made them. (Scottish engineers were the thing at the time. They made all kinds of mills and mechanical equipment, even though sugar was not a local industry.)
Times got tougher on the hacienda. In addition to the Americans (below), there was a Rinderpest epidemic, which killed at least 75% of the carabao on Negros and other islands. (I found real articles about this while doing my research at Ateneo’s American Heritage Collection, but they were not digitized so I had to recreate them.)
Let’s look at Javier’s books. If you see the “emergency expenses” below, you can see the impact that rinderpest had on his bottom line. Where did I get such detailed financial information on sugar? The Far Eastern (Economic) Review, of course. (It has since shuttered, but this publication was a major source of my college research paper writing.) These averages might be a little off because they are from a different part of the Philippines (Pampanga), but they are still pretty good. Boy, did I learn a lot about sugar production in the Gilded Age.
All of these troubles put Javier in financial hot water, even before Ben Potter arrived on the scene. This is why he has to put up his land up as collateral for a loan to start off the 1902-1903 season. This money is mostly needed to pay for labor—and not very reliable labor, at that. According to contemporary sources, about half the workers of any given hacienda would disappear after they were paid their advance (anticipio). That’s expensive.
It is not a surprise, then, that Javier had money problems. The loan agreement he made with Guillermo Cuayzon, the pacto de retro, was a ruthless type of loan liquidation. (This was the device that allowed hacenderos to get rich in better times. Now it worked against Javier.)
Javier was skating a thin line at the start of the book. Sugar farmers in the early American period were not raking it in. Sure, they did in the 1880s and early 1890s, and they have on-and-off since. But the early 1900s were a crunch:
Javier leaned forward, hiding his clenched fists under the desk. “I don’t understand. We’re either a colony or we’re not. The Yankis don’t let us trade with the rest of the world, and now they shut us out of their home market, as well? Some ‘Open Door.’”
History had taught Javier to be a skeptic. In the last four years, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong. Sugar planters in Negros had sided with the Americans in the hope of keeping the peace, but their workers ran off into the hills to join the insurrectos. No labor, no harvest. The Americans punished the rebels by burning rice stores and closing the ports, but such draconian tactics ended up hurting men like Javier most of all. In the end, not only had a quarter of his crop rotted in the ground, but there had been no way to ship the harvested cane off the island. By the time the ports opened again, a freak rinderpest epidemic had killed most of the carabao. Replacing his herd put Javier so far in hock that he had been forced to put up a fifth of his land as collateral. And those were just his problems from last season.
As you can see from the exports below (real figures, by the way), sugar sales dropped dramatically with the arrival of the Americans. It does not improve until free trade is extended for sugar into the United States, a process which starts in 1909 and then is finalized in 1913. So, there is a happily ever after…eventually.
For Javier’s report card, I researched elite education in the Spanish-era Philippines and the program at San Carlos in particular. Detailed biographies of José Rizal and issues of Solidaridad newspaper (out of Madrid) were very helpful. I even looked up the style of Spanish report cards. Grades were, from best to worst: sobresaliente (outstanding), notable (remarkable), bien (good), suficiente (sufficient), insuficiente (insufficient), and muy deficiente (very deficient).
Note: If you cannot read the print of the report card well, there are close-ups below.
You will notice that Javier was not a great student as a young, spoiled boy. Actually, he failed his first year! (See where it says “suspenso”? And see how the courses repeat from 1883-1884 to 1884-1885?) Eleven-year old Javito was not happy to leave his luxurious life as the only child of a prosperous hacendero to attend a strict Vincentian Catholic school. He was certainly ill-equipped for life on his own, as he recounts in Under the Sugar Sun:
[Javier] had not lifted a finger in his house until he left for boarding school. And he meant that—not a finger. What other boy would have gotten a skin rash from not rinsing off his soap? One who had never bathed himself before, that’s who.
Javier was also bullied at first by the older students. A miserable child does not study. This was the result:
As Javier grew and got used to school, though, his grades improved. He was a smart young man who simply needed to apply himself. (Wow, how many times have I written that on a real kid’s comment?) Javier will apply himself…until he gets caught sneaking out to a brothel (with half-brother Andrés in tow). Deciding that Javier needs to grow up, his father sends him to military school in Spain. From there, he makes his way to King’s College, London, where he earns a degree in law. These years in England (and later France!) give him the skills and experience to woo Georgina, so it all ends well.
More of the Altarejos brothers’ history will come to light in Sugar Communion (anticipated 2018), so stay tuned!