Oh, there are so many unreviewed books building up in drifts in my library, my office, my bedside table. I worry that if I don't review them in the first flush of having read them, I won't remember anything of wit or importance I have ever had to say about them. But when I finish a novel (and particularly the rollicking plot- and character-oriented novels I have mostly been reading this year) I feel a profound, addictive need to get deep into another as quickly as possible. Hence the drifts of books forming sedentary layers of forgottenness about my house - the deeper they are in the pile, the less I can recall about them. That's nobody's model of responsible readerly behavior. It is beginning to resemble the bibliophile's equivalent of an opium den around here.
So let's see whether I can't toss off a few reviews every now and then, shall we?
To start with: the two novels I just finished. Some of Mary Balogh's early (mid-90s) Regency novels are being re-released* by Dell in two-in-one volumes. The first is this pairing of Dark Angel and Lord Carew's Bride. I acquired it on the strength of the reputation of the latter, which I had often heard cited as one of Balogh's strongest. From the other novels of hers I had read, I found her work to be entertaining and consistently strong, without being extraordinary in any way that would urge me to keep it on my shelves.
In Dark Angel, however, she builds up a cast of characters that might be compelling (or at the very least comfortable) enough to draw on my lasting affection. Jennifer Winwood and her cousin Samantha are coming to town for their first Season, although Jennifer is already all but engaged to the angelically beautiful Lord Lionel Kersey. I can't help but feel that when a man is praised for his "angelic" beauty in a romance, that is a clear sign that he has a rotting inner life to rival Dorian Gray's. Certainly if we are told at the beginning of a romance that the heroine is already in love, you can bet her beloved is a rotter. (Exceptions will be made - I say magnanimously - for childhood loves, which are the basis for many of my favorite plots.) After all, what will the arc of the plot be if the love is a fait accompli, no longer available to be fallen into?
And sure enough, Lionel Kersey is a toad of a human being. Samantha (the more beautiful and also the more level-headed of the girls) sees through him from the beginning: he is too cold,** she tells her lovestruck cousin. And Jennifer, enamored though she is, can't seem to get her fiancé (they make the match rather quickly, to the delight of both families - another sign that all is not well with the romance, familial approval) to express any sort of private affection for her. Is it too bloody much to ask to be kissed by one's betrothed at the age of twenty?, she wonders daily, in somewhat tamer terms.
But meanwhile she is drawn in by the "dark angel" of the title - Gabriel, the Earl of Thornhill, darkly handsome and obviously quite taken with her. Stay away from him, warns the angry Lord Kersey, he has a reputation that will ruin you. When she asks what exactly Thornhill has done, Kersey sneers at the ill-breeding that would produce this kind of curiosity. (Ultimately she does find out: he is accused of impregnating his own step-mother, and then stealing away with her to the continent while his father dies of a broken heart. Then he, so the story goes, abandons his step-mother and sibling-child to return to England.) We begin to think that Samantha might have been right about the priggish Kersey.
But even as we think this, Lionel Kersey reacts to the increasing closeness of his bride and Thornhill with a maneuver that can only be described as "lashing out romantically" - he maneuvers Samantha into the garden, makes a play for her sympathy, and then kisses her - ignoring the initial violence of her reaction. The damage is done: at eighteen, and in receipt of her first kiss, she finds herself madly in love with a man she can barely respect. How could he betray her cousin like this? Kersey says that the choice of bride was his father's; his own choice (he looks at her meaningfully) would have been very different. She, to her very great credit, is thrown into a deep ethical swivet by this revelation. All the more so when he asks her if there isn't anything she could do to help end his engagement. It wouldn't be honorable for him to do it, you see....
The next novel (Lord Carew's Bride) takes Samantha's story as its subject: after facing heartbreak with Kersey, she remains steadfastly unattached for the next six years, despite the court of devoted male followers who dog her every move. She feels distinctly solitary, although she would hesitate to call herself "lonely." One day, while wandering in the countryside on the borders of a friend's estate, she encounters the disabled Hartley Wade, who introduces himself as a landscape gardener. He is (prepare for a fairly tortured plot device here) reluctant to reveal his true identity as Lord Carew, the owner of the land she is standing on, for fear that she will feel embarrassed by the trespass. But he is also drawn in by her easy enjoyment of his company - could he have finally found a woman who will love him for himself, rather than for his title? There is only one way to find out - extended subterfuge!
But when he finally wins her, can he really trust her? Is she just fleeing the painful love that has scarred her for the last six years?
I will start with two shocking revelations:
First, I know Lionel Kersey is a villain beloved by many, but for me he was the weak point of these books. He needed to be more ambiguously evil to be truly effective. We are sure for the whole of both books that he is a turd of a human being, but the heroines are continually lulled into questioning whether he has turned over a new leaf. Because we are more sure of his villainy than they are, the unevenness of our knowledge causes us to despise them and their naiveté a little bit. But in fact theirs is the more narratively fascinating belief: being in doubt about the truth of his feelings and intentions would and should have produced an infinitely more complex story than simply fearing what havoc he would wreak next out of pure and motiveless evil.
I am borrowing freely from Coleridge in that last phrase, of course. The great Romantic poet, in talking about Iago, speaks of the "motive-hunting of motiveless malignity." It isn't so much that Iago lacks reasons for his villainous actions: you can find them in abundance throughout Othello. But they all seem either insufficient or excessive to account for his behavior: an over-determination of his disgruntlement (over-determination, in this case, being Academickese for a stance that multiple, perhaps even too many, causes) or a response that could only be classified as over-reaction. He is motive-hunting: assigning causes to an evil that exceeds and precedes logic.
And this is what the plotting that surrounds Lionel Kersey feels like, albeit with a character whose motiveless evil is distinctly less grand and complex than Iago's. The reasons for his actions are always muddy, even if you can ultimately tease them into some sort of sense. For instance: if he wanted to break off the engagement by hook (encouraging Samantha to speak to her cousin about their love) or by crook (throwing Jennifer together with Thornhill until her reputation is in tatters), then why does he warn his fiancé to stay away from his scandalous nemesis at the beginning? Why exactly is he so eager to get rid of her, anyway? God knows he had no intention of letting his social life be hampered by marriage - everything would have continued (with his at-least-two mistresses, briefly mentioned) much as before. What is his goal in the game that he and Thornhill (and later, he and Carew) are engaged in? What is at stake for him?
Admission number two: I liked Dark Angel better than Lord Carew's Bride. The writing seemed more complex, and the situation slightly more compelling. And this despite the fact that Dark Angel's premise is infinitely more conventional than LCB's: we are talking the common garden satanic-rake-who-isn't-as-dishonorable-as-everyone-believes vs. the rather unusual unhandsome-recluse-with-serious-physical-disabilities-who-wins-the-heart-of-the-most-beautiful-woman-in-London (why? because they both love sitting in gardens in silence. How could that have failed to be brilliant and revolutionary?? Seriously!). Perhaps DA manages to be more compelling because the resolution of the conflict in LCB is fairly swift: one moment there is no trust, and the next there is. All they really needed, it turned out, was a relaxing hand massage. Hmm.
But there were also some lovely moments in Dark Angel. If you live in fear of spoilers, it might be best to stop here because this comes from fairly late in the novel. The one that struck me most strongly was from the crucial Regency scene - the wedding night. It is always intriguing to see how authors will communicate this experience which is somehow the essence of alienation from one's own body. It is complicated for Jennifer by the fact that she is, in fact, forced into marriage with the hero, while still feeling herself to be in love with the villain:
In both novels, Balogh repeatedly comes back to the uncomfortable idea that marriage is a matter of bodily ownership - like slavery. But that is not even the most interesting aspect of this passage for me: I am struck in particular by the idea that the loss of privacy is total and it is permanent - it cannot go by half-measures and it cannot be recovered. The cynicism and the violation of this scene - which she also enjoyed - is complex and realistic and wrenching. Both hero and heroine end up crying on their wedding night. And for a romance to grapple with that successfully is quite a feat.Oh, the reality of it had hit her at that moment. She was naked on the bed, spread wide, and her body was being used by someone who was not herself. It belonged to him, to be used for the rest of their lives whenever and however he chose to use it. She was no longer in possession of her own body or of her own person. She had felt in that moment all the total and permanent loss of privacy. Even the inside of her body - there - no longer belonged to her.
Dark Angel / Lord Carew's Bride
Mary Balogh (Canada, 1994)
*** and **1/2
(Janine of Dear Author has an interesting review up of Dark Angel - she calls Balogh's writing "like my first taste of sushi [...] something unusual, intense, and raw, to which my palate was unaccustomed.")
*There is something shudder-inducingly awful about the double-"re" structure of this verb, and its re-redundancy.
** See here the entire cinematic history of painfully beautiful blond men who are cast as villains. Poor blonds. So misunderstood.