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Am I the Only One Who Hates The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons?

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Paperback, 810 pages
Published September 8th 2009 by William Morrow Paperbacks (first published 2001)

The golden skies, the translucent twilight, the white nights, all hold the promise of youth, of love, of eternal renewal. The war has not yet touched this city of fallen grandeur, or the lives of two sisters, Tatiana and Dasha Metanova, who share a single room in a cramped apartment with their brother and parents. Their world is turned upside down when Hitler’s armies attack Russia and begin their unstoppable blitz to Leningrad.


Yet there is light in the darkness. Tatiana meets Alexander, a brave young officer in the Red Army. Strong and self-confident, yet guarding a mysterious and troubled past, he is drawn to Tatiana—and she to him. Starvation, desperation, and fear soon grip their city during the terrible winter of the merciless German siege. Tatiana and Alexander’s impossible love threatens to tear the Metanova family apart and expose the dangerous secret Alexander so carefully protects—a secret as devastating as the war itself—as the lovers are swept up in the brutal tides that will change the world and their lives forever.

I’m always saying that if everyone else raves about a book, I’m sure to be disappointed, but I didn’t think The Bronze Horseman could go wrong.

It’s a DIK on All About Romance, and is a fan favorite on the site’s message boards. It’s got a 4.3 rating on Goodreads, not that that is high praise at this point, but I digress. Plus, it’s so rare to find a romance set in WWII Russia that I thought the setting would offset the eventual letdown.

Alas.

Darlings, I’m sure I’ve read worse books than The Bronze Horseman. I’m certain I have. But The Bronze Horseman demoralized me.

So that you know just how low I’ve been brought, I’ll write this review in the style of The Bronze Horseman. 

POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD

At first we meet Tatiana. Tatiana is small, blonde, fragile, selfless, innocent, frail, a lover of poetry, tiny, a complete innocent who doesn’t know what she does to men, delicate. She often finds herself unable to stand up around Alexander because she has feelings, but she is resourceful enough to predict the Siege of Leningrad well ahead of time to buy extra bread and make croutons to sustain her family.

Tiny, small, fragile Tatiana! Those brutal tides just sweep and sweep her! During the course of the book she survives the following:

  • a train station suddenly bombed during which she buries herself under dead bodies;
  • the Siege of Leningrad, in which she nearly starves but for croutons and Alexander;
  • a terrifying evacuation to the country, during which she has to cross a frozen river at night with people dying all around her;
  • more starvation;
  • being stalked by a man with a “Russian face: broad, slightly washed out features, as if the colors had all run dry. His nose was wide and turned up, his lips extremely thin;”*
  • standing up for three days;
  • more walking in snow;
  • pneumonia;
  • TB. Yes. Tatiana had a slight case of tuberculosis.

Thank God there’s Alexander. Alexander of the ice cream and/or molasses eyes. He has all the medals for valor, and Tatiana wants him to rest, because he is so overworked. When he’s not bravely and single-handedly turning the Germans out of Russia, he’s also traveling great distances so that he can be on hand to save Tatiana from whatever late calamity has befallen her, be it a bombed train station or her abusive family.

But consummate lover that he is, Alexander pauses in his brave deeds long enough to take Tatiana’s virginity in a scene that includes such deathless dialogue as:

“Tania (Tatiana), you are too much for me. I can’t take you, not in small doses, not in large doses, not here, not on the street. Nowhere….”

“Shura (Alexander) I’m going to die.”

“No, Tatia (Tatiana).”

“Breathe on me…”

He breathed on her.

He’s a lover of such skill and passion that he brings Tatiana, who didn’t even know what intercourse was, really, to an earthshattering orgasm, possibly by caressing her nipples in circles. Her screams of joy are such that a nurse comes running to her aid. Because Alexander took her viriginity in the hospital bed where Tatiana’s laid up with broken ribs and a broken leg. 

Sometimes Tatiana resists Alexander’s herculean efforts to protect her from her own goodness and innocence, at which point he curses mildly, shouts loudly, punches a wall inches from her face, or screams things like “don’t make me more crazy!” before entreating her with sweet phrases like “this frantic wretch begs you, please leave!”

Like the war, The Bronze Horseman seems never-ending. Like the Energizer Bunny of awful books, it keeps going and going and going…

I didn’t think it was possible to write a boring book about the Siege of Leningrad and the Russian front, but I was wrong. I’ve ever read anything as mind-numbingly, soul-crushingly boring. Dramatic scenes — many very true to history — are buried in melodrama. Then additional melodrama is piled onto history and/or melodrama. Unnecessary scenes last past any reasonable point. Pointless, often repetitive dialogue, dripping with so many adjectives and adverbs, fills page after page after page.

The Bronze Horseman gets zero croutons. Tatiana gets zero ice creams. Alexander gets zero stars for valor.

*One of the most puzzling aspects of The Bronze Horseman is the depiction of Russians in general. Russian men are almost always drunken, abusive thugs. Russian women — aside from Tatiana — are almost always sluttish or stupid. Characters are described using “Soviet” the way you’d use a racial slur. The quality of the book makes it difficult for me to tell whether is intentional or just lazy characterization, so I’ll not pass judgment.

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Friday Fun: What I Am Reading Right Now

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Fine. That’s not me. That’s Veronica Lake. But if you think I don’t actually sit around reading in turbans and gaudy jewelry, then you’re wrong, jack. (via tumblr.com)

 

It’s Friday, darlings! That means two whole days when work will not interfere with my reading! So what am I reading?

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I spent most of yesterday evening sitting in a doctor’s office, reading Kathryn Lynn Davis’ Child of Awe in an e-book reprint. First published in 1987, this is an old-fashioned Scottish clans romance saga, and saga it is; I read the equivalent of 40 Kindle pages, and our heroine, Muriella, is still indeed a child. However, she was being abducted by our ostensible hero, John Campbell, just as I was finally called in for my appointment, so there’s hope she’ll make adulthood before I am old enough for Social Security.

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Ouch. I should have warned you to put on sunglasses before taking a look at this 1969 edition of Jane Beaufort’s A Nightingale in the Sycamore.

Virginia dearly loved the Meadow House, which had been left to her by her father along with sundry debts, and it was unthinkable that she should have to sell it. Yet the “sundry debts” looked like making this a necessity… until Fate took a hand. A car accident deposited, practically on her doorstep, a well-known pianist and composer the young and handsome Charles Digby Wickham. For some weeks the charming but temperamental Charles could not be moved, to the annoyance of the young doctor who attended him at Meadow House and who was himself in love with Virginia; but his advent is the turning point in Virginia’s life — both financially and, definitely, romantically!

I actually hunted this one down because I thought I had read it before, only to realize that this plot is eerily similar to a book I love: Carla Kelly’s wonderful Libby’s London Merchant, a Regency nonetheless!

I’ve always said that the Mills & Boon romances of the 1940s-1960s have more in common with historical romance — particularly Traditional Regencies — than with what we think of as contemporary romance, but I never realized the link was that direct.

 

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Yes, yes, I know you don’t come here for non-fiction, but to be perfectly honest, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven is my first-line read this week.

What will you read this weekend, lovelies?


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Classic Review: The Cockermouth Mail by Dinah Dean

In which Sir Richard and Dorcas appear to be escaping a 1980s music video via the Cockermouth Mail…

Was she a fool to believe in miracles?

Miss Dorcas Minster was penniless and without prospects. She had no choice but to accept a position as governess in Cockermouth, a remote town in the English Lake District.

Resolved to make the best of her bleak future, Dorcas was not surprised when the stage-coach she was travelling in was waylaid by an accident. She and her fellow passengers were forced to seek refuge in a nearby inn. So much did she enjoy the assorted company that she found herself wishing to be stranded forever.

One passenger in particular, the dashing Colonel, Sir Richard Severall, was of special interest to Dorcas. And it seemed as if she was of special interest to him. Fate had delivered her into the hands of love. If only she could be certain Sir Richard returned her affection.

A distinct “is this all there is?” is usually the result when I read a romance that reviewers gush about.

With that in mind, I was understandably loath to pick up The Cockermouth Mail. Dinah Dean’s Regency romance, first published in 1982, is touted as one of the best of the classic Traditional Regencies by Regency lovers on message boards and blogs throughout Romancelandia.

I prepared myself for disappointment. Penniless governess, returning soldier, a convenient stranding in an inn, a mystery involving a highwayman who’s robbing mail coaches — there’s nothing in The Cockermouth Mail I hadn’t seen a hundred times before.

But darlings, The Cockermouth Mail is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It more than lives up to its reputation.

The mail coach is a common Regency trope for creating meet-cute and convenient stranding for the hero and heroine, but I’ve never seen a mail coach employed quite the way Dean does in The Cockermouth Mail. She uses the peculiar etiquette, the protocol and the actual operation of the mail coach as a hub, with the characters and plot as the spokes on the wheel. No character in the book, and very few of the plot points do not, in some way, come back to the mail coach.

The mail coach signals how far Dorcas has fallen in the world; she’s forced to find and pay for her own transportation to her new position, which leaves her purse light and her virtue in question. Other travelers on her journey notice, and occasionally judge her by her unchaperoned appearance on such a questionable conveyance.

The mail coach brings her together with Richard, a landed and wealthy soldier who’s been invalided out of service following the Peninsular Campaign. The continual delays in the journey, due to weather, allow Richard to realize that Dorcas is unable to pay for a meal and thus learn the reasons for her destitution.

The mail coach strands them at an inn where the travelers, forced to spend Christmas in a strange town, celebrate as best they can, a particularly bittersweet happenstance for Dorcas, who knows she’s enjoying a last bit of freedom for the duration. The roads to Cockermouth are impassable for most of the winter, see, it will be spring before another mail coach returns.

You’d be forgiven if you reach this point of The Cockermouth Mail and think,  “Yes, the mail coach is cute, but this surely this leads to nothing more than the usual shotgun wedding following an unavoidable indiscretion.”

Well, yes and no. There were several stages in the book (see what I did there?) where I fully expected Richard to act accordingly and offer for Dorcas’ hand. You even see him on the verge a time or two, but there are a few other tropes to get out of the way first.

All the most gifted authors in a genre as convention-bound as the Traditional Regency find a way to use familiar constructions as building blocks. Dean does that brilliantly, and the best example is Richard’s hidebound hero-with-a-limp-or-other-imperfection inferiority complex. You keep waiting for it, but it never appears until the mail coach overturns during a sudden snow storm. Richard cannot travel on foot with the rest of the group. Dorcas, who is already beginning to recognize her feelings for Richard, stays behind with him to await help. The storm intensifies, Richard’s disability renders him helpless, and the consequences are nearly fatal for both he and Dorcas. It makes for reading that’s harrowing and touching by turns, and afterward, one can easily understand Richard’s resistance to his growing affection for Dorcas.

But as with all the best romances,  the resistance is the sweetest part. Richard and Dorcas are both lovely, and each encounter between them is imbued with burgeoning awareness and real affinity. All the while, Dean is deftly building toward a baited-breath climax and an HEA — including one of the few epilogues I can say truly adds to the story — that these two characters deserve.

The Cockermouth Mail could have easily become Dorcas and Richard’s Tale of Woe but it never does. The darker themes of the book are leavened by humor at almost every turn, much of it surrounding that infamous mail coach. It’s the best Traditional Regency I’ve read in a long time, and I can’t recommend it enough.

I give The Cockermouth Mail – book and coach route – five horses that do not bite or kick at the traces. (Richard and Dorcas get five hot brandy toddies and five snuggly blankets!)

 


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Review: Nocturne For a Widow by Amanda DeWees

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First off, how much do you love that cover for Nocturne For a Widow? I love the colors, the composition, and most of all that silhouette.

That gorgeous cover is not all  Nocturne For a Widow has to recommend it. If you missed my synopsis when Sweet Rocket did the cover reveal, here’s a taste of what you can expect inside:

Widowed on her wedding night!

Sybil Ingram is at a crossroads. Once she was the toast of the London stage, but by 1873 her draw isn’t what it used to be, and her theater troupe is foundering. When her trusted mentor asks her to take the blame for his financial misdeeds, Sybil sees no choice but to retire from the life she loves and move to America to marry New York City hotel magnate Alcott Lammle. But her path to happiness is cut short when Lammle dies suddenly–and in financial ruin.

Widowed, nearly penniless, and unable to return to England, the determined diva sets out to stake a claim on Brooke House, an eccentric Gothic revival manor in the wilds of the Hudson River Valley. She soon finds, however, that a ghostly presence wants her gone. Even worse, her claim is challenged by the most insolent, temperamental, maddeningly gorgeous man she’s ever met: Roderick Brooke, a once-famous former violinist whose career ended in a dark scandal.

Soon it’s a battle of wills as Sybil matches wits–and trades barbs–with Roderick, finding herself increasingly drawn to him despite her growing suspicion that there is a connection between him and the entity that haunts Brooke House. But an even greater threat arises in the form of the mysterious, powerful queen of local society, Mrs. Lavinia Dove. For reasons that Sybil can’t imagine, Mrs. Dove is determined to oust Sybil from her sphere . . . and the lengths to which she will go are chilling indeed.

By turns mysterious and moving, sparkling and spooky, Nocturne for a Widow follows a spirited heroine through adventures in life, love, and death. From the colorful theatrical world of late-Victorian London to the American wilderness, Sybil’s travels will test her mettle–and her heart.

As I was reading Nocturne For a Widow, two authors’ works kept coming to mind: Barbara Michaels’ historical Gothics, and Deanna Raybourne’s Lady Julia Gray mysteries. It’s hard to heap higher praise on an author than to compare her to either of those authors, both of whom weave important but too-often overlooked elements into their spooky tales — wit and humor. It’s a hard balance to strike, but like Raybourne and Michaels, Amanda DeWees does it wonderfully.

If you’ve found Gothic romances too cobwebby and suffocating, then DeWees’ books, especially Nocturne For a Widow, will disabuse you of those notions. A sprinkling of cheeky wit was but one of the standout features of DeWees’ Gothic historical debut, Sea of Secrets and her follow-up Gothic With This Curse  and with Nocturne For a Widow, she brings that delicious humor to the forefront, creating characters and a plot that balance classic Gothic suspense and lighthearted humor so deftly that she nearly creates an entirely new genre — the cozy Gothic romance.

We Gothic lovers are unused to heroines who are not the overlooked governess, the plain-but-bright orphan, or the tragic beauty, which is why Sybil Ingram is such a revelation. Beautiful, vivacious and ever-so-funny, Sybil makes the perfect foil for each and every pathos-laden situation DeWees throws her way, from marrying for money only to find herself widowed immediately to arriving at a desolate and clearly disturbed estate to dealing with unhinged would-be spiritualists. She’s never daunted, never cowers, and if Sybil blunders into that proverbial dark at the top of the stairs more than once, it’s never for being too clueless to know better. Our Sybil’s just that fearless and self-assured, two few-and-far-between qualities in the Gothic heroine.

It spoils nothing to reveal that Sybil goes to Brooke House expecting a pitifully neglected young stepson to go with the forgotten estate, only to find that her stepson is fully grown and anything but pitiful. That’s where our hero, Roderick makes his stomping, bellowing and unforgettable entrance. No Gothic romance is complete without a haunted hero, and Roderick Brooke is one you’ll remember long after you’ve put Nocturne down. Roderick is, in fact, where the Barbara Michaels connection comes to the fore; if you loved Michaels’ Master of Blacktower and its blustering, howling and yet endearingly vulnerable hero, Gavin Hamilton, then Roderick Brooke is just the hero for you. His and Sybil’s interactions crackle with chemistry, and theirs is a happy ending that you hope is just the beginning.

And is it just a beginning? If you paid close attention to Nocturne’s gorgeous cover, you couldn’t have missed “Sybil Ingram: Book One” at the very top. It’s my dearest hope that this is but our first adventure with Sybil and Roderick, and that we can look forward to more of their fabulous chemistry together to come.

I give Nocturne For a Widow five suitcases that just won’t stay where you leave them. I know you’ll just love it.

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Nocturne For a Widow by Amanda DeWees

Amazon Digital Services, Inc.: 2014

Available in ebook and paperback at Amazon

Looking for something to read when you finish Nocturne For a Widow? Try these, precious:

With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

A Bed of Thorns and Roses by Sondra Allen Carr


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A Real-Life Pilgrim Romance… Maybe?

An engraving from Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish.”

Happy Thanksgiving, sweety darlings!

So in my search for Thanksgiving-themed romances for the Sweet Rocket Tumblr, I ran across a Pilgrim romance I’d completely forgotten: The Courtship of Miles Standish.

I’m hardly the only one who has forgotten The Courtship of Miles Standish; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic 1858 poem about friendship and unrequited love in Plymouth Colony is relegated now to the realms of high school American literature textbooks and scholars of American literature.

Based upon real people and dramatizing (and speculating upon) real events, The Courtship of Miles Standish recasts the Pilgrims’ progress in Plymouth Colony in the light of a love triangle that may or may not have been a fact.

The principals in The Courtship of Miles Standish were all real members of the Plymouth Colony. The best known is, of course, Miles (or Myles) Standish, the Englishman hired by the Pilgrims as a military advisor, who became a leader in the colony’s fledgling government. Our other male lead, John Alden, was another Englishman, hired as a cooper (barrel maker) who also became an important figure in the colony’s governorship, as well.

Our heroine is Priscilla Mullins, who’d come from England on the Mayflower with her mother, father and siblings, all of whom perished in that first hard winter in the colony. About half the colony was lost that winter, most of them women and children, the marriageable women who remained were a hot commodity.

Another woman lost during that winter was Rose Standish. Rose Standish is sometimes referred to as Miles Standish’s wife, sometimes by the more vague term of “consort.” Either way, once she passed, Miles Standish was another of the colony’s men who were in need of a wife.

In Longfellow’s poem, Standish and Alden have become roommates and friends who share confidences. Standish, a stout 35 or so, grieving for Rose and seeing the teenage Priscilla in need of the protection of a husband, sends young Alden to present his suit to Priscilla.

Little does Standish know that Alden’s nursing a tendre for Priscilla himself; less does he know that Priscilla’s bolder than Alden, who gives her the hard sell on Standish’s behalf, and when he’s done, says “why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”

Much sturm and drang ensues. Standish roars and howls and calls Alden Brutus. Alden puffs up and proclaims himself the victor. Natives pose a threat and Standish chases them, all the while decrying Alden’s perfidy and the nature of women. Standish is rumored to have been slain, and Alden and Priscilla mourn, but carry on with their wedding preparations. And lo, on the day of the wedding, who should appear but Standish, ready to beg the forgiveness of his friend and wish the bride well. Cue the happily ever after.

Longfellow’s lusty (so far as lust in mainstream literature in the Victorian era was possible) Pilgrims were a revelation to American and English readers accustomed to thinking of the Pilgrims as dour Puritans. As Frances D. Leach writes for the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Love & Legend: The Courtship of Miles Standish,

(Captain) Miles Standish appears as a swash-buckling hero, brave but inarticulate and somewhat peevish. Handsome young John Alden is torn between his devotion to the Captain and his love for the Pilgrim maiden. Priscilla, despite her domestic virtues, speaks her mind in the manner of a modern feminist. Longfellow could tell a romantic tale, and in so doing, he made the names of these three Pilgrims household words across the nation.

Most modern readers know Longfellow more by name than for his work, having been exposed to excerpts and his shorter poems in the schoolroom, but Longfellow was the superstar historical romance writer of his day. His epic poems based upon American history were bestsellers in book form, and often adapted to the stage and song. The Courtship of Miles Standish was a sensation with mid-Victorian era readers; published as a book, the poem sold 25,000 in its first two months in print, and was rumored to have sold 10,000 copies in London in a single day.

But how much of Longfellow’s story was true?

Longfellow claimed to have heard the story of the Standish-Alden-Mullins love triangle, from his family, and as his mother was a direct descendant of Plymouth settlers, this is a possibility. His poem compresses much of the action of the first two years of the colony’s existence, but hews fairly close to the facts as known.

As for that love triangle, there was further precedent for this legend in an 1814 book by one Timothy Alden, bearing the typical early 19th century title A Collection of American Epitaphs and Inscriptions With Occasional Notes. In this volume, Alden writes that:

In a very short time after the decease of Mrs. Standish, the captain was led to think, that, if he could obtain miss Priscilla Mullins, a daughter of Mr. William Mullins, the breach in his family would be happily repaired. He, therefore, according to the custom of those times, sent to ask Mr. Mullins’ permission to visit his daughter. John Alden, the messenger, went and faithfully communicated the wishes of the captain. The old gentleman… said it was perfectly agreeable to him, but the young lady must also be consulted. The damsel was then called into the room, and John Alden, who is said to have been a man of most excellent form with a fair and ruddy complexion, arose, and, in a very courteous and prepossessing manner, delivered his errand. Miss Mullins listened with respectful attention, and at last, after a considerable pause, fixing her eyes upon him, with an open and pleasant countenance, said, “prithee, John, why do you not speak for yourself?” He blushed, and bowed, and took his leave, but with a look, which indicated more, than his diffidence would
permit him otherwise to express. However, he soon renewed his visit, and it was not long before their nuptials were celebrated in ample form… What report he made to [Standish]… tradition does not unfold; but it is said, how true the writer knows not, that the captain never forgave him to the day of his death.

So Longfellow might have made Standish a more upstanding man than he was, but John Alden and Priscilla’s happily ever after seems fair enough: John and Priscilla went on to have ten children. Of that number, Sarah Alden, the fourth, married one Alexander Standish, the second of seven children from the union of Miles Standish and Barbara Standish.


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The Saga of Sara Seale and Maggy

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The 1944 hardcover edition of House of Glass with its beautiful artwork.

There’s a very good reason that so many romance novels are retellings of classic fairy tales. Both fairy tales and romance novels exist in a realm of pure magical thinking where suspension of disbelief is the norm, fantastic characters can seem if not ordinary then sympathetic, and situations we’d never accept as possible or even attractive in real life are not only acceptable but somehow believable.

You need that kind of fairy tale mindset if you’re going to enjoy vintage Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances. If the author is Sara Seale, magical thinking is required.

Though she’s all but forgotten now, Seale was one of Mills & Boon’s earliest superstar authors. Most of her books were written and first published in the 1930s-1940s, when the worlds she creates were slightly more possible, and the characters who populate those worlds a bit less disturbing. Of the ten or so Seale books I’ve read, in all but one, the hero is much older than the heroine, and is usually in some position of authority over the heroine. Hers are the predecessors to all those boss-secretary and nurse-doctor romances that accounted for 90% of the Mills & Boon output from the 1950s through the late 1980s.

But Seale takes this tried and true romance formula to places I would never have imagined. Almost all her heroines are teenagers or just barely over 18, poor and very innocent. A good half of Seale’s books are 20th century updates of that Regency staple, the guardian/ward romance, and she seems to have been heavily influenced by the work of Jean Webster, famous for Daddy Long-Legs, that immortal story of the orphan who falls in love with her anonymous — and much older — benefactor. In one of Seale’s books, the aptly titled Orphan Bride, the hero, bitter and disappointed in love, actually picks the heroine out from an orphanage and places her with his aunt and uncle so that he might oversee the raising of his future wife.  

It’s a testament to Seale’s talent that she can make these cringe-inducing plots work almost as often as not. The best of her books — and there are several that are undeservedly forgotten gems — are coming-of-age stories, where we see the heroine through a year or more, growing from an adolescent into a woman, with the hero coming to love her as the woman she becomes.

But in all of Seale’s oeurve, House of Glass/Maggy stands as one of her more bizarre waif/older man stories. On the surface, it’s nothing readers of historical and Gothic romance haven’t seen a million times; that Seale wrote it as a contemporary in 1944, and Mills & Boon/Harlequin kept reissuing it as a contemporary as late as the 1970s is what makes the book such a curio.

Here is the synopsis for the book as it was issued in 1944, under the title House of Glass:

Maggy was young, alone in the world after her father’s death, untrained and too inexperienced to make much of a way in life; although she had a job of sorts, as companion/dogsbody to a tyrannical old lady, life did not seem to be holding out much of a future for her. Garth Shelton, years older than Maggy, crippled and embittered, was indifferent to anything that life might have in store for him. All the same he was touched by young Maggy’s plight – and in a quixotic fit he proposed marriage to her as the one way in which she could escape. And so began their strange life together – a marriage that was no marriage, between two people who might yet come to realise their growing feelings for each other, if only Maggy could forget the one barrier to Garth’s loving her – his former love, the elusive and lovely Sabrina.

“Don’t shut me out” she begged. “Please!” Maggy knew her words violated the terms of their relationship. But she was no longer the immature girl who had married Garth with no thought to the future. Even Garth had changed. He had thought nothing mattered, saw no reason to live. But the strange months of their marriage had revealed startling chinks in his armor of detachment. Could she now persuade him to grasp the one chance that might give them a full life together?

If it tells you anything about what’s in store for you when reading House of Glass, I was under the impression I was reading an historical Gothic romance (my mistake; it was a strange library edition of the late 70s Mills & Boon release that I picked this with a bunch of Gothic paperbacks at a library book sale).

Everything about the book screamed Gothic. The book’s early 20th century setting is so vague that, until cars are mentioned, it may have taken place at any time between 1820-1950. Maggy and Garth meet at an invalid spa in what might have been Harrogate or Bath in a Regency (all we lacked was a mention of taking the waters). I don’t remember Maggy’s age, rightly, but she’s definitely less than twenty, whereas Garth is maybe thirty-five.

At this point, the book becomes a cross between Rebecca and a guardian/ward romance; Garth whisks Maggy off to a draughty, isolated castle in Ireland, populated by maids who tell tales of banshees and a housekeeper who is devoted to the Sheltons — or the Shelton women, at least, of which Maggy will never be, so far as the housekeeper is concerned. On her way to her happily ever after, Maggy is disdained by most of the servants and Garth’s chilly relations, teased with hints and clues about the elusive Sabrina, led to a near-fatal drowning in a bog (yes, a bog) by the awful housekeeper, and almost led astray by a local boy who gives her the attention Garth will not (this, by the way, is another familiar device in Seale’s books — the near-seduction of the innocent by a fellow adolescent).

In the best of Seale’s books, the interactions between the hero and heroine build slowly but surely toward the HEA, and House of Glass is no different. The book lags in the middle, with Garth and Maggy not spending enough quality time together, but almost all the interactions between Garth and Maggy are memorable and poignant. If Maggy is irritatingly naive at times, and Garth snappish, they are most times so kind to each other.  Throughout the story, they’re always giving each other thoughtful little gifts, each symbolic of the way their relationship grows.

House of Glass definitely hits its stride toward the end, and if it never reaches anything nearing passion, it is precious. The book has one of the most unusual endings I’ve ever read in a romance novel, one that was not out of keeping for mainstream novels of the 1940s, but so unlike the usual M&B ending that it’s a wonder it was not revised.

Speaking of the period… As a contemporary, even for the 1940s, this book utterly fails. The clearly mid-century references — cars, telephones, Maggy’s lack of training for a job — are jarring and seem added after the fact. The medical diagnoses/treatments seem Draconian for even the first half of the 20th century. There are also a few strange ethnic references (something you unfortunately encounter often when reading vintage Mills & Boon books).

Which begs the question that is the next point of this rambling — and far too long — post: what on earth possessed Mills & Boon, to say nothing of Harlequin, to keep reprinting this book as late as the 1970s, and as a contemporary?

And Mills & Boon was indeed hellbent on marketing the book as a contemporary, going so far as to retitle it as the jaunty Maggy at least twice, with covers that placed the story squarely in the 1960s and 1970s.  The time travel was strange enough — the covers themselves were baffling.

maggyhouseofglass2 maggy2

For one Maggy cover, we have a mid-1960s collage that jumps on the nurse romance bandwagon, and has absolutely nothing to do with the story. For the early-1970s Maggy cover, our heroine has become a thirteen year-old hippie.

But the strangest cover by far is for a later 1970s edition of House of Glass. This was likely the cover that should have accompanied the library edition, and it’s interesting that even without it, I still took the book for a Gothic — it the classic hero-menacing-the-terrified-heroine Gothic cover. It also makes little more sense than the other post-1950s House of Glass covers. As Garth is wheelchair bound, it seems more than a little impossible that he’d be looming over Maggy; since the scene never happens in the book, it’s disingenuously random.

So there you have the strange saga of Sara Seale’s Maggy. As a final aside, this story was evidently dear to Seale’s heart — she repurposed the majority of the book’s content for one of her later novels, The Gentle Prisoner, which was also reprinted numerous times from the late 1940s through the 1970s.

To bring this train wreck to a smoking conclusion, I give Maggy/House of Glass four pieces of imitation Waterford crystal. If you are a fan of vintage Mills & Boon or Gothic romances, it’s worth hunting down.


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Book Review: With This Curse by Amanda DeWees

There’s a curse at work here, all right. The kind that makes a book impossible to put down.

It’s no secret that I love a true Gothic romance better than almost any other romance genre, but the problem is finding new ones to read — discovering a well-written Gothic published since Gerald Ford was in office is almost impossible.

And then there was Amanda DeWees, who has, in the course of just two years, managed to publish not one but two wonderful Gothics. I considered the first, Sea of Secretsa revelation. Her latest, With This Curse, is even better.

Without further ado, here’s the synopsis, courtesy of DeWees’ website:

In 1854, seventeen-year-old chambermaid Clara Crofton was dismissed from Gravesend Hall for having fallen in love with Richard Blackwood, the younger son of the house. Alone in the world, Clara found a tenuous position as a seamstress, but she always blamed the Gravesend curse for the disaster that had befallen her—and for Richard’s death soon after in the Crimean War.

A proposal…

Now, more than eighteen years later, Richard’s twin, Atticus, seeks out Clara with a strange proposal: if she will marry him and live with him as his wife in name only to ease the mind of his dying father, Atticus will then endow her with a comfortable income for the rest of her life. Clara knows that he is not disclosing his true motives, but when she runs out of options for an independent life, she has no choice but to become Atticus’s wife.

A deception…

For Clara, returning to Gravesend as a bride brings some triumph… but also great unease. Not only must she pretend to be a wellborn lady and devoted wife to a man whose face is a constant reminder of the love she lost, but ominous portents whisper that her masquerade brings grave danger. “This house will take from you what you most treasure,” her mother once warned her. But the curse has already taken the man Clara loved. Will it now demand her life?

As I was reading With This Curse, I thought over and over of how Dean James of Mystery Scene summed up the death of the 1970s Gothic Revival:

A fair number of [1970s-era Gothics] featured dimwitted heroines who went into that proverbial dark room at the head of the stairs with no thought to the danger within, and if they had been murdered, well, it would have been little more than they deserved.

I thought of that observation not because Clara is dimwitted, but because it crystallized the secret to With This Curse’s success — making the danger Clara faces real.

Just as I raved of Oriel from Sea of Secrets, Clara is a rare worthy successor to that grandmother of all Gothic heroines, Jane Eyre. We still talk about and read Jane Eyre today because Charlotte Bronte created a heroine that didn’t blunder into the proverbial dark room with no thought to danger, but because she was pushed into it.  Every time she steps into the dark room — becoming a governess at a house with a bad reputation, marrying Rochester, running away from Rochester — it’s because of the limited choices available to her as an impoverished, unmarried woman. That’s the horror of Jane Eyre. 

That’s also why With This Curse works so well. The book is so well-grounded in the setting — mid-Victorian England — that it’s easy to understand why Clara, too, goes to the dark room by agreeing to marry Atticus and return to a house where she has known little but unhappiness. So few so-called historical romances truly make the reader understand the limitations women faced in less enlightened eras — probably because we wouldn’t read them if they did — that when these limitations are used to create real drama in the plot, it’s surprising and refreshing.

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

It’s not just Clara’s plight that DeWees employs to create the almost stifling sense of doom that pervades the book. DeWees ratchets up the mystery in the book by imbuing the commonplace with portent. DeWees proves that you don’t need mummies rattling chains to make a horror story — Victorian England is scary enough.

Women who stray from the straight and narrow come to terrible ends. Children are mistreated as a matter of course. The hero’s congenital physical imperfection is seen as a mark of a curse, as is an ancestor’s madness. Atticus’ cretin of a father, in keeping with the ghoulish-to-us Victorian obsession with mourning, collects death masks. Neither the mystery that’s at the heart of the story or the other weird happenings that create a spooky atmosphere are supernatural; rather, they are horrible for how natural they are, how easily they could happen during the Victorian era.   

Which is not to say that With This Curse is a joyless slog. As with any DeWees book, you are treated to beautifully written prose, excellent plotting and great characterization.

Clara is prickly, but in the best way possible, and like Jane Eyre, is witty and perfect in her imperfections. She’s a little older and wiser than most Gothic heroines, which makes her even more fun to read. Atticus quickly became one of my favorite Gothic heroes. He’s one of few heroes in the genre who is genuinely funny, kind and delightful, even as he struggles with the ghosts that haunt Gravesend Hall. Not Scooby Doo ghosts, mind you, but the real ghosts that haunt any home — memories and long-standing family dynamics that can stir up more trouble than a whole passel of the bedsheet variety of ghosts.

The romance that develops between Atticus and Clara is believable and touching; they complement each other so well, with Clara’s dryness the perfect foil to Atticus’ sweet vulnerability. They are both misfits, in their own ways, and it’s easy to see how these two are drawn together, and you are really rooting for their HEA.

I should end this review right here, but I can’t without mentioning Clara’s career as a seamstress for a famous stage actress. The brief foray we’re given into the Victorian theater world is fascinating, and for someone who could usually care less about suchlike stuff, the descriptions of the dresses are so engrossing — you owe it to yourself to visit DeWees’ Pinterest page to get an idea of Clara’s work.

I give With This Curse 5 out of 5 creepy death masks. Atticus gets 5 jaunty walking sticks, while Clara gets 5 dresses of her own design, sewn by someone else!

Enough of my yammering. Just read With This Curse already. But make sure you have several hours to kill, or don’t have anything to do tomorrow, because you won’t be able to put it down.

With This Curse

Amanda DeWees

Published 2014

Available at:

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

And when you’re done, read Sea of Secrets if you haven’t already!