The Hollow Heroine and Epistolary Delights: Ranney's Till Next We Meet

Colonel Montcrief isn’t too clear about how he began writing to Catherine Dunnan from the Quebec front.  It probably was because her feckless husband was too busy whoring, beating his horses, and reveling in the French slaughter even to read Catherine’s letters, much less to reply to them. So write Montcrief did, in the other man’s name, and before he knows it, he’s been drawn deep into an epistolary love affair, the letters growing less dutiful and more intimate with every passing week.
I do love an epistolary novel, because it allows an opportunity for love to develop separately from physical desire, and with a gratifying incremental quality that is the opposite of the fated love, coup de foudre model I’m so tired of. (Laura Kinsale’s My Sweetest Folly has a brilliant beginning in this vein, even if I didn’t love the book that followed.) In Till Next We Meet, Karen Ranney combines this with the Cyrano trope (a man woos a woman behind the screen of another’s identity) to create some fascinating scenarios of dramatic irony.  
The unsympathetic husband Dunnan passes out of the picture almost immediately (shot in a lover’s bed), and Montcrief also learns that his own elder brother has died, making him the Duke of Lymond.  He resigns his commission, and makes his way back to Scotland, where it seems like the most natural thing in the world to seek out the young widow whose letters so fascinated him, and offer his condolences.  He has worried (or wondered, to be fair) whether this spectral figure he’s fallen in love with is remotedly attractive, but he never dared ask her husband for fear of drawing attention to his fascination.  Now when he meets her, she is a wraith, starved and battered by grief.  The predominant emotion she arouses is not longing but pity.  He can’t wait to be away from her.  But when he comes to take his leave of her, she has taken (wittingly? He doesn’t know.) an overdose of drugs, and the only feasible way (!!) to protect her from herself and the world is to marry her.  
What follows is a struggle of self-control: for him, they are already in a position of tremendous intimacy, and he has to restrain himself from acting on that familiarity and affection, because for her is an utter stranger, and an incomprehensible one.  She mourns a man who hasn’t died - the man who wrote the letters, but he can’t reveal that without tilting her already precarious mental state. 
Moncrief is fairly nuanced, compellingly ambivalent, and fully wrought. Catherine, on the other hand, feels like an Empty Romance Heroine Signifier. She is a shell of a human being for much of the novel, hollowed out by a grief we know is unwarranted.  Moncrief wishes that she would show the character he knew from the letters, and I couldn’t help but sympathize.   Even after she recovers, and is much more active, there was nothing about her to justify his fascination, apart from a cheery willingness to hike up her skirts against various pieces of furniture.  
Some romances hollow out their heroines as a mechanism of identification* (just as Scott McCloud speaks of visual abstraction as a trigger for identification in Understanding Comics, or Laura Mulvey speaks of the workings of identification, objectification, and scopophilia in film): the hero is fully wrought because he is the object of readerly desire, but the heroine is a blank so a diverse array of readerly experiences and personalities can align themselves empathetically with her subject position in the novel. Ranney has quite cleverly positioned her heroine so that there is a diegetic (generated within the plot itself) reason for this hollowness.  Nonetheless, as always with me, this blankness of the heroine generates not a feeling of identification, but one of alienation. I feel manipulated by formula when one of the characters is a blank canvas for my identification, rather than convinced that these are two real, compelling people carefully negotiating a difficult situation.  Her one nuanced quality as a personality - her extreme and sincere grief for her husband and correspondent - is necessarily undercut and delegitimized by the way the plot unfolds for us.  We know she is grieving 1) a man who didn’t ever deserve her love (her first husband), and 2) a man whom she is too blind to see is standing right in front of her (her correspondent, who happens to be her second husband).  Thus her most interesting and sympathetic feature - her ferocious loyalty and her searing grief - becomes a source of frustration, because it’s clear that her ignorance is acting as an impediment to the progress of the romance. The hero is impatient with her grief (the fact that this is an unreasonable impatience, given what she could conceivably understand, doesn’t matter, because our knowledge is aligned with his knowledge), and even though I thought he was making unfair emotional demands on a recent widow, I was impatient too.
There’s a fair amount of material of questionable historicity here, or at least elements that had plausibility problems to my eye, with its half-education in the period.  Would the heir to a dukedom (his brother has no children) be permitted to fight in the wars in Quebec?  How did Montcrief manage to marry Catherine without a license virtually immediately after their first meeting? How plausible is it really that her servants would allow her to wander into her first meeting with him half-dressed?
There’s also a major consent issue that was insufficiently addressed, and that troubled my acceptance of their marriage and the hero’s demands: he marries her when she is too drugged even to remember the ceremony, much less give her agreement to it.  Why doesn’t this cause more conflict between them, apart from a few gentle reminders that she is an “unwilling bride”?  He traps her into a lifelong contract in which he has possession of her body and control of her estate: this is a violation, no matter how altruistically motivated, and needed more - much more - acknowledgement to become an interesting interrogation, rather than an unsettling sense of violation in my readerly mind.

Till Next We Meet (2005)
Karen Ranney 
Finished Monday, April 9, 2012

*I’m quite sure an abundance of work has been done on this that I just haven’t read.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012
Washington, DC

2 Responses so far.

  1. "I’m quite sure an abundance of work has been done on this that I just haven’t read."

    I'm not so sure. I mean, I'm sure I've seen people making generalisations about place-holder heroines and how necessary they are so that the reader can fall in love with the hero, but I'm not sure there's been a lot of in-depth analysis of variation in readers' identification with protagonists (or lack of it) or how place-holding (in theory and in practice) affects characterisation.

  2. Hmm. It seems like there would be unique work to do within reception theory and romance, but the peril, as always with reader response criticism, and especially perilously in romance, would be in generalizing reader experience. I can only say that the theory that a character's blankness allows room for readerly empathy does not function at all for this reader. In fact, it malfunctions and alienates me. I don't find it so difficult to empathize with people who are different in me, although I suppose there are certain types of personalities that I would also find alienating, and this is what authors who subscribe to this technique are trying to avoid.

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