The original coverTaken from FictionDB
The topic of this month is Kickin' It Old School (Copyright date is 10 years or older)
Genre: Traditional Regency, Gothic
My Rating: 3 stars
©1983, 2014 by Joanna Watkins Bourne
Part of a series? I’m not sure. For some reason, the FictionDB includes this book in the Spymaster’s series, as #5 (in the timeline of the story, 1818, but not the order in which they were written, because this was Joanna Bourne’s first novel, published as Joanna Watkins Bourne). I think it’s because here you find, in a supporting role, Adrian Hawkhurst, the hero of The Black Hawk.
In May we have to look for an Old Skool book. There can’t be anything more Old School than this, I think. Although I wouldn’t call it old but –vintage.
It was in my TBR pile because I had to read some Bourne’s books for my Top 100 Challenge. I loved The Spymaster’s Lady so much that I wanted to glom all her backlist –which was reduced at that point, as I soon discovered, to this ‘Gothic Trad Regency’.
Archaeology is a science that has always fascinated me. It helps you to reconstruct the past not with the stories that our ancestors wrote, but with everyday objects they left behind. Many times these objects tell us a history that is different from the violent, male and upper class chronicles.
I’m telling you this to explain that when I face a story that was written more than two decades ago –it could be in 1983 or in the 5th century BC-, I cannot stop seeing it as an artefact. I am interested in the story, the characters, and the literary style -yes. But at the same time I also ask myself about the kind of society that produced it, the kind of people who were readers of these stories in those times.
1983 is History? At least it sounds History to me. I was a teenager then, but it looks like a whole different world. Romances, certainly, were not like those they publish nowadays. So I knew what to expect: a Traditional Regency with a Gothic touch à la Victoria Holt.
A young virginal girl out in the world. An attractive and arrogant alpha male a little bit older than her. In a way, he threatens the heroine. A touch of mystery in a mansion by the sea. Sex? Little or nothing.
The heroine, Melissa Rivenwood, meets your requirements. She’s an orphan girl who must seek a living working as an old lady’s companion. To this end, she travels to Cornwall. She meets her employer, Giles Tarsin, in a typical damsel in distress situation. Of course, the attractive and arrogant aristocrat saves the day.
In a headland that juts out from the Cornish coast stands a slightly sinister mansion. There she will meet not only the formidable Lady Dorothy, but Adrian Hawkhurst. O yes, it’s him, it doesn’t matter he hasn’t got a very important part in the plot. He’s just there, the Black Hawk itself.
...And here, she also finds a seven year old boy whose life could be in danger. Things happen, and Melissa’s vivid imagination comes up with several explanations about the shadow that runs through the mansion.
From the outset, we see that Melissa and Giles like each other. The dowager countess tells us quite soon that in her family they don’t marry for money. Therefore, being an orphan with no dowry is something that doesn’t matter to Giles. If he loves her.
The story is told mainly from Melissa’s POV. A girl who is afraid something terrible is going to happen in this isolated house. And Giles could be the culprit. So although she cannot help her feelings towards her employer, love does not look like her number one priority. It’s more Gothic than romantic. Therefore, the sensuality is very low, only kisses and some embrace. She enjoys them, although she doesn’t want to. Yes, here you find old-fashioned expressions like ‘her body was betraying her’. Or when she claims I won’t be seduced! here comes the alpha male saying You really have no say in the matter.
I especially enjoyed two things. First, the ease with which the author mentions things like the grand tour, the Corn laws or the Hanoverian Royal family, or literary references to the Fates of Antiquity, Clotho and Atropos, or Macbeth’s witches. This is a wonderful way to recreate the mindset of 19th century people.
The second feature I liked was the humour. Sometimes it’s a little silly. For instance, during a birthday party, Melissa sees a knight ridiculously dressed in green with a bulging cream waistcoat, and she thinks that he looks like ‘a giant frog’. But he’s nice to her, so she corrects herself and thinks that ‘he looked like a very distinguished frog’.
Sometimes, she remembered me of Georgette Heyer wittiness.
“Don’t talk treason at the dinner table,” Lady Dorothy reprimanded him. “Wait until the tea tray is brought in.”
But there were moments in which the humour comes at the genre’s expense. For instance, at the beginning Melissa is talking to a friend about this post she’s going to take, and they joke that she will end up marrying the Earl. Because, well-
All the books are clear on the subject. No sooner does a poor but honest girl enter the household of any nobleman but he immediately marries her.
This novel has brought me back to the past. It makes me wonder what kind of readers we were, when we loved these virginal heroines who seduced the alpha male quite a bit older than themselves. A man that is attractive but at the same time, the heroine suspects he’s done terrible misdeeds.
The ‘great wide world’ was bleak and full of dangers –and infinitely more complicated than I ever imagined, Melissa writes- for these ladies who strive for success all by themselves. If they were brave and honest, they would be rewarded with the marriage to a good, handsome and rich man.
Though they don’t write things like this anymore, you still can enjoy them. I did. The same way I still read and discover Georgette Heyer or Mary Stewart. I liked the plot, the subtlety in which the story unfolds, the characters that look like one thing and end up being something different. These books are not gripping; they ask you for a slow reading. So you can pick them up and put them down easily.
Would I recommend it? Yes, but only if you know what to expect, because it needs a reader that lets the story flow, someone who is not eager to end it to read the next one back-to-back.
This is a beautiful & vintage artefact that tells us how we were then. Thank you, Ms. Bourne, for publishing it for all of us that enjoy your books.