(On this the last day of classes before what is ominously called "Winter Break" rather than "Spring Break" in Nova Scotia, after having slaved away conquering Mt. Grademore so as to be able to return papers to my students, and while on the very brink of international travel at the crack of tomorrow's dawn, I have fallen ill. Bah. So what better way to pass the time while mustering the strength to go to the office and pick up another batch of papers from my mailbox before slithering miserably home again than to review the novel I finished yesterday.
What moves me to this rare act of reviewing, you ask? Well, there is a glitch in a bunch of Joan Wolf ebooks I just bought from Fictionwise [hrumph], and it takes the following form: I can open the ebooks, but only a single, tantalizing time. If I ever close the file to look at another another ebook, phantom errors immediately crop up that prevent me from ever opening it again, and I am forced to delete it and download the file a second or third or fourth time. Gothic, eh? I think my ebooks might be possessed. It is like some nightmarish bibliophile's version of the movie Speed. I have enjoyed a long back and forth in the form of eReader comments with my last book, but if I go on to read anything else from the overflowing cornucopia of my eLibrary, there is a very strong chance that my file will be corrupted, and all the brilliance of this comment-dialogue will go the way of all earthly things.
So review it I must, before laying eyes on even a single sentence of another ebook. This is a great motivator. Thanks, evil spirit possessing my eReader!*)
Righto: let's transition from Sycorax Pine's epic of gothic horror, The Cranky Invalid, or The Trials of the Demon eBook to Joan Wolf's considerably briefer The Rebellious Ward, shall we?
Catriona MacIan is the spirited daughter of a wild Scottish maiden and her English love, a man who marries and impregnates her in their romantic youth, and then promptly disappears while on a trip home to speak with his family. Fueled by her Celtic pride (a certain amount of ethnic essentialism is necessary to all the characterizations of this novel), Catriona's mother hides the fact of the marriage from her family rather than force her beloved to return against his will, even when it becomes clear she is pregnant. Little does she know, but the only thing keeping him from her side is a lack of a pulse - he died of a sudden illness before announcing the marriage to his family.
So after her mother dies in childbirth**, wee Catriona is raised by her maternal grandfather amidst all the craggy Scottish gothicism a girl could wish for, until her guardian dies as well and she is sent off to live in (shudder) England with her father's family, who are probably unbearable, repressed tyrants straight out of a Dickens novel.
But this isn't a Dickens novel, so everyone little Kate (as she is called by everyone but the hero, who has too much dignity for nicknames) encounters treats her with endless kindness, from her great-grandmother to the stable-boys. Hers is a childhood filled with death, but somehow without scars; it is a very, very well-behaved world she lives in. At one point Kate confronts the idea that perhaps the hero (the young duke, who is her new guardian, and some dozen years her senior) is just humoring her rather than displaying a genuine desire for her childish company (and she is still very much a child at this point, perhaps aged 10 or 11):
Her face fell. "You were just being polite."
"I was being polite," he returned imperturbably, "I am always polite. But I meant what I said."
Yes. Everyone here is always, always polite. Well, except for our dashing hero, Edmund, who doesn't remain imperturbable for much longer. He is (bien sur) the pride of Cambridge when we first see him and then the catch of the marriage market in the decade that follows: a very young Duke with an advanced sense of personal and familial responsibility, a talent for mathematics and astronomy, and an exceedingly pleasing face. He divides his time throughout his twenties between the London Season (where he avoids getting hitched and engages in a long affair with a discreet widow), academic pursuits with continental mathematicians, and the attempt to impose some sort of intellectual and moral rigor on the otherwise hopelessly spoiled and irrepressibly free-spirited Catriona.
What kind of hero is Edmund? He has a pinch of Mr. Knightley, if Mr. Knightley were more obviously motivated by jealousy and inadequately suppressed desire. Knightley, after all, is fairly skilled at sublimating his desire for Emma into his persona as our heroine's flawless, externalized superego of a handsome scold. Badly done, Emma!
And Wolf walks a careful line in describing Edmund's highhandedness. He laughs almost as much as a chides, and during early descriptions of Catriona's childhood, he shows a laudable tendency to correct her not as a means of controlling her, but rather of challenging her, of demanding that she live up to her intellectual and moral capabilities. She must do her maths work before he will explain astronomy! So she does her maths work, and then revels, with all the enthusiasm of puppy love, in his explanation of a prize he just won for comet calculations. Yes, comet calculations. And when, as a young (and increasingly magnetic) teenager, she lures her enamored older cousin George into taking her to see some theatricals (corruption!) at a local pub, Edmund calmly confronts the boy for the total lack of spine he demonstrated in acquiescing, but then turns his rage on Catriona for exploiting the effect her magnetism has on the weaker personalities around her. He has enough respect for her to hold her to account for her own actions.
And here we begin to see that Edmund's clear-eyed demands that Catriona take responsibility for her own rather charmed life bleed constantly and messily into less clear-eyed desires. Because correcting her is about controlling her, about asserting his ducal authority over a girl whom he wants both desperately and inappropriately. (While discussing whether Kate is to have a dowry that will outweigh her alleged illegitimacy on the marriage market, the dowager duchess sees him scowl. "He could look very feudal sometimes, his grandmother reflected. 'Of course I will settle money on Catriona,' he said stiffly, 'I have always intended to provide for her."')
I don't mean to cast aspersions on Austen's Mr. Knightley, whose paternalistic superiority I feel the most profound and exasperating affection for (much like his feelings for dear Emma), but in some ways Edmund's obvious tetchiness about his own desire makes him a more satisfying hero, because he is a less admirable one. As Kate grows up (or, more accurately, fills out), his lectures become increasingly appalling, and they have always had a touch of imperialist snideness to them. When she was a child, he forced her to learn French with the following conversational tactic:
"Only savages," he told them bitingly, "know no language but their own."Ahem. All right. But then, after a few years, the sons of the local squires begin noticing Kate's, well, really very good seat during a hunt.
"You did splendidly, Kate," said Squire Winthrop. "You put the boys to shame."
"Indeed. Miss MacIan can hunt with us any time," said Mr. Matthews, a young man from the next parish. He looked at her with something in his eyes that Catriona did not recognize.
"Let's get going," said Edmund's suddenly cool voice***. "It's getting chilly sitting here." And obediently Catriona had allowed her horse to fall in beside his.
"That Matthews fellow is a bit of a commoner," Edmund said as they rode home together.
"Why do you say that?" asked Catriona, surprised. "I thought he was very nice."
He looked at her in silence for a minute. "Did you?" he said then. And changed the subject of conversation.
She is fourteen when this conversation takes place. And Edmund is just settling into a permanent state of anxious swivet. When he chastises her for leading her smitten cousin George down that primrose path to the hellish enticement of theatricals, the conversation goes extremely badly for them both:
"But Edmund, I didn't know there would be a man there who would behave so badly. It wasn't my fault he was drunk." [...]Whoa there. So, in contrast to our sentiments about Knightley, who we can't help but feel is giving voice to the qualms we are ourselves feeling about Emma's character ****, I think readerly sympathy in this little debate is clearly on Kate's side. It is indeed not an act of justice to hold Catriona responsible for the erratic male response to her rather striking good looks. Why aren't men responsible for behaving with respect towards women they encounter in pubs? Should she wear a paper bag over her head every time she fancies a bit of theatre? Why does he keep trying to tamp down on the very liveliness that is the source of his delight in Catriona? (These are rhetorical questions, of course. We all know why.)
"That man," said Edmund, taking a step closer to her, "was Lord Margate, son of the Earl of Wethersby. He was not drunk. He just mistook you for a common doxy."
Catriona's eyes flew wide open, and color flushed into her cheeks. "But why should he think that?" she demanded.
"Look at you." Edmund's hand came out and ruthlessly plucked a few pins from her hair. He pulled out some hair along with the pins, and Catriona's eyes watered with the sudden pain. "You certainly made every attempt to play the part," he went on, "wearing your hair in that ridiculous fashion, painting your eyes."
"I did not paint my eyes [...] And I only put my hair up because I was trying to look older."
"Well, you succeeded in looking like a whore."
And when George kisses her under the mistletoe at a family Christmas party, Edmund really goes off the deep end:
"You are not a child any longer, Catriona," he said sternly. "You are a young lady. And young ladies do not - romp about - as you do.""Hmm," say my comments. If this were an Austen novel, these sorts of conversations would be a sure sign that we are looking at a false hero, the dashing figure sent into the novel to distract (temporarily, but often nearly disastrously) the heroine from the less flashy, plainer, more ethically sound hero. Because the truth of the matter is that it is Edmund - handsome, funny, affectionate Edmund, whom Catriona has loved for years - who throws the apple of discord into her charmed life. No one has ever mentioned her potentially unconventional parentage to her before. No one has every said anything to her that would detract from her liveliness or contentment with what she has been given. And he is a sexual hypocrite, hardly a model of chastity himself, as Kate points out in a highly satisfying rant that sends him running off in a fit of annoyance later in the novel. But what in Austen would be a big sign reading "Honey, you can do better. Maybe not handsomer, but better. Remember that quiet, stern fellow from a few years back?" is skillfully wrought by Wolf into an indication of the burning, tormented desire that somehow humanizes our too-perfect hero. We love him not just in spite of, but because of the fact that he tends to express himself (and that inadequately suppressed desire) in the most unfortunate terms.
"But everyone here is my family!" She protested.
"Not everyone. And even family can be disgusted by rowdy and hoydenish behavior."
Disgusted. He had said disgusted. "But everyone likes me, Edmund," she said in great bewilderment and hurt. "No one is disgusted."
"They will be if you continue on the path you are traveling." There was a little pulse beating in his right temple. "You should never allow a young man to kiss you like that," [...] There was a note of temper now in his voice. "You are being frightfully obtuse, Catriona, and you force me to tell you that the circumstances of your parentage make it necessary for you to conduct yourself with even greater discretion than most young girls." Catriona did not answer, only sat and stared at him out of wide distressed eyes. "You don't want people saying 'Like mother like daughter,' do you?" he concluded very grimly.
It took a minute for his words to register, and when they did Catriona felt as if he had hit her across the face.
He is single-handedly responsible for everything that makes Catriona unhappy in the world. Before he gets to her, she is universally beloved and sheltered from those whose judgments would shame her. But through Edmund's increasingly bumbling (and unreflective) attempts to rein in her excessive liveliness (i.e. keep other men from casting heated looks her way) she is born into a sense of alienation and an awareness of her own ambiguous place in the social structures of England.
In fact, it is actually the false hero who has the more supportive relationship with Catriona, despite being such a notorious rake that Edmund can't stand to see them in the same room together. When Senor False Hero warns her that her reputation might be compromised by being seen in his company, she none-too-blithely repeats Edmund's words:
"I hadn't thought of that. People might say 'Like mother, like daughter.'"Sigh. Our swine, that's who. My Everything-I-Know-About-Identifying-Romantic-Heroes-I-Learned-From-Jane-Austen metre just blew a gasket.
She had thought her voice was expressionless, but something of her feeling must have shown, for he said roughly, "What swine said that to you?".
OK: there is a certain amount of creep factor (and thus intellectual interest) in the differences in age, maturity, and authority between these two. Or, perhaps not so much the age difference as the fact that Edmund pretty much raises Catriona, and that "raising" seems largely to entail instilling her with a feeling of social and sexual shame. When the moment for declarations finally comes, this is what our swiny beloved says: "I've been in love with you since you were ten years old. Isn't that a disgraceful thing to admit?"
In his defense, he goes on to claim that "I didn't realize it until I returned from France in November. You threw yourself into my arms, and it hit me then quite catastrophically that you weren't a little girl any more," and he has been behaving with morally impeccable (if narratively exasperating) restraint since that encounter. But we have known for much longer, and this raises a provocative tension in the novel. How can we reconcile the (in romance, primally imperative) drives of love and desire with the guardian-ward relationship, with its unequal power structures and parental overtones? What is one to do when one's soul-mate (to use a term that is certainly not Wolf's, but is so often implied in the model of love presented here and in so many other romances) hasn't, um, quite finished growing up yet? I'm looking at you, Jacob Black. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Joan Wolf, for dealing with this question in a more nuanced way than the ucktastic final book of the Twilight series did.
OK: now I need to discuss the other factor that I found most admirable, fascinating, and ultimately disappointing about this novel, but in order to do so, I need to venture into spoiler territory. Up until this point, I have been fairly spoiler free (apart from implying, to everyone's shock, I am sure, that there comes a point in this romance novel at which the two protagonists speak to each other about their feelings), but what follows is a discussion of the way Wolf uses narrative structure to create uncertainty and suspense, and I am going to ruin the way her devices function if you read on without having read the novel first. So go read it, and I will meet you back here in a couple of hours. Or you can, you know, just skip from here to the footnotes, if you are in a desperate hurry.
Righto: so Joan Wolf makes (what seems to be) really brilliant use of an innovative prologue here. The novel opens, not as my plot summary implied, with Catriona's childhood in Scotland, but with a visit from George to his adult cousin Catriona. "How is the new addition?" he asks. "It's nice to have a daughter at last," she replies. After some more small talk, which (smitten as he still is) he finds it difficult to concentrate on, he finally comes to the point: while looking through some old dusty books from her father's library, he has found a marriage certificate for her parents. She is legitimate.
He moved his feet restlessly on the carpet. "I wonder what Edmund will say."My god, I thought after reading this. I have no idea who this Edmund is or what his relationship is with our Catriona (whoever she may be), but this romance novel is actually going to be conducted under the constant shadow of its own failure. She is going to have to get out of this marriage she is in now (with a man whom she gives a melancholy little wave from the window) in order to be reunited with this swiny Edmund fellow, a man who allowed her illegitimacy to stand between them. How will this fadge? (This is a Shakespearean usage I am trying to resurrect. What do you think of my chances?)
"Edmund?" She looked at him a little sharply. "What should Edmund have to say about it?"
After all these years her voice still changed when she said his name. George wondered if she realized it. He wondered if her husband did. "I think he might have a great deal to say," George managed to get out.
Catriona rose and walked over to the window. [...] She glanced down at the paper in her hand. It couldn't make any difference now, she thought. But once... God, how important it would have been to her ten years ago.
"It can't matter now," Catriona said to George. "To Edmund or to - anyone else."
This looming pall filled the first two thirds of the novel with discomfort for me (punctuated by Edmund's constant disgruntled references to the dictates of propriety and the realities of her illegitimacy), and this was absolutely fascinating. For one thing, in an age where divorce was disgrace and annulment was out of the question for a couple that has clearly already had several children, death or widowhood looks like the only way out of this marriage for our fair lass. And there is something that troubles me deep in the pit of my ethics about doing away with an innocent character for purely narrative reasons: life shouldn't be sacrificed at the altar of our romantic cravings.
Of course, Wolf knows that she is putting us through exactly this sort of calculation. She even gives us a secondary character who has followed that path:
"I married a man I didn't love. [...] I had quarreled with Ian, you see, and he went off to South America."Hoping for this sort of an outcome is like committing murder in your heart. It left me feeling a bit queasy. And this nausea (perverse reader that I am) was the sign of how brilliantly Wolf had constructed the beginning of The Rebellious Ward: here, I thought, is a romance that is going to make us feel guilty for wishing for the HEA. How... astonishing, and clever, and tricksy.
"But everything turned out all right for you." [Catriona chimes in, looking on the bright side, as is her wont.]
"Yes." There was a shadow of strain around Frances's lovely eyes. "Because Rob died."
"Yes," Catriona almost whispered. "I see."
"Sometimes I ask myself what I would have done if I had been married to Rob and Ian came back. And then I think, God, I'm glad Rob died. And he was such a good man, Catriona. He was so good to me." Frances's face looked almost haunted.
Which made it rather disappointing when it turned out to be a much more conventional novel after all, with an opening gambit that was not so much a revolution in the genre as a sleight-of-hand. Oh, I thought, OK. Now instead of examining how far I am willing to go (morally) to see the lovers back together, I am left with simply a muted sense of satisfaction in my HEA, since it didn't have to overcome some of the obstacles I anticipated.
But after all, this is a novel peppered with references to All's Well that Ends Well, a play whose title could be the motto of the millennia-old romance tradition but whose plot is hardly a testament to the uplifting promise of a happy ending. I found myself wondering about the parallels between the two works. Bertram, the hero of All's Well, is the most unappealing piece of heroic irresponsibility Shakespeare ever put on stage, and while Edmund certainly leaves him in the dust when it comes to charm, I couldn't help but feel that there was a clue here as to how we are to view Edmund's relationship with Kate. The heroine of All's Well, you see, is beloved by everyone but the hero, and she has to chase him all over the world and finally capture him by means of the ever-handy bed-trick in order to force him into marriage. This is not remotely similar to what happens in The Rebellious Ward. But Edmund's moral superiority is a false front here: the trajectory of the story is one in which he needs to learn more than she does. He needs, in other words, to be captured - to be tricked into happiness - by the structures of romance itself.
So I am not sure I can say that the novel itself "ended well." Since I was so fascinated by how this knot of potential ethical disasters would resolve itself, the conclusion comes together a bit too quickly. I had grown attached to the characters and exasperated by their failings, so I felt I deserved a longer bask in their happy ending. This is a novella, in truth, at just 132 pages, and I suppose that the fact of it is that I would have preferred it to be a novel. But all's well: golden lads and novellas all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.*****
The Rebellious Ward
Joan Wolf (1984, USA)
*This same demon has apparently inserted a fair number of very silly typos into my ebooks, the best of which occurs when our heroine casts a glance across the dance floor at the hero while conversing with another man: "Over his shoulder she caught sight of the duke's black head. He was glistening courteously to Mrs. Mason-Burgley, and had reverted to his usual air of cool, worldly elegance." An air he apparently maintains through constantly application of some sort of an unguent. It must be my library demon making him glisten so politely. I know it couldn't possibly be that publishers aren't devoting enough attention to editing (actually editing) ebooks. [And yes, I know that there is nothing so likely to result in the appearance of typos all over one's writing than criticizing the errors of another. I am resigned to that. I have just corrected four or five in this post alone.]
**Because the labor-related mortality rate of heroic parents in romance is somewhere around 80%, despite being negligible for the endlessly fertile heroines, no matter how delicate of constitution and slim of hip. Clearly some major advances in gynecology were made between, well, twenty years before any historical romance is set and the "present day" of the novel.
*** So cool and distant that it has become magically detached from his person, and capable of saying things on its own.
**** It isn't that I had no qualms about Catriona's character. She has a troubling tendency to sexual passivity, in a very particular sense; that is, she tends to bestow affection on men simply out of a feeling that it would be vaguely unfair to withhold it. This leads her into a variety of kisses that she suspects (really?) Edmund would not approve, as well as into the odd engagement.
***** Yes, this post is littered with traces of my recent classroom encounter with Everyman. What can I do? As a reading experience (and a memento mori) it has a "long tail."