[This piece may contain spoilers, and leans more towards analysis than review-as-recommendation. Proceed with caution, ye spoiler averse!]
The Earl of Kilbourne, newly home from war, is standing at the altar, luxuriating in rich clothing, abundant family, and the prospect of marrying his comely childhood friend Lauren, when there's a scuffle at the back of the church. A ragged girl struggles against those who are trying to remove her; she looks starved, impoverished, and like she spent at least one night in the open air. But looking at the beggar girl, he knows that she's his wife.
It had been a battlefield wedding. He'd promised his dying sergeant, her father, that he'd protect the spritely girl he'd come to like so much during the months of their campaign. But after just one night of marriage (one night... for love!), they were ambushed. As he saw her go down, he was shot himself, and when he regained consciousness his fellow survivors told him Lily had died. So, naturally, it seemed easier not to mention this impetuous marriage (to a commoner, no less) to his patrician family, what with their elaborate hopes of his future with Lauren.
It's a marvelously melodramatic opening - the battlefield urgency, the lost bride, the church door scuffle, the cries of recognition, the jilted friend! - and one whose excesses are balanced beautifully by the subtlety of the characters' ambivalence about their own decisions. When he first proposes to his late sergeant's very young daughter, Kilbourne's internal monologue is at least as interesting as what he says:
There's so much to admire about the emotional complexity of this passage. Kilbourne is unsure of his own motives, and all too aware that he might be bending ethics to the shape of the urgent moment. Is it fair to press an irrevocable decision - one in which she loses a wide array of rights - on a young girl in the middle of war who has just, hours ago, lost her father? He weighs this against the very great danger she will face if she remains a single woman and is taken prisoner, and, his decision made, still tries to preserve her autonomy of decision. But he's only too aware of the way desire colors his sense of the ethics of the decision. It is, as he later says, a balance between "the great impossibility" and "the obligation," or between the two senses of nobility. A gentleman would never be able to cross class lines so flagrantly for love (indeed, he would not be able to exercise the kind of matrimonial autonomy that war makes possible at all), but a gentleman would privilege his oath and his duty to friends and the vulnerable above social conventions with barely a second thought."I made him a promise," he tells her. "A gentleman's promise. Because he was my friend, Lily, and because it was something that I wanted to do anyway. I promised him that I would marry you today so that you will have the protection of my name and rank for the rest of this journey and for the rest of your life."
There is still no response. Has he really made such a promise? A gentleman's promise? Because it was what he wanted? Had he wanted to be forced into doing something impossible so that it can be made possible after all? It is impossible for him, an officer, an aristocrat, a future earl, to marry an enlisted man's humble and illiterate daughter. But doing so has now become an obligation, a gentleman's obligation. He feels a strange welling of exultation.
"Lily," he asks her, bending his head to look into her pale, expressionless face - so unlike her usual self, "do you understand what I am saying to you?"
"Yes, sir." Her voice is flat, toneless.
"You will marry me, then? You will be my wife?" The moment seems unreal, as do all the events of the past two hours. But there is a sense of breathless panic. Because she might refuse? Because she might accept?
"Yes," she says.
"We will do it as soon as we have made camp again then," he says.
It is unlike Lily to be so passive, so meek. Is it fair to her... (37)
The early part of the novel is wonderfully concerned (as many novels of the military historical sub-genre of romance are) with the ways in which the front can function as a sort of liberty or liminal zone in which normative, restrictive class and gender rules are loosened. Characters find that much can be excused by the assertion that it was war and measures had to be taken, quickly and decisively: "In the army he and Lucy can be equals," Kilbourne thinks, "They can share a world with which they are both familiar and comfortable.... But she can never be the Countess of Kilbourne, except perhaps in name" (39). War is both compelling and liberating: it forces the hand, but often does so in ways that defy normative pressures. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the second half of the novel, which takes place at the Earl's country estate and in London, is largely concerned with Lily's need to assert and protect her freedom and her husband's status. The battlefield marriage was romantic and sincere for both parties, but it was decided and accomplished under duress. When faced with the realities of being a countess, Lily both quails and resents.
The result is one that I've felt with every Mary Balogh novel I've ever read: a strong, even thrillingly nuanced opening with a conclusion that fails to make good on the stakes established early. There's always a point in her novels in which I stop and think, "Do I really need to keep reading?". Here the disappointment had a number of sources.
First, I was uncomfortably aware that the heroine's insistence on her need for freedom (in other words, her need to be free, so that if she comes back, she can come back to her husband on her own terms and as his equal) seems like a feminist stance for the book to take, but it may in fact be a false one. I am always wary of romance novels in which feminist individuation is a method of prolonging the narrative and creating tension. Since we are encouraged to long for a resolution, a HEA, this strategy places us as readers in conflict with the heroine's desire for independence, equality, etc. Unless the characterization is impeccably vivid and sympathetic, this runs the risk of creating a dismissive reaction. ("Honestly, can't she just pull it together so that they can be HAPPY already??") Our desire for the freedom of the heroine is placed in conflict with our desire for delays to be surmounted. Uncomfortable.
Let me give you just one example of this conflict of sympathies. At one point, Lily compares the subsuming effect of her marriage to her time as a POW, when she was repeatedly raped by a captor: "It was tempting. It would be so very easy to relax permanently into [Kilbourne's] kindness and his strength and become as abject in a way as she had been with Manuel" (102). On one level, YES. This is a fascinating way to think about how the soft loss of selfhood can be as insidious as its brutal theft. On another, REALLY? Being married to a man you love is an experience of equal abjection to repeated physical and psychological violation by a stranger? Really?
Another source of dismay: when a bit of contractual muddiness surrounding the original battlefield marriage gives Lily her opportunity to seize control of her life, this seizure emerges as ... a makeover narrative. Sprightly, unusual, battle-formed Lily learns about fashion, music, manners. She takes dancing lessons. Crucially, she learns to read. But the vast majority of what she learns is fairly cosmetic, and I can't help but feel (with Kilbourne) that it blunts every unusual and lovable aspect of her. What we end up with is a heroine who was once unpredictable and interesting and is now merely immature and "fresh."
Much more interesting is the secondary romance involving an older gentleman who shows a pointed interest in Lily and a widely beloved spinster who takes our heroine under her wing. This was a relationship that I wanted to explored over the course of a whole book: they are both independent agents, self-sufficient and self-respecting, reluctant to give up their freedom for marriage. Their friendship is so constant, longstanding, and close that everyone has left off speculating about their romantic potential. These two were so much more interesting (and adult) than the primary couple, but their developing relationship is mostly an afterthought in the novel. At a certain point I found myself reading on solely for the rare tidbit I would get about the two of them.
Kudos to Balogh for acknowledging that Lily's wartime violation had lasting effects on her response to sexual intimacy, and that her reintegration into marriage, family, and society must of necessity be painful and halting because of the abandonment and violence she has encountered. Although Kilbourne couldn't have known what she was going through, there's an inevitable sense of betrayal that Lily experiences that felt both realistic and emotionally complex to me:
All the time she had been with Manuel and the partisans, clinging to the hope of one day returning to the man who had married her, he had been courting another woman, perhaps falling in love with her. All the time she had been making her difficult journey, with only the thought of reaching him sustaining her, he had been planning a marriage with someone else. (96-7)There's a price to a life of insulating privilege, pleasure, and affection (like the one I have to admit I lead), and it's the betrayal of those who are suffering just out of sight. The betrayal of forgetting, of overlooking, of never speaking. There's a price to doing merely what is expected of you, and Kilbourne pays it in spades. His struggles (since he is an essentially ethical man) over this crime of omission are the best part of the novel.
But there's also something very uncomfortable about the treatment of rape here, albeit something that might have a great deal of historical and psychological truth to it: Lily is convinced, like many victims of sexual assault, that she bears a measure of responsibility for what happened to her, for not fighting hard enough, for not resisting to the end. In fact, she is convinced that she is an adulteress (a conviction that complicates her sense of betrayal that Kilbourne has been courting another woman while she was in Manuel's power). Even relatively late in the novel, there is a scene in which our hero "forgives" her for what happened in Spain, despite the fact (he insists) that she has done nothing that requires forgiveness. Eurgh. I found myself wishing for just one more layer of ethical context - perhaps a little more psychological depth and complexity from Lily - in scenes like this, to keep my skin from crawling with alarm. The fault is so unbalanced between the hero and heroine, so unquestionably NOT on her side, that it rankled to see her assume blame in even a qualified way for what happened.
What say you? Is there a Balogh I should read that both begins and ends well? That sustains its initial levels of urgency and complexity throughout its several hundred pages?