Executioner’s Song: Real History, Real Romance

THE TRAITOR’S WIFE by Kathleen Kent

Real history and the author’s family lore combine for an intensely romantic tale with a larger than life badass hero and a dangerously outspoken badass heroine

The Setting: Eastern Massachusetts (Middlesex County, north and west of Boston) in the hardscrabble 17th century countryside. The IMG_5158story takes place in and around towns I visit regularly today, along the Concord River, and up towards Salem. There’s something about the specificity of place, landscape, and architecture that has always made historical fiction even more compelling for me as a reader when I am fortunate enough to visit sites that evoke the setting of a well-loved novel. I can’t help it, I am a sucker for the ‘historical squee’ of breathing in the atmosphere of a historic place or standing on a spot where history happened, even if it’s now doing time as a gas station or Starbucks  (there are a lot of these spots in my town).

It’s quite possible my deep response to this richly rewarding novel is influenced by my other obsession with the history and material culture of colonial New England.

But back to the love story –

He: Thomas Carrier, tall, silent hired man with mysterious past, uncanny strength, and immense capacity to hold love and secrets in his heart. A Welshman, former bodyguard of Charles I and later soldier for Cromwell, he’s an outlander in the insular Puritan community and rumors abound about his role in the killing of a king.

She: Martha Allen, difficult, outspoken daughter; capable, pragmatic servant in her petulant married cousin’s household; a fatally independent thinker and keeper of secret and painful histories, she ultimately faces persecution for witchcraft.

Brought to you by:  Kathleen Kent, in The Traitor’s Wife (2010; Little, Brown/originally in hardcover as The Wolves of Andover).

From the publisher (jacket copy):  In the harsh wilderness of colonial Massachusetts, Martha Allen works as a servant in her cousin’s household, taking charge and locking wills with everyone. Thomas Carrier labors for the family and is known both for his immense strength and size and mysterious past. The two begin a courtship that suits their independent natures, with Thomas slowly revealing the story of his part in the English Civil War. But in the rugged new world they inhabit, danger is ever present, whether it be from the assassins sent from London to kill the executioner of Charles I or the wolves-in many forms-who hunt for blood. A tale of love, courage, and independence, The Traitor’s Wife confirms Kathleen Kent’s ability to craft powerful stories set against the dramatic background of America’s earliest days.

This book blurs the lines between romance and literary historical fiction as greatly as anything I’ve read in quite a while.  It’s also a form of family memoir, since the author has fashioned a love story from the known facts of the lives of her nine-greats grandparents. Martha Carrier was executed for witchcraft in the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692, and this novel is a prequel for Kent’s The Heretic’s Daughter (2009), which tells the story of Martha’s children during the terrible time of her arrest, imprisonment and execution.

Kent writes eloquently in the afterword about her research process and the significance of these powerful stories passed down through the generations in her family.  Both Thomas and Martha were historical figures whose lives were shadowed by dark deeds, and somewhat shrouded in mystery. The historical facts of Martha’s prosecution are more readily available (though of course there is no single “answer” to the historical mystery of the witchcraft hysteria itself – why then? why this town and those girls?), but the legend and lore surrounding Thomas as the executioner of Charles I remain murkier.

In relating her fictional endeavor to her historical research and family traditions, Kent powerfully articulates a rejection of the Halloween-izing of the witchcraft trials and the peculiar devolution of Salem’s rich and complex history to its annual October masquerade as “The Witch City.” I’ve refrained from casting this as a Halloween post in spite of the date on the calendar and my own culturally ingrained initial connection between the witchcraft context and Halloween this week.

Traditional romance doesn’t usually feature actual historical personages, except as secondary characters, and I can’t think of another trad romance featuring the author’s own ancestors. Certainly everything about this book, from its serious treatment of harsh historical truths, its beautifully rendered prose and layered storytelling, to its packaging and marketing, says “serious historical fiction.”

Yet at its core The Traitor’s Wife is a love story. And it’s a love story that touched me deeply. I found it achingly romantic.  So I started to think about my response to this novel as a romance, and why I had a reading experience that was emotionally similar to my experience when reading a tremendously satisfying historical romance novel.  It really makes me wonder why, and whether, we – consumers and/or producers of fiction — are so invested in being able to neatly label books as one thing or another.  Or are we? Is this literary historical fiction, traditional historical fiction (genre fiction), and/or romance fiction? And what is the significance of the re-branding of this book, from the hardcover The Wolves of Andover to the softcover The Traitor’s Wife?  It still doesn’t look like a romance novel, but something about the newer cover signals “women’s fiction” to me. It certainly makes the marital relationship the titular center of the story, and sidelines the parallel narrative of the “wolves” (these are the brutal and sadistic assassins — the villains, if this were a romance novel, whose evil and ominous pursuit of the hero is conveyed via short interspersed alternate POV chapters — sent by the Crown (Charles II) to track down the regicides in the colonies and bring them back to face a traitor’s death).

I’ve come up with 5 fundamental ways The Traitor’s Wife feels like reading a good romance novel. I’m sure in some circles a statement like that about a “serious” work of historical fiction would cause a pang of anguish, but as anyone who has visited this blog before knows, when I say “like a good romance novel” I mean “I loved this book and highly recommend it, for romance readers, history lovers, and for people as serious about reading as I am.”

Hero and Heroine POV. Martha’s POV is the primary one, but when silent Thomas lets down his guard he offers her, and the reader, lengthy reminiscences and stories that reveal his past, his priorities, and his heart.  These near-soliloquies are so deftly woven in that they never feel like exposition, and they layer in the hero’s POV without head-jumping or inner “he reflected on her incredible awesomeness” nonsense.

Focus on characters. Much of the plot development occurs as back story so the timeframe encompassed by the novel primarily focuses on the interactions and domestic routines that build the relationship between Martha and Thomas over a period of months. As the two strongest adults in a household at the edge of the wilderness (the master and mistress are depicted as ‘weaker’ and less capable by virtue of Daniel’s frequent absences and infidelity and Patience’s helpless petulance and pregnancy), they bond by fighting off predators (wild animals, disease, hostile human threats) together. They find in the other a fortitude and survival instinct to match their own.

Banter.  If there is such a thing as flirting via taciturn banter of a semi-hostile nature, this is it. The spoken and unspoken communication between this couple is a big part of this novel’s appeal as a romance.

“What’s a Swedish feather?”

He turned to her, startled, with raised brows, as though she had asked him to jump off a cliff.

“John says I have a tongue like a Swedish feather.” She had asked the question in all earnestness, but when he moved to hide a smile, she bridled.

He straightened his mouth and answered, “It’s a weapon. A short pike with a steel-pointed blade. I say so as I have had necessity to use one.”

“And where,” she asked stiffly, “would you have had use for such a one as those?”

“Most times, missus,” he said, standing, “between the eyes and the belly.”

(Kathleen Kent, The Traitor’s Wife, @2010 Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, softcover edition pp. 101-102)

I just love how Thomas routinely leaves sharp-tongued Martha grasping for his meaning, offering her space to come to her own conclusions.  While simultaneously revealing the knife-edge intensity of his feelings for her.  Her strength, desire, and pain gut him, she is deep beneath his skin.

Space for female sexuality/sexual desire.  Martha’s inner narration frequently reveals the tense and vibrating nature of her gaze when in proximity to Thomas, and she begins to notice him physically long before she begins to have substantive conversations with him. She has much to overcome in order to allow herself to feel and act upon her own desire, and when they share physical intimacy it is truly an expression of love and redemption. The brief love scenes are never what romance readers would refer to as ‘steamy’ but nor do they retreat into the arch vocabulary of historically circumspect and discreet language.  There is a rawness, grace, and physicality that I found quite powerful.

HEA/HFN. This may be the real ‘stretch’ in making an argument for Martha and Thomas as a love story that functions as a rewarding romance read. Because this is a prequel and they are historical figures, most readers will already know there is no Happy Ever After for this couple. And in fact the end of their story, as told by Kent in the earlier book (The Heretic’s Daughter), is so wrenching and painful it is one of the saddest and most affecting books I read last year. But take The Traitor’s Wife on its own merits, embrace the Happy For Now of these scarred and battle-weary survivors, and there is a deep satisfaction in seeing them married and settled together on a piece of land at the end of this beautiful novel:

The couple being poor, and they being of remarkable fortitude for work, I have offered them, along with Carrier’s man, John Levistone, a good plot of land from my own holdings, in return for some period of labor and a gold coin given to Goodwife Carrier by her father.

(Kathleen Kent, The Traitor’s Wife, @2010 Back Bay Books/Little, Brown, softcover edition p.288)

This happy ending is recounted in the form of documents, which means that we get just fragments from which to imagine their union. But it is enough, to see Martha as Goodwife Carrier, and the two of them working the land together, as equal partners as was possible given the legalities and customs of the time.

It strikes me now, as I try to wrap up this long-overdue post, that what’s missing from this book, as a romance, is an epilogue after the epilogue of the documents.  Instead, there’s a letter from Martha to her daughter Sarah. Not exactly the traditional romance “baby epilogue.” Rather wrenchingly the letter sort of aft-shadows the tone and voice of the companion book, Sarah’s story (The Heretic’s Daughter).

Even in the passage I just quoted, “Goodwife” itself evokes the “Goody” of “Goody Carrier” — for some, myself included, that is all it takes to transport the mind to the awful milieu of 1692, Cotton Mather, the “afflicted” girls, and the tragic mayhem of the witch trials.

There’s a lot to wrestle with here, but I simply love the fact that after writing truly the most harrowing and powerful fictional account of the trials I have ever read (it was generally well reviewed, in the New York Times, for example), Kent went back and lovingly crafted this elegiac romance to commemorate who Martha and Thomas were before they became “the accused,” and how they fell in love.

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Throwback Reading Rec: Rumer Has It

My Favorite Novels by Rumer Godden: Stories of Nuns, Dolls, and British India

On the heels of my Betty Neels musings, I am awash in fresh nostalgia for another mid-century “modern” author who was already sort of “vintage” by the time I encountered her. Rumer Godden sits on my bookshelf near Mary Renault and along with Barbara Pym as one of the more “serious” novelists I adored and admired in late adolescence.

I’m inspired to try something new here on the blog – a short list of favorite titles from my vintage keeper shelves.

Thanks to AnimeJune of Gossamer Obsessions, who sometime last week tweeted when she finished IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE, one of my favorite novels about nuns, thus sparking this bout of Rumer-mongering.

I’m interested to hear from anyone else who has enjoyed these books — I am intrigued by the way in which Godden (1907 – 1998) encompasses so much that is light and wonderful (nursery tales, curious & bright children, bold and wonderful dolls) about British literary tradition along with such intense exploration of darker mainstream themes (colonialism, racism, sexual repression).

Also — what is it about nuns in fiction that is so incredibly fascinating for certain readers?? Who else has experienced the “nun phase” in their reading history?

ON NUNS

In This House of Brede (1969): This is a book I read and re-read numerous times during the time in my life when nuns — think Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story (1959) — seemed terribly romantic. The self-discipline, the sense of purpose, the strength of tradition and community, the connection to medieval ritual and practices… somehow it all becomes a captivating blend. The story of Philippa Talbot’s vocation and journey to final vows is as gripping and emotionally satisfying as a good romance. Sadly, the Diana Rigg film is sort of a ‘meh’ compared with the novel, and with the far more compelling Hepburn film.

Black Narcissus (1939): In this case the film is a work of art that stands up to the book in every respect, and I highly recommend both. What happens when English nuns take over a ‘harem’ palace to start a school in the Himalayas, cut off from British culture except for the disconcertingly rugged and boldly challenging agent, Mr. Dean? Desire, sexual tension, tragic consequences, and a riveting portrait of cultural imperialism and the limits of faith.

ON DOLLS

 

The Story of Holly and Ivy (1958): A sentimental Christmas favorite I read every year with my daughters, this is a classic love story about a girl, a doll, window shopping, and an orphan’s HEA.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower (1961): The classic tale of how to feel at home by making a home for someone you love; also asserting the powerful magic of dolls, and casting chilly England against sunny India. Little Plum is the sequel.

ON BRITISH INDIA

 

The River (1946): Godden’s classic coming of age novel, a tribute to her childhood in India and a lyrical exploration of adolescent dreaming & disillusionment.

Kingfishers Catch Fire (1953): Taking her title from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, Godden wrote this later novel partly inspired by her own experience as a young Englishwoman and mother in a remote part of India during the 1950s. The impoverished post-colonial village is emotionally torched by the effects of her presence, and the darkness she hinted at in the much earlier River, becomes menacing and tragic.

Other favorites: China Court, The Greengage Summer, The Peacock Spring

A final word, about romance — love stories and HEAs are not central to my reminiscences about reading Rumer Godden. In her adult novels she frequently explored the constraints and consequences of passions deemed “wrong” in certain social and cultural contexts, but love is at its most satisfyingly triumphant in her books for children.

Betty(s) and Barbara(s): heroines of the ’70s, reading romance, nostalgia, and feminism

I just finished reading a romance novel from 1973 that made me nostalgic even as my eyes were rolling back in my head. This nostalgia is sort of fluid and rippling around several different stones in the river of my recent – and not-so-recent – reading. Apologies in advance for what I know is going to be a rambling and impressionistic post.

In 1973 I turned 10, which is the age my daughters are now (yes, twins). They have Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. At 10, I was still deep in Oz books and Andrew Lang’s Fairy Tales. I was about two years away from reading my first category romance novels, but by 8th grade my reading log was brimming with Barbara Cartland titles.  There wasn’t nearly as much YA romance then as there is now. I loved Patricia Beatty’s YA historicals, and she sometimes introduced an age-appropriate romantic figure for her spunky heroines. Here is perhaps my favorite book from 1973. But barely two years later I read both Gone With the Wind and Jane Eyre during the summer before 8th grade, and the die was pretty much cast: leaving aside questions of comparative literary merit between these two iconic novels, I was looking for romantic tension, Eyre-ish happy endings, and historical settings. I read my way steadily through Victoria Holt/Jean Plaidy, along with Anya Seton and Norah Lofts. And in the ’70s I read hundreds of category romances.

At the time I wasn’t aware of category romance as a particular product distinct from single title romance, but I liked knowing what to expect, along with the fact that the supply seemed endless — akin to Nancy Drew mysteries, but I wasn’t turning into a mystery reader, I was turning into a romance reader. I gravitated to Regencies, and I also read Heyer. I still like books that are part of series, but I haven’t read a category romance in decades, mainly because I look for longer, denser historicals. So it’s been a long time since I read a book like this that reminded me of the simplicity and purity of a Barbara Cartland.

Winter of ChangeI could almost hear Angela Lansbury singing A Tale As Old As Time in the back of my head as I was reading WINTER OF CHANGE, by Betty Neels (Mills & Boon, 1973; Harlequin re-release 2001). The hero isn’t a beast, but it was enchanting and refreshing to revisit the kind of romance novel that takes me on a short, sweet, straightforward emotional journey with an old-fashioned style couple. It made me feel sort of sentimental, even though Neels’ story is much more astringent than saccharine.

It was Liz over at Something More who first mentioned Neels to me when we shared our mutual admiration for the tweedy, shabby mood of Barbara Pym’s wonderful novels. And indeed I found this Neels romance did evoke Pym-ish gentility with its focus on mundane aspects of domestic arrangements and its understated approach to passion and emotion.

Interestingly, it was in the 70’s and early 80’s that Pym’s novels enjoyed their greatest popularity, as Salon noted last spring. And indeed that’s when I was enjoying ’em – as a much younger reader, curiously fascinated by Pym’s dissatisfied middle-aged couples, lonely spinsters, and generally deflated Oxbridge atmosphere.

But back to Betty and WINTER OF CHANGE: Distinguished Fabian van der Blocq is older, much more experienced, socially and professionally powerful. Mary Jane Pettigrew (yes, she’s really called Miss Pettigrew) is a classic ingenue – clever, petite, hard-working, modest and unassuming — one of those brave-girl-in-the-big-wide-world characters. Not much happens plot-wise — she’s an orphan, raised by her grandfather who is dying. They meet when Fabian, nephew of said grandfather’s dearest friend, is appointed guardian of her inheritance. They are at utterly different stages of life, and she resents his having any control over her affairs. They observe and admire each other, but privately, so that for much of the book when they are thrown together they spend their time being diffidently polite or openly antagonistic to each other. Mary Jane in particular becomes almost petulant, and entertains another suitor in a foolish gambit to get Fabian’s attention that, predictably, ends badly.

Neels, a former nurse, was known for her hospital-set romances, and there are medical situations in which both Mary Jane and Fabian learn about each other through observation of interactions with patients and relatives and with their shared vocation of healing. Yet the barriers imposed by the guardianship remain firmly in place. Mary Jane refuses to admit, even to herself, that she’s in love with the tall, dark and remote surgeon, though it’s evident to the reader throughout. Fabian is actually quite thoughtful and even tender at times, but he feels honor-bound to refrain from getting involved with his ward because of their age difference (he’s 40ish; she’s 22).  He pivots from complimenting her appearance and noticing her preferences with genuine concern for her well-being, to antagonizing Mary Jane with his control of her affairs and remote detachment.

Of course it’s harder to know what he actually thinks about her because the entire book is written from her POV.  This contributed to my sense of nostalgia — transpose the setting to Regency London and it could have been a Barbara Cartland duke and his ward. They seesaw back and forth between “chance” encounters where their delight is obvious, and separations and second-guessing where the young heroine in the pangs of first love despairs of ever catching his attention in that special way. Since we never get inside the hero’s head, it’s all about the chaste and unconsummated minuet of anticipation as played out in the heroine’s inner dialogue, until the final few pages when circumstances threaten to part them forever–unless love is finally declared.

The ending is brief and almost matter-of-fact; the tension is romantic but far from sexual. So the reading experience gave me a sense of nostalgia for the romance reading I did as a young teen. And yes, I realize it’s only my own filter that so distorts the brisk and efficient Betty Neels as to make this book seem to have anything to do with a Barbara Cartland flight of fancy. Since Neels has a lot more of Barbara Pym than Barbara Cartland going on, it’s as I’ve applied a some kind of rosy regency Instagram effect to the whole thing. Neels in her own right has immense nostalgic as well as immediate appeal, as the Bettys of The Uncrushable Jersey Dress have brilliantly documented. But I am a first-time Neels reader, and she’s making rather a complicated impression.

Within the confines of the novel itself, WINTER OF CHANGE’s early ’70s setting gave me a different flavor of nostalgia.  It’s long enough ago to almost feel like a historical.  Except, not. It’s a primary text for a historian of the 70s. To start with the good — in spite of the slightly downtrodden, mousy  way that Mary Jane is described (and describes herself), the first chapter sets her up as an early ’70’s career gal in a way that reminded me a bit of Marlo Thomas and Mary Tyler Moore. She drives a Mini, watches her budget but saves for expensive shoes and handbags, has a good education, and earns a respectable living in a profession that maintains her position as a member of a privileged social class. Yet she’s clearly not totally on her own, living as she does in the nurses’ residence at her hospital with a loose group of friends but emotionally isolated without family or other primary relationship(s).  It’s an idealized, semi-autonomous kind of That Girl! independence: Marlo and Mary had their own apartments but constantly hovering parents, neighbors, and boyfriends.

On the flip side, there’s no denying that any vaguely mod, second-wave-feminist elements of Mary Jane’s situation and character are heavily outweighed by the entrenched sexism Neels’ novel reflects.

As I was reading, I started keeping track of all the places and times where Fabian thinks for Mary Jane, makes decisions for her, and takes care of her needs in a way that is both delightfully thoughtful and totally high-handed. Yes, he’s legally her guardian, but why is this romantic? If they met some other way, Fabian would have to pursue Mary Jane much more actively; what’s interesting about the guardianship is that it makes explicit that his role is to guard and protect — and direct — her like a parent.

One way to look at this may be simply to chalk it up to the alpha hero convention in romance. Guardianship gives Fabian legal rights to go along with his romance-y alpha motivations to protect and possess the heroine by manipulating Mary Jane’s circumstances. I don’t know (or remember) enough about the genre in the ’70s to say whether alphas were as normative and popular then as they have been in later decades.  Certainly controlling alpha heroes have been around in romanceland since, well … forever. So Fabian isn’t really all that remarkable, except that meeting him 40 years after he was written means I’m bringing a lot of baggage along for the read.

Jackie suggested recently at Romance Novels for Feminists, that in the wake of 50 Shades we are experiencing another wave of uber alpha heroes, noting the “obsessive” alpha tendency in particular. There are probably way more than 50 shades of obsessive when it comes to romance heroes, so I guess my feeling is that the most direct and obvious result of the 50 Shades phenomenon is the kinky billionaire hero.  And here’s where I wend my way back to Fabian and Mary Jane. No, there’s no kink. There’s no sex.

But it’s a lot like a Billionaire/virgin D/s dynamic, without the BDSM. He’s so much wealthier than she is, and even when she attains financial security, it’s simultaneous with losing control of her own affairs. She stops working — he even makes the phone call to her (dowdy, of course) female supervisor and charms the beleaguered Hospital Sister out of requiring Mary Jane to give her month’s notice! Definitely shades of (Christian)Grey. Fabian then tells her what kind of clothes to purchase for her new life and whisks her to his home in Holland to serve as private nurse to his uncle.

He’s not obsessive — Mary Jane does return to her home alone (at this point they are both stupidly pretending they’re not in love with each other). She gets to make her own mistakes – almost. Fabian intervenes to save her, then disappears again leaving behind some achingly romantic Christmas gifts – almost as if he is waiting for her to grow up. She, of course, has no gift for Fabian because she’s too busy being snippy at him for rescuing her from a bad situation she was too blind to realize spelled certain disaster.

But regardless of their lack of intimacy or proximity, Mary Jane’s life is unalterably changed by her removal from her profession to an entirely domestic and social sphere. She’s expected to live in the manor house she inherited, do good works in the village, and marry well. Predictably, she gets frustrated, bored, and “headstrong” — in her own naive way (this is when she takes up with an entirely unsuitable suitor). It’s as if she’s a trapped housewife, with Fabian in control from afar. I kept thinking about The Feminine Mystique (another Betty) — and wondering if things would get any better – or just stay the same, or even get worse – once she inevitably married him. The book ends with a restrained yet believable HEA when Fabian basically pulls an “of course I love you, silly, and we’re getting married.” As a romance, the novel works. On one level, I was satisfied, and happy for both of them. But there was something that didn’t quite sit right. Perhaps, unlike a Pym novel, the book is just not powerful or compelling enough to transcend its vintage setting. I can’t escape the feeling that Mary Jane is 5, or maybe 15, minutes from Diary of a Mad Housewife — or Valley of the Dolls (easy access to pretty pills!) Or a Bell Jar experience.

So – is there any point to this meander down nostalgia lane? Somehow, reading this rather unremarkable romance from the ’70s brought me back to adolescent romance reading and mod heroines, and then around the long bend to 2013 and billionaires tying up virgins.  In spite of the length of this post, I’m left with still more questions.

Is Fabian “worse” than a Christian Grey-type hero because though he wouldn’t dream of striking her, he takes control of her life without Mary Jane’s consent? At least Anastasia got to negotiate her contract, and she kept working. (I did read all three of the E.L. James novels, and I rather choosily read other erotic romance from time to time.)

Would it make a difference if Neels had written sections from the hero’s POV? Maybe the relationship wouldn’t feel so unequal if we could get inside his head and hear how Mary Jane affects Fabian. (I do plan to give Neels another chance to captivate me – next up: ESMERALDA. I have the sense that it’s not any one Neels book that wins you over, it’s her body of work — and I’m ready to read on.)

If Neels were writing today, would she be writing billionaire doms and submissive virgins (who work in hospitals)?

I’m curious to hear what others think about Betty (Neels), for those who’ve read her, and also what about the Barbaras? I sometimes think I am the only person who ever actually read a Barbara Cartland romance. Or is willing to admit it.

Finally, just because I was curious, I looked up their dates —

Betty Neels (1909-2001)

Betty Friedan (1921-2006)

Barbara Cartland (1901-2000)

Barbara Pym (1913-1980)