Of Marriages and Mallorens: A Backhanded Look at Jo Beverley’s Feminist Brides (and still more violence)

AN UNWILLING BRIDE and SEDUCTION IN SILK: forced marriages, feminist rhetoric, and another violent hero

I’m a huge Jo Beverley fan. Beverley has pretty much everything I’m looking for in historical romance: characters with depth and humor, solid and convincing historical settings with just the right amount of intriguing trivia concerning manners and material culture, intricate world-building and interrelated stories across multiple books, richly imagined and not-too-cheesy dude groups, a dash of bromance, strong well-read heroines, a lovely long backlist to explore, and a willingness to test the conventions of the genre. Beverley’s novels can be fun, and funny, but they are not light. I could go on and on but there’s already a wonderful summary of the best of Beverley here @ Janet Webb’s “Jo Beverley Appreciation” for Heroes & Heartbreakers.

I thought I had read pretty much her entire backlist, or at least all the Rogues (Regency-era) and Malloren (Georgian-set) novels, but a funny thing happened last October right after I read Seduction in Silk, which is the newest book set in the glittering Georgian world of the Mallorens. I was pondering this novel’s explicit discussion of feminist issues regarding marriage, property rights, and the legal status of women, when Liz @ Something More blogged about throwaway uses of the word feminist in romance fiction, and wondered about a “strain of resistance” to the appearance of feminist language, or principles, in the genre. ErinSatie identified a counter-example drawn from the historical romance subgenre — Beverley’s An Unwilling Bride:

…the entire novel is straight-up structured to question the appeal of alpha men from the perspective of a feminist heroine who has to deal with the worst flaws of one.

It’s not the most emotional romance novel, but it’s tight, well-structured, thoughtful. A romance writer at the top of her game grappling with a troubling aspect of her own work and profession.

At that point, I jumped in with an incoherent comment, and subsequently realized either I’d somehow skipped book #2 in the Company of Rogues series, which was 1992’s An Unwilling Bride, or I wasn’t remembering it very well. It turns out I was confusing it with the first in the series, An Arranged Marriage (1991). Of course I was excited to uncover a ‘hidden’ treasure – a heretofore unread novel from the Beverley canon. I read Unwilling Bride last week, and it compelled me to revisit Seduction in Silk.

Love, Honor, and Obedience Both these books contain a similar forced marriage premise, and feature somewhat unlikeable and rigid spinster heroines who read Wollstonecraft and/or make use of feminist rhetoric to mask the unsettling realization that the hero’s appearance in her life has revealed she may actually have emotional, romantic, and sexual needs. Which of course this man, whose presence has been thrust upon her, can and will meet.

In each case the emotional journey of the couple involves actual conversations with each other (and each of them with various friends and relations) about the meaning of matrimony and the effort involved in the crafting of domestic harmony. Beverley’s characters explicitly discuss how to arrange their lives together to allow mutual interests and individual identities to thrive and prosper. She is masterful at weaving such conversations (not just in these two books) into the narrative and giving voice to feminist concerns about the marital state, property rights, masterful husbands, and the appeal of the badass alpha, without breaking the character of her Georgian and Regency period settings. This is partly accomplished through the liberal use of bluestocking heroines who read Wollstonecraft, but is also due to careful research and excellent dialogue.

From Seduction in Silk:

“There is no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to Miss Mallow.”

“That is for her to judge.”

“Unreasonable woman! There’s no reason for this marriage to be abhorrent to her, because I’ve promised that after the vows are said I will leave her completely to her own devices.”

Genova cocked her head. “That does remove many objections. However, before the law you would still be her master.”

“As Ashart is yours.”

“A factor that weighed with me, I assure you. Love is the very devil.”

Keeping Her In Line  Both these books were absorbing, satisfying reads — the kind of reading experience where you find yourself musing about the characters and their interactions or conflicts when you’re not actually reading. Yet my satisfaction with the two HEAs was decidedly dissimilar. Seduction in Silk left me pleased and content, but was more memorable for its strange subplots than for the actual relationship, which ended up being rather bland in spite of a rather explosive beginning.

An Unwilling Bride left me unsettled and (almost) unwilling or unable to believe in the HEA.  Yet in a way I love this book more for its edginess and willingness to more deeply interrogate the historical romance enterprise itself — what does it mean (both for the heroine and for the reader) when the HEA involves submitting to marriage with no legal protections? How to balance the pleasures of a period setting with the tolerances and interests of contemporary romance readers in the post-feminist era? Some historicals leave legal matters offscreen except when needed as plot device, but Beverley’s characters directly converse about essential everyday questions related to the status of women.

From An Unwilling Bride:

“How do you keep her in line, then?”

…. “In what line?”

It was a challenge and Lucien reacted by stiffening. “Within the line of appropriate behavior.”

Nicholas’s warm brown eyes became remarkably cold. “I’ve never stayed within that line myself. Why should I try to impose it on anyone else?

“She’s your wife, damn it.”

Nicholas shook his head. “She’s Eleanor. I never wanted to become the guardian of another adult human being and God was good and granted me a wife able to accept freedom…”

Both these novels present heroines facing tough choices and harsh consequences if they refuse to accede to the marriage that’s been arranged. Yet although Claris Mallow, a country rector’s daughter struggling to raise and educate her younger brothers (Seduction in Silk), faces much more precarious economic circumstances and hardship, Beth Armitage’s experience as the titular Unwilling Bride in the earlier novel feels both harsher and more emotionally precarious.

Force vs. Persuasion  The most obvious reason for the different tenor of the two relationships is the contrast between heroes Lucien de Vaux, daredevil rakehell with violent tendencies who treats his unwilling bride with a mixture of hostility and detachment for much of the book (until he suddenly falls in love with her and becomes overprotective and jealous), and Peregrine Perriam, amiable charmer and beta hero who eventually wins his bride over with a combination of practicality, directness, and silken luxuries. Both couples are forced to the altar by external circumstances involving adultery (by parents or other relatives) and inheritance, and much of the eventual romance takes place after each couple has tied the knot.

(Spoilers beyond this point, especially for An Unwilling Bride)

Lucien and Beth are the 1992 Regency couple from An Unwilling Bride. At their best they are swapping erudite quotations and bantering about books, while engaged in a very public show of courtship and endless social events at the very highest level of London society. I loved that they discovered shared enthusiasm for competitive quoting that offers them a safe space for exchanging ideas and genuine opinions.  But at their worst they withhold and dissemble so much that they constantly offend and resent one another, and there is a terrible lack of trust between them which only becomes more disturbing when Lucien’s violence erupts and he strikes Beth.

That’s right — this is a 1992 RITA winner in which the hero backhands the heroine across the face in an uncontrolled jealous rage. I’m still wrestling with my mixed responses to this book, which I was love love loving right up to this point. Beverley dropped clues to Lucien’s barely-contained violence along the way, which I thought were interesting in and of themselves — it’s clear Beth found him physically intimidating but she was also coming to understand and love him. But I wasn’t expecting to spend the final chapters preoccupied, as are both characters, with Beth’s bruised face and whether or not I can believe in (a) Beth’s immediate forgiveness or (b) Lucien’s redemption and vow that it will never happen again.

As for Perry and Claris of last year’s Seduction in Silk, they too must cope with the emotional fallout of a violent episode.  This time, however, the gender dynamic is reversed and it is a pistol-wielding woman who expresses deep rage and frustration by shooting her would-be suitor at point-blank range. Fortunately, trusty maidservant Ellie had loaded the weapon with powder but no shot. Perry is unharmed, but Claris is undone by the realization that she has almost killed a man. And truthfully, the whole episode, indeed the whole novel, is played for laughs to a much greater extent than Lucien and Beth’s story. Where Beth appears clever but helpless, and even makes her own situation worse with several strategic errors that plant the seeds of mistrust, Claris comes off  as wacky but not without resources.

Not all feminist brides are created equal Although they share the same views about the disadvantages inherent in submitting to marriage, Claris and Beth respond differently because their circumstances are so different. Beth, with only a spinster aunt and the school where they teach to call home, capitulates early in the novel and internalizes her anger at being manipulated into marriage, becoming ever more isolated and fragile in her sudden ascendance to the rigors of public life in a ducal household. She does assert her autonomy by choosing to help a downtrodden former student seeking refuge (which secondary plot leads to all manner of mayhem and more violence, including the bloody death of a villain who did terrible things to Nicholas Delaney in the previous book in the series). But overall, she just seems entirely overshadowed by Lucien and his confidence, physical presence, powerful allies, and warm circle of friends.

With my other Beverley couple of the week, it is Claris who overshadows Perry. She’s got a motley household to manage, a warm and quirky assortment of family members, and an agenda — to see her younger brothers educated as gentlemen. The two of them also have a convoluted curse plot to unravel, and a manor house to save. As a younger son, Perry has made his way in the role of diplomat and courtier; he puts others at ease and blends into the background, leaving center stage to pistol-packing Claris and her starchy, self-interested grandmother, Athena. Claris doesn’t want to marry because she fears loss of independence and she has a genuine fear of the risks of child-bearing, but she’s also got strong motivation to marry since it will improve her economic situation sufficiently to ensure her brothers’ futures.

Perry is being forced into the marriage by the terms of an unlikely will, but he sets out to win Claris’s acceptance directly, resulting in a narrative of seduction and pursuit that is tart and tangy and not at all unpleasant. Among other things, he brings her well-chosen gifts including fruit and silk (he’s receiving mentoring from Ashart and Genova, an iconic Malloren-world couple). This is all very witty and charming, and asked the right questions about submission, autonomy, and identity, but it wasn’t nearly as challenging as Lucien and Beth’s story.

Violence in Romance With Lucien and Beth, Beverley forces the reader to look right into the heart of a marriage, which has now become a love match, where the husband has legal authority over his wife, and listen in when he struggles to rationalize his belief system in the context of his abhorrent behavior.

“Yet you threatened to beat me. Twice.” She didn’t mention it, but the blow which marked her face hovered between them.

They walked a little way in silence before he responded. “I suppose I consider force appropriate on occasions, but I have no excuse or justification for what happened tonight.” Thoughtfully he added, “It worries me considerably.” After a moment he continued, “As for my threats, I threatened to beat you – although I don’t know whether I could do such a thing – when you seemed about to bring scandal into the family. If it helps, I’d threaten to beat a man in the same situation, and be more likely to do it. Does that make you more equal, or less?”

“I don’t know,” said Beth, frowning. “It’s late and I’m tired. That must be why you can justify violence to me. It can’t actually make sense.”  (An Unwilling Bride)

The rest of the novel focuses on Beth and Lucien working together to rescue Clarissa, the imperiled former student, from a forced marriage, along with Lucien’s badass former mistress (she and Beth become friends and allies) and several other Rogues and their wives. There is more violence, and even worse the implied violence and misery of the life Clarissa would have been sentenced to — virtual enslavement to an evil husband who is known to be a sexual sadist and rapist. I think it’s interesting that this secondary plot surfaces quite graphically in the final chapters of the novel. Is Beth so determined to help Clarissa because she wishes someone had done the same for her when she was facing the blackmail threats which resulted in her own unwanted marriage? She had no way of knowing what kind of man Lucien would turn out to be.  Or does she see Clarissa’s situation as completely different from her own, given that by this point in the story she and Lucien have fallen in love and she has succumbed to the physical and intellectual attraction she had for him from the start? Still, on what basis does she trust that his blow was a one-time mistake? I kept wishing that Nicholas and Eleanor had got wind of it, with perhaps some severely man-to-man, and mano a mano, consequences being meted out. And then I can’t believe I’m wishing for more violence to balance the scales!

In the end I almost always prefer a romance novel that makes me think, or even pushes against the limits of my comfort zone. An Unwilling Bride does both these things, and boldly raises many more questions about the appeal of the romance genre, and historical romance in particular, than it answers. Does the HEA justify the means, even if vows are forced?  Where do we draw the line when it comes to an unwilling woman? OK for her to be forced to the altar, an act with far-reaching legal repercussions, as long as the hero doesn’t force her sexually until she consents?  Is she merely reluctant and skittish and ripe for falling in love? Or is the forced marriage trope a common theme because it provides narrative space to explore various ways in which a woman may be taken against her will, from the emotional shock of falling in love, to the social requirement of marriage, to the surrender to desire?

What about the vulnerability of falling in love with someone who will have legal authority over you once you marry him? Seduction in Silk echoes some of these questions, but the sharp edges are blunted — it’s a much more comfortable read. Which begs the further question — was Beverley seeking to make readers uncomfortable with the earlier book? Does having the hero actually hit the heroine force us to examine our own willingness/unwillingness to engage with the badass hero fantasy? Can you believe in the HEA if there has been violence between the hero and heroine? Was this just much more common in the 80’s and early 90’s than I am remembering? Are there any other romances you have enjoyed where the hero strikes the heroine in anger (to distinguish such acts from those in BDSM romance where the violence is consensual and ritualized)?

Seduction in Silk and An Unwilling Bride are available in the usual formats and places. An Unwilling Bride was recently released as an e-book. I purchased both books at my local used paperback shop.

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