What if Jane Eyre were a series? Would we like to hang out with the Rochesters as a married couple?
Full disclosure: I’m not actually going to talk about Mr. & Mrs. Rochester all that much. It’s not a series and Charlotte Bronte didn’t write a “Thornfield Book 2.” So if you are offended by a mild Bait & Switch approach, let me offer my apologies. But there’s another Bronte-esque, moody married couple I have been spending time with lately, and it’s got me thinking…
Back in May I posted about my intoxication with the gothic, Eyre-ish romance of Lady Julia Grey and the maddening, enigmatic Nicholas Brisbane. I’d just finished Book the First in Deanna Raybourn’s Silent trilogy, and it provoked me to indulge in a near-orgy of adulation for this couple as a re-invented post-feminist, mystery-hunting version of the challenging, unequal, yet deeply satisfying romance between Jane and Rochester.
In August, I gobbled up three more tales about Brisbane and Julia, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes these novels work as romances. They’re not published as such but the marketing – especially the original paperback editions (US only? I’m not sure.) – suggests the romance genre and I think they enjoy a wide popularity with romance readers, in addition to the nebulous “women’s fiction” readership and/or lovers of romantic historical fiction.
Having just finished the fourth novel, I am currently visiting with the Brisbanes as newlyweds. They are enjoying what would in a traditional romance be their well-deserved HEA. They’ve had an extended honeymoon across Europe, solved a mystery in India, and are preparing to make their home in England together.
A quick recap: Silent in the Grave (2007) introduced Julia and Nicholas over the dead body of her husband. Secrets emerge, the murder is solved, they get in each other’s way a lot, conversations smolder. Destiny is foretold; gratification delayed. It’s achingly romantic, and I loved it.
In Silent in the Sanctuary (2008), they meet for the first time after a year’s separation when Julia’s father throws them together at a large house party where a murder occurs and everyone is trapped by a heavy snowfall. A classic whodunit-at-a-house-party story. What ensues is a reluctant courtship of sorts, with other potential lovers aplenty and Brisbane nursing — in his inimitably enigmatic way — all the carefully constructed reasons he ought not to act on his obviously intense attraction and deep emotional connection to Julia. This is Brisbane at his most maddeningly remote.
With the third novel, we reach the most Bronte-esque of settings when Julia tracks Brisbane to his neglected Yorkshire estate, complete with colorful household staff, a windswpet moor, and a madwoman. Silent on the Moor (2009) is the story — at last — of this couple’s reconciliation and acceptance of their feelings for one another. At last they marry. But Raybourn infuses the conclusion of the Yorkshire book with sufficient uncertainty to leave plenty of room for further romantic tension and conflict in subsequent novels.
And of course, this is precisely what we get with the next book, the start of a new, “Dark” trilogy: Dark Road to Darjeeling (2010). I still love this couple, and I’m willing to follow them down at least a few more dark roads. But I found myself falling out of the story more often as I read, and looking harder at whether it still reads like a romance.
The series is ineffably clever and Raybourn sustained the buildup of romantic tension so well over the first 3 books. At the same time each novel has its own narrative arc that tracks with many romance conventions. These include a sudden and/or unexpected meeting, mutual attraction and romantic entanglement, a dangerous situation, fear for the loved one’s safety, deception of the beloved (often motivated by protective urges), confrontation, betrayal, rejection, reunion, and ultimately a satisfying yet tantalizing expression of love and dedication. The first two such expressions are somewhat oblique, but potently symbolic. While they certainly don’t constitute a traditional HEA, they are enough to scratch the romance-reading itch that demands some kind of declaration by the hero which is accepted by the heroine. In short, although not romance novels, I found I experienced each book in the Silent series as a self-contained “romance read,” and I rejoiced for Julia and her smoldering Gypsy-blueblood husband, when matrimony was finally achieved at the end of the first trilogy.
Dark Road to Darjeeling opens with marital bliss but quickly tears the Brisbanes apart as they receive information about a possible murder and revert to their pre-nuptial behavior of attempting to manipulate each other and exert control over an investigation in which they each have a particular interest. Julia begins a deliberate campaign to prove her worth as an investigator and withholds so much information that the two are at arms length emotionally even when they are physically reunited about halfway into the book. For me, the first inkling that this book was going to be a different sort of read was the fact that early on I became completely annoyed with Julia’s passive aggressive behavior. She’s too often on the verge of sharing useful information with Brisbane, only to withhold it in order to try and do him one better, and it just comes across as spiteful. But was her behavior different from the previous books, or am I holding her accountable differently because he’s her husband now?
To put it another way, is Julia written differently as a wife character, or am I reading her differently as a wife character? Intrepid and strong-minded, or foolhardy and shrewish? Brisbane as a husband strikes me as about the same combination of stubborn inscrutability, ruthless possessiveness and hidden vulnerability, as he did when he was loving Julia from afar — it does come across differently near the end of the book, but a bit more about that anon.
These questions also remind me that there are very successful romance novels where the H/h are married to each other from start to finish (I’m thinking right now of several wonderful historicals by Sherry Thomas, including Not Quite a Husband and Private Arrangements, but there are also contemporary examples such as Ruthie Knox’s recent novella, Making It Last, which is – interestingly – part of a series). So I don’t think what I’m puzzling over is the question of a married romance vs. a romance that ends with marriage. It’s more about the idea of a series — told over the course of multiple books — that follows a couple over the relationship lifespan – how does that work within the romance conventions, or does it? Can I keep coming back to the same couple, even if I do find them quite intoxicating, and receive the same novel-reading pleasure that takes me on an emotional journey to an HEA (or some kind of stand-in for the HEA) — or will it at some point start to wear?
On the up side – with Julia’s married POV, readers can look forward to elegantly circumspect yet deliciously pointed conversations alluding to Brisbane’s …er, appetites, and the sexual and emotional intimacies of the marriage bed. This kind of thing, along with domestic interactions (he takes lots of baths) and discoveries, deepens the emotional impact of their exchanges and their manipulations. Yet the constant push/pull between them started to wear on me somewhere along about the third or fourth time they played out their cycle of intrigue, deception, discovery, confrontation, rupture, confession, reunion…more intrigue…
But this novel can also be read as a portrait of a marriage in the making. It’s a very young and fragile marriage between two quite mature and willful individuals. Yes, I grew (quite) weary of Julia’s endless attempts to circumvent Brisbane and her self-righteous and unbecoming piques when the shoe is on the other foot and he out-maneuvers her. By the same token, Brisbane’s high-handedness almost started to seem manufactured or arbitrary, a necessary dramatic element to further their romantic tension. Without stepping into spoiler territory, I must say that I found the test he sets Julia at the end of the book held a slight hint of D/s which seemed to come out of nowhere.
But perhaps what makes the book succeed as a romance is that it asserts marriage itself as a series of these narrative arcs. There are absences and chance encounters, intrigues and partnerships, withholding and separations, confrontations and communions, ruptures and renewals. And these cycles can occur more than once in a couple’s journey. I’m pretty sure most people would agree this is true in real life — the question is, do we want to read about these exhilarating (or exhausting, depending on your point of view and/or what’s happening in your personal life) roller coasters when it’s a fictional couple we hold dear?
Leaving aside the issue that they might not have a new mystery to solve every 6 months or so, would we want to read more books chronicling how Jane and Rochester fared? I think I probably would find them irresistible, and they’d certainly be commercially viable, but Charlotte B may not have wanted to write them.
This may be one of the important ways Brisbane and Julia are NOT like Rochester and Jane – the mysteries provide the opportunity and the means for new chapters of their married story, and their ongoing battle of wills provides the motive to keep reading – and writing – them as romances.
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The Lady Julia Gray series is published by the MIRA imprint of Harlequin. I purchased copies of these first four books at my local used paperback shop. I’m hoping they may have a copy of #5 - The Dark Enquiry when I stop in there this week. If not, it’s going in my Amazon cart, because I’m definitely along for the ride with the Brisbanes, in spite of my quibbles.