Posts Tagged Historical Romance
Title Bewitching the Duke
Series Wise Woman #01
Author Christie Kelly
Genre Historical Fiction | Regency Romance
Publication Date December 6, 2016
Setting Regency England
Synopsis: It’s 1814 and while the upper crust English “Society” has come to consult certified physicians for their medical needs, plebeians continue to depend on the local wise women to take care of everything from delivering babies and setting bones to cleansing homes by burning sage and ensuring a good harvest for the season. Selina White, the wise woman at the Duke of Northrop’s country seat, takes her role in the community seriously, upholding generations of tradition passed down through the female line in her family. Her efforts are appreciated by one and all in the region except the Duke himself, who has deigned to grace his estate after having abandoned it to decline for nearly a decade. Colin Barrett’s disparage of wise women stems less from the growing belief that medicine should be administered only by university-trained male physicians and more from his history with Selina’s mother, the former wise woman of his land whom he blames for the death of his wife and baby during childbirth. So when he unwillingly returns to his ancestral home that holds so many tortured memories to arrange a wedding, only to discover Selina very much active in practicing her craft not only among his tenants but also within his household, he is incensed. First, he throws her out of his home and then he banishes her from his land. However, he miscalculates her determination to do her duty by his people as well as the loyalty said people harbor towards her in return. Pretty soon his servants are sneaking her back into Northrop, hiding her right under his nose in the unoccupied wing of his house, and business recommences as usual. To further complicate the matter, with every chance encounter, the instantaneous attraction that sparked between Colin and Selina when they first met continues to grow – an attraction that begins to transcend their individual prejudices and encounters that become less and less chance on both sides.
Experience: In all honesty, I’m a snob when it comes to book covers. The illustration absolutely plays a part in whether I’ll invest in the book because, to me, it shows that no effort was spared from start to finish. And this book’s cover instinctively warned me to not pick it up. Nevertheless, when I read the blurb and learned the premise of the book, I was intrigued and decided to risk it. It so happens that Bewitching the Duke confirmed both my earlier misgivings as well as my latter anticipations. The premise of the story does manage to uphold the originality it promised and the cover of the book accurately portends its poor execution. However, that is not to say this book was a total loss.
Let’s discuss the premise first, which after all helped me move past my superciliousness. Immediately, we are informed how the advent of modern medicine threatened both the livelihood and the tradition of wise women in the English society even as the poor continued to depend on them because male physicians were more expensive as well as due to the somewhat retained superstitions that surrounded these women’s healing capabilities. We are introduced – though it is kept in the background for most of the novel – the transferal of the role of the “caretaker” of people’s wellbeing from the female to the male, bringing into sentience yet another instance of how the culture of gender inequality became more dominant as the old religions receded further into obscurity. [I should acknowledge here that I love a story that makes me dive into a little history research of my own!] In Bewitching the Duke, the change comes in the form of the Duke of Northrop who openly declares Selina a hack upon his return to the country and uses her mother’s role in the fatal childbirth that prematurely terminated his domestic happiness as evidence. While his tenants and servants continue to store their faith in her powers, he does not make it easy for them to access her services.
This premise also neatly proceeds to generate not only the romantic conflict in the plot, i.e. a man who blames a wise woman for the death of his wife and child cannot fall in love with her daughter who also is a wise woman and vice versa, as well as the character arcs for both the hero and heroine, given that Colin is unable to move past the memories of his loss to allow himself to love again while Selina herself harbors a guilty secret surrounding the said loss. The trajectory of the story is set with ease and since romance novels generally promise happily-ever-after, we know that somehow the two main characters will have to get over their individual issues and the “wise woman” must rise to the occasion to reign supreme. Yay!
Except, maybe the historical accuracy is completely forsaken to keep the premise of novel adjustable to its length and, thus, the level of effort required, i.e. to say, the story was set a century or three too late. By the nineteenth century, wise women had largely receded into the background of society, most of them having suffered enough horrors related to being labeled “witches” to justly hide their abilities from the public. If these women still dared practice medicine, it was in secret. Say, for the sake of the plot, we, as readers, accept that wise women continued to openly practice their crafts in some remote corners of England where people were optimistically more open-minded, the novel completely avoids any mention of the religious persecution and social ostracism “alternative healers” suffered in the historical period immediately preceding the time in which the novel is set. For me, that was a no-no. Even if the author wished to have none of that “cloaked in the danger of religious persecution” mystery hanging ominously over the characters’ heads, why avoid any mention of what had once happened to Selina’s kind when her knowledge and powers still carried the same mysticism as witches? Alas, a lovely premise was thus unhappily stifled for the convenience of the narration and the result was a loss of intrigue and integrity that encompassed the true history of the subject.
The characters themselves were simple enough to follow. I felt, while they lacked depth, the romance between them brewed in a forthright fashion that I could appreciate. They were obviously each meant to grow out of their attractions and dilemmas towards one another rather than alone, which is always appreciated in a romance novel. It cries true of the notion that true love takes precedence over past conflicts. Yet, the characters were put upon more as plot devices than entities in and of themselves and kept switching foot on one another to add more twists that the story could have just as easily have done without.
There was one particular part of the novel where I could not reconcile with Selina’s character. When Colin confesses to her that he thought he saw the ghost of his dead wife in the unoccupied third floor window of his house, Selina does not set his mind at ease even though she realizes he had mistaken her passing the window for his wife’s ghost; instead, she enjoys a private bit of joke at his expense. This does not present a raving endorsement of her character as a human being, does it, especially when considering how tortured Colin has always been about losing his duchess?
I did enjoy a glimpse of the country life in the story though, which retained the essence of the hypothesis the author was aiming for, i.e. the continued importance of the wise woman in a country neighborhood where people can barter for her services and believe in the influences of pagan rituals without fear of ridicule. This is nicely reinforced with a scene in a fortuneteller’s tent at the traveling fair that all the primary romantic characters of the series attended. The fact the fortuneteller’s words are taken more seriously than a simple diversion shows the reader that here is a society that is not entirely jumping to relinquish the old ways. This I found refreshing and reason enough to keep reading.
Recommendation: Despite some flaws, the story is actually an original one and may be appreciated by readers who are suckers for historical romance and mysticism. Just remember, “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!”
Title Last Man Standing
Author Jane Ashford
Genre Historical Romance, Regency Romance
Publisher Sourcebooks Casablanca
Publication Date September 05, 2017
Setting Regency England
Synopsis: Ever since her father’s death, Elisabeth Elham has fended for herself by teaching at a finishing school for girls. So when her curmudgeon reclusive elder uncle – a man who cut off both his brother and sister for choosing spouses he did not approve of – dies and leaves her all his possessions as a joke to instigate further family estrangement, Elisabeth chose not to fall for it. Instead, she collects her aunt’s orphaned children, who are almost of age and should have received their share in the will, and brings them to live with her in her new London home. At the advice of her solicitor, she also invites a very eccentric matronly cousin from her mother’s side to act as her chaperone. Soon she finds herself in a flurry of activities that include refurbishing the London house, arranging a complete makeover for the country estate which was left to decay for two decades, bringing up her wardrobe up-to-date, launching one beautiful cousin into society while schooling the other overexcited cousin and his even more unmanageable dog into proper decorum, and, of course, navigating the height of season among the ton. The responsibilities of a newly-minted heiress are many and not the least critical is fending of fortune hunters. Elisabeth’s artless and unassuming air and easy sense of humor endear her to many of London’s eligible bachelors, including a most-sought-after heir to a viscount, a self-proclaimed and jovial fortune hunter, and a Byronic hero with a checkered past from the West Indies, all the while she herself collects a bevy of unconventional friends to occupy her time. Though Elisabeth enjoys her trials and pleasures alike with humor, misfortunes still threaten to set her stoic constitution into decline. Especially, at the risk of losing the regards of the one man she could indeed fall in love with.
Experience: I have been reading romance novels for nearly twenty years now but ventured into historical romances only as recently as 2013. The reason for my general aversion to historical romances was, I’m ashamed to admit, something very superficial – the models on the cover in their usual state of undress. My ultra-conservative mother would have a conniption if she saw me reading them (the fact that some of the stories I have written emanate moderate amounts of steam is not yet known to her). So it was only when I started reading off of tabs that I dared procure my first copy of Regency romance [not including classic literature, of course]. There. I have now revealed the most hypocritical secret of my reading and writing career. String me up if you will, fellow romance readers, I probably deserve it.
You are probably wondering why I have chosen to reveal this about me in this particular post. What does my proclivity to hide the cover arts of some of my favorite novels have to do with Last Gentleman Standing? Well, it’s the fact that those steamy cover arts do deliver what they promise; most historical romances have no trouble fogging up my spectacles every few chapters. The prude in me that my mother managed to instill usually just peruses through them unless they are written exceptionally well or, even better, exceptionally ill [really, some of them are sheer comedy]. So when Last Gentleman Standing did not feature a single such specs-steamer and I discovered that quite a few reviewers condemned the story for it, I decided this book needed my defending.
I should clarify that the fact I found the lack of sex scenes in this book perfectly in-form has nothing to do with my natural diffidence [I already confessed to writing some myself]. Rather that I feel Ashford remained true to a Janeite scheme of romancing. Austen’s heroes and heroines always demonstrated a rather restrained form of courtship. It did not mean that their emotions lacked intensity but only that because they felt it so deeply and consistently, they did not need to prattle on about it to attest its existence. To have discovered the same characteristics present in Elizabeth and her wooers was a rather refreshing promenade down the “original order”. After all, to me, the primary reason for reading Regency romances is the fact Miss Austen is no longer alive and printing new materials.
Moreover, I did not think the main hero was “tame”, as one reviewer put it, but respectful to the heroine’s wishes. I thought he was consistent of character. He fell in love with Elisabeth because she was independent of mind and spirit and very unlike other simpering toadying females of his acquaintance. So if he gave her space, it was because he did not want those very attractive qualities of her to diminish. While he did have one or two spurts of admonishment to issue her way when he felt she took unnecessary risks with her person, he soon reconciled that he had no authority to do so either because she was, after all, an independent woman – perhaps more independent than most women of her time since she was an heiress without a guardian. He was perfectly aware of all her strengths, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and acted with the caution the situation demanded. I thought his wisdom and ability to not be guided by ego rather sexy in itself. He did not need to demonstrate his sexual awareness of her to make me enjoy a secret smile or two or feel the temperature kick up.
The Elisabeth of this story, too, shared a very telling trait with my favorite Elizabeth in literary history. Early in the story, the narrator shared how the heroine had inherited her father’s good humor and ability to take life’s hurdles with a pinch of salt. And throughout the novel, we see just that – Elisabeth brushing off any jittery sensation or blinking away any prickling of the lashes. When her father died, instead of seeking assistance from the family Scrooge, she chose to find employment to sustain her livelihood – it was the quality that made her stand apart in her uncle’s eyes and procured her the inheritance. The same self-sufficiency with a side order of humility that allows her to graciously accept assistance once actually offered is what helps her survive through all the ordeals in the novel. Very admirable quality to have in a heroine.
If the heroine and her hero are not convincing enough that the book is worth the read, there are still a host of very entertaining and very eccentric characters to motivate. Even better, I liked how varied these characters were in their appearances. For example, not all the men who managed to steal the belle of the ball were tall, dark, and dashing, which is like stepping away from one of the cardinal rules of historical romance writing. Also, not all fortune hunters were without a heart. I liked one particular fortune hunter extremely who had a bit of dash in him but moreover was burdened by a penniless title that his mother tried to rectify by being the ultimate Mrs. Bennet, and he felt his shortcomings acutely. My heart went out to his sense of vulnerability that he hid so well behind a jovial demeanor and I dearly hope that Ashford will provide him with a good romantic ending one day. [I think that last bit could be a spoiler… oops! Well, at least there are plenty of other competition for Elisabeth’s hand to keep readers guessing]
Coincidentally, the book was apparently originally titled Bluestocking. And, indeed, when I searched online, Ashford had published a novel by such a name in 1980 with the blurb indicating a very similar plotline and same name heroine. I would love to get my hands on that book and see if it varies in any way because how else does the same book continue to exist simultaneously with two names [I can imagine customers clamoring for their money back]? In any case, the new name is so much more suitable to the plot because indeed it was about a crowd of romantic contestants vying for Elisabeth’s affection as well as hand and fortune and only the most faithful gentleman gets ahead. Moreover, by definition and historical account, to be a bluestocking, a woman would have to demonstrate a certain desire for intellectual pursuit. While Elisabeth was quite intelligent and levelheaded, and even once a teacher, she does not demonstrate particular craving to build her knowledge. She enjoys reading when the opportunity presents her with a good book and circumstances had compelled her to acquire the level of education necessary to survive. This provided her with cognitive independence but it was all very contingent of her various stations in life. No, no, Last Gentleman Standing is a vast improvement to the title.
Recommendation: Though I branched out a bit on my book review for this post, what I’m trying to say is, romance readers, do not write this book off just because it does not offer the usual display of amour. But rather embrace it for the practicality with which it upholds the Puritan nature of a society once lived.
Via: Daily Prompt – Pluck
Title Seducing Mr. Knightly
Series The Writing Girls #4
Author Maya Rodale
Genre Historical Romance | Regency | Adult
Publication Date October 30, 2012
Setting London, Great Britain, 1825
Synopsis: It has been exactly three years, six months, three weeks, and two days since Ms. Annabelle Swift fell in love with her boss Mr. Derek Knightly, the owner and editor of The London Weekly. This is precisely the amount of time she has been employed as one of the Writing Girls to feature in her own advice column and since the day she laid her eyes on the tall, dark, and determined Knightly. Unfortunately, not only is he totally unaware of her feelings but he seems also oblivious of the fact that she is a living breathing flesh-and-blood single woman worthy of male attention. Exasperated with being continuously overlooked and desperate to get out of her brother’s house where she lives as an unpaid servant and governess to her malicious sister-in-law, niece, and nephews, Annabelle decides to resort to drastic measures – she courageously reaches out to her readers for advice for a change on how to attract the attention of the nodcock! she’s in love with. Suddenly all of London swoops in to assist her cause, sending mails carrying the most outlandish and scandalous advice and, with the additional help from her fellow Writing Girls, she finds herself in lowered bodices and silk unmentionables, waltzing with lords of the ton, flirting up a ruse with fellow male colleagues, and being dropped off home after work by Knightly in his private carriage. Her quarry is finally paying attention but one obstacle still stands in the path of true love. Knightly, who has built his empire and reputation as a media tycoon to raise himself from the status of a by-blow of a late earl, has one other life goal: marry high into the aristocracy so that his half-brother is finally forced to acknowledge him as one of his class. Unfortunately, this puts Annabelle squarely out of the running for his affection… or does it?
Experience: I came to know about Maya Rodale a little late. Only this year, in fact, upon watching the live feeds of the #RomanceisFeminist discussion hosted by Avon Romance at The Strand bookstore in NY, NY where Rodale was on the panel of authors. I appreciated a particular comment she made about being more than willing to “throw historical accuracy under the bus” for the sake of diversity and inclusion. That is precisely what I have found – as much as the realm of believability will allow – since I began reading her works (three novels so far) and thought I should do a review of at least one. I picked Seducing Mr. Knightly because I have a soft corner for heroines who write professionally and this is the most hilarious piece of Rodale’s works I have come across thus far.
Imagine Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy and you will get a rough idea of the kind of scrapes Annabelle gets into in this novel. Short of hitting our hero in the eye with her spilling bosoms, she has done it all – leave a shawl behind to find herself alone with him at work during after office hours, fake a swoon and fall lush into his arms so she can awaken his “baser inclinations”, make all of London – including the hero’s best friends – fall in love with her and defend her heart for her candid attempts to lasso the hero, and climb into his bedroom via a gradually-splintering bark in the middle of the night in hopes of ravishment, etc. And Knightly likewise reciprocates with a steady repeat of “Oh Annabelle, you have some explaining to do” whenever he finds himself at the end of her courtship tactics. It makes the relationship between our heroine and hero positively adorably frustrating – just what good romances require.
But apart from the cat-and-mouse conflict development of the romantic plot, the individual characters of Annabelle and Knightly are also fully plausible. I enjoyed how much pluck Annabelle demonstrates as pushes herself to cross her self-imposed boundaries to blossom out of her shell even as her natural timidity continues to attempt to keep her in check. She may be meek by genetic disposition (her brother shows fairly submissive traits in his marriage too) but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t dream big or aim high. After all, she pulls the wool over her family’s eyes for over three years pretending to go out on charity work while really working for a national newspaper and saving up for rainy days. She continuously challenges her shortcomings and faces her fears, which is a lovely display of feminism.
Our hero too has his demons to fight and has been fighting them quite successfully for over a decade. Being the firstborn son of and earl and a renowned stage actress, he craves acknowledgment from his step family and society. He has slogged day-and-night to build up his newspaper, laboring at the press himself and pushing boundaries of polite expectations, to get himself noticed, following three simple rules of life: “Scandal equals sales, drama was for the pages, and be beholden to no one”. It’s has made him a bit stoic but it has worked for him. And even as his heart tugs while watching Annabelle amidst her antics and his heart begins to unfurl the more details of her he starts to notice, he refuses to examine the burning question being asked in parlors across London, “Who is the nodcock that has yet failed to fall in love with Annabelle?” because he is afraid the answer might demand he surrender his heart to the heroine, which he is not in the position to do. Because all he wants to do is marry Lady Marsden, claim his rightful place in society while avoiding getting his newspaper shut down by her brother Lord Marsden’s mass inquisition against media extortion and nefarious means of procuring news, and kill two birds with one stone. The struggle is real.
Yes, I truly did enjoy reading this book. The only thing perhaps that did not suit me entirely was Rodale’s roundabout way of prolonging the story. While I loved each scene, I found reading through all the inner workings that bracketed each scene that mostly related the same conclusions over and over a bit tedious. Frankly, I felt there was more room for editing and perhaps leaving a little for readers to infer. But this is easily discounted for the fact that the overall content was engaging and oh-so-funny.
Recommendation: Well, if you haven’t read it already, what are you waiting for? I thoroughly endorse this novel as an experienced romance reader.
Title The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband
Series Rokesbys #02
Author Julia Quinn
Genre Historical Romance | Adult
Publication Date May 29, 2017
Setting Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA, 1779
Synopsis: When Cecilia Harcourt receives a letter from the British front in Manhattan that her brother Captain Thomas has been injured, she decides to travel across the Atlantic to take care of him regardless of the fact that the Colonies is in the middle of a war and the Brits are no longer welcome. The fact that her self-serving father has finally passed away and that her oily cousin has taken the opportunity to make untoward advances on her only fuels her cause. However, when she arrives at the war-torn continent, she learns her brother is missing and his best friend Captain Edward Rokesby – second son of the Earl of Manston, pen pal to Cecilia via Thomas’s letters, and righteously handsome to boot – has been injured and lying in a coma for some time. Nurses are scarce but given his station in life, only family members may care for him. So Cecilia does the only thing she can do – she claims to be his wife. When the local army believes her story, she promises herself she will come clean soon as he wakes up because obviously, he will know that they are not married. But when Edward wakes up, he can’t remember a thing about the past four months and confusedly accepts her as his wife. And when she learns that being the wife of the son of an earl can help her get the military assistance to locate her brother, she decides to prolong the charade. Soon the pretend-wife is working her magic to return Edward to his former health and the make-believe husband is helping Cecilia work through the mysteries of one missing brother. The only problem is, playing house with the handsome captain is churning Cecilia’s heart into deeper affections. And while he may only believe them to be married, make-believe is becoming all too real for her. Worse still – or maybe it’s the best of all – Edward is falling in love just as deeply.
Experience (Mini-spoilers ahead but maybe not): Sounds like the plot for a wonderful rom-com, right? I thought so too. That plus the knowledge that it is written by the very talented JQ had me salivating for over a year (ever since I finished Because of Miss Bridgerton last year in March). Unfortunately, the anticipation came to naught. The Girl with the Make-Believe Husband is not the stuff that makes reading Quinn’s books so giddily special. And I say this as a die-hard fan who is slightly heartbroken.
But first, let’s talk about the good stuff, which in this case is the ending. I know. It sounds wrong to go straight to the end of a novel but the ending really is where the book picked up that Julia-Quinn-esque charm that has me returning to her works over and over again. Edward was desperate-to-the-point-of-being-brash in his efforts to finally make Cecilia his wife, and I do love a hero who knows what he wants and is willing to raise the stakes to obtain it. And the dialogues also made the experience more authentic. Also, there was a brief entrance of a captain of a ship who was one of Edward’s classmates from Eton that I found intriguing and funny and wished there was a bit more of. Alas, just when things were beginning to look up, it had to end.
And speaking of Edward, he was also good. JQ’s heroes are invariably good because they are so honorable even when led awry. Even when they are belligerent or worrying about their own interests amidst personal dilemma’s, you can’t help rooting for them to succeed because you know they will do the right thing. And moreover, they tend to perfectly turn-out the grand gesture so readers are guaranteed to sigh. Edward was no different. Even with his brain addled with amnesia, he had faith in a woman he only knew through correspondences made via his best friend. JQ men know how to treat women right and that is sexy as all hell. And even in his physically weaker form, he tried his best to remain self-sufficient but sometimes ceded to needing a bit of help, another thing we twenty-first-century readers can admire. Also that he doesn’t completely disregard her deception when he cottons on but has to struggle to accept it for what it is only makes his love more valuable. Yup, Edward Rokesby is swoon-worthy.
Regrettably, same cannot be said about his heroine, who is heroine only situationally. While Cecilia’s initial reason for pretending to be his wife seemed totally selfless, this impression began to gradually disassemble as the plot progressed. Which is quite the opposite of usual romance novel MO where what seems to be a selfish act on the part of a hero/heroine gradually unfolds as a selfless sacrifice, so I’m hoping Quinn intended it that way? But I sort of doubt that is what happened with this novel. Cecilia risks life and reputation to sail across the Atlantic to war-riddled America to care for her injured brother but she probably would not have done it if her oily cousin at home (next in line to inherit the family estate) was not on her tail. Cecilia claims to be Edward’s wife to take care of him but probably wouldn’t have done that either if she didn’t need to stick around until he woke up and could shed some light on her brother’s disappearance. Cecilia continues to deceive everyone, including the man she is falling in love with, to bolster her search for her brother, and when she feels remorse over her actions, she treats herself to good food and better sex. When the truth about her brother finally unravels, her first reaction is to cry over what this means for her future. And when it’s finally time to come clean with the man she loves, she bolts for England, leaving him a letter (though she claims it is to release him from doing the righteous thing since she has been compromised). This final act is equivalent to breaking up over a voice mail, isn’t it? Cecilia Harcourt is weak and possibly almost as self-serving as her father. But maybe I’m being too harsh, I don’t know. I just feel she had plenty of opportunities to be honest but she kept taking the easy way out. She did not possess the integrity of Sandra Bullock’s character in While You Were Sleeping and that was a bust for me.
Which brings me to the plot. It was unnecessarily convoluted, where other characters do a bit of deceiving themselves to prolong Cecilia’s deception prolonged. I guess to give the hero and the heroine an opportunity to fall thoroughly in love. But given that Edward and Cecilia had a healthy dose of flirtation going on over letter exchanges and that Thomas aided and abetted such interactions, I think they had a good chance of falling in love without all the deception. I mean they were in the middle of a war – not many romantic prospects, are there? Besides, if Cecilia continued to help Edward heal and Edward continued to give her his protection, there is plenty of opportunities for them to mingle on its own. Yeah, it just did not click for me but I get the feeling Quinn herself did not have her heart in it. I’m thinking having deadlines sometimes gets to even the best of authors and, unfortunately, it showed.
Recommendation: If you are a Julia Quinn fan – and those who have ever read any of her previous works would be – then you have probably buckled in for the Rokesby ride. In which case, you have to read it so get on with it if you haven’t already. But if you are not planning to go through the series, still read it. I think every author goes through a phase and this is probably hers, which is fine with me because she is generally very very good at what she does.
Title The Flame and the Flower
Series Birmingham #01
Author Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
Genre Historical Romance
Publication Date First published in April 1972
Synopsis: Set in the cusp of Georgian and Regency eras over 1799-1800, the story begins in a dilapidated cottage in England, where the heroine, Heather Simmons lives a life of toil handed by fate when her father dies, leaving his debts behind. The cottage belongs to Heather’s only living blood relatives, a weak paternal uncle and his overbearing and abusive wife, who grudgingly took her in. As Heather plays the slave to her aunt, who takes sadistic pleasure in terrorizing the girl for inheriting her mother’s stunning Irish beauty, she spends moments of reprieve reminiscing about her past of relative luxury in London where she dreams of returning to one day. The opportunity arrives when her aunt’s younger brother, a rich clothier, offers to help her find employment in a ladies’ school. However, once in London, he tries to rape Heather as he discloses his true plans to sell her into a brothel. Heather manages to escape after injuring him, only to be captured by a couple sailors who mistake her as a prostitute and take her to their merchant captain for the night. The captain and hero of the story, Brandon Birmingham proceeds to have his way with Heather, misinterpreting her struggle as coyness and divests her of her virginity. His solution to the injury caused is to turn her into his mistress, albeit an unwilling one. Heather manages to escape and return to her uncle’s cottage and eventually discovers she is pregnant. Her aunt, learning the truth, formulates a plan to profit from the situation by marrying Heather to Brandon, which he does in fear of legal repercussions. Unfortunately, Brandon believes Heather had a full hand in forcing him and decides to punish her by withholding his love and keeping her out of his bed – yet providing her with the necessities to live the life of a wealthy merchant’s wife. Having been traumatized by her sexual initiation, Heather finds this verdict more than welcome at first though eventually realizes the punishment for what it is – rejection. As the story progresses, the newly married couple sail back to South Carolina and settle into Brandon’s family mansion and plantation. The already timid Heather navigates her marriage like a flightless bird while Brandon suffers an irrepressible lust for her, all as their affection and dependency for each other grows.
Experience: I picked up the book when I came upon the title in an article on the history of “sexual revolution” in romance novels. As a romance reader, naturally, I was curious about the book that set the ball in motion to what lines the “Romance” sections in libraries and bookstores today. As an author, I felt it my duty to read up on works by the pioneer who paved the way for paperback romances. And so, it was with somewhat of an awe that I began reading.
I have to admit it took me a while to get into the mood to continue, though, once I got through the first few scenes. Living with the freedoms I enjoy in 2017, it is pretty difficult to relate to Heather Simmons, a meek woman-child who allows herself to be told she only has the weak mind of a woman and shuffles around from one life to another doing others’ biddings – who accidentally falls into a bed and then accidentally impales herself as she struggles to get away from the hero’s raging manhood. Moreover, her relationship with the hero begins with a full-on struggle to stop him from having sex with her but which he takes as foreplay only to later conclude his “mistake” easily redeemable (what we call rape today regardless of which angle you look at it) and moves along to where she admires his attractiveness, prowess and virility while lamenting that he took her virginity by force (as though rape is not rape if the rapist is handsome). Not the stuff of romantic heroes and heroines I am accustomed to – the moral compass gone haywire. But I trudged on, telling myself that I was reading a novel written by a woman who lived in the 70’s about a female character who lived in 1799. Perhaps The Flame and the Flower was the level of cognitive liberty and ethical progress achieved at the time Woodiwiss wrote the novel. She was a brazen feminist instigating a cultural revolution, a quality quite admirable and which I can live by. I am glad I reconciled myself to continue reading.
The book redeems itself to me as I realized the consistency with which Woodiwiss kept both Brandon and Heather’s individual streams of consciousness in chaos throughout the book. Heather keeps oscillating between being pleasantly surprised by the little acts of kindness Brandon displays and terror-stricken when his foul temper bursts forth (which by the way reflects back on her experience under her aunt’s reign); while Brandon’s struggle to keep his lust in check to salve his ego or relenting to a woman he thinks has forced him into marriage is also real. The consistency in the driving traits of each protagonist is what made the book a good read. Though Woodiwiss’s very descriptive narration and passages a bit on the longish side made the reading slow at first, a troupe of varied characters included later in the book pushes the plot along at a quicker pace, making the development of the romance between the hero and heroine enjoyable for Woodiwiss’s audience. Apart from the relatively steamy scenes, of course, which must have been quite refreshing for the women of the 70’s.
Recommendation: If you are well-versed in romance novels, this would be an excellent read to gain some perspective on what life must have been like back then (197o’s/1790’s). And once you adapt yourself to the culture shock, it is actually a pretty well-written novel with an entertaining plot. If you are newly venturing into the world of romance novels and a very impressionable young woman, please put it down and pick it up again a few years later – the material and characters within do not send the liberating messages we, romance authors, want representing us today.
P.S: I’m sorry to be posting my WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS on very early Thursday morning – which is a sad beginning for my first ever blog for the column. But I had picked up The Flame and the Flower as my initiation blog given its historic significance and well, you now know the rest.