Sweet Rocket

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The Saga of Sara Seale and Maggy

houseofglass

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.

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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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Review Twofer: Second Sight and Suddenly Love by Rebecca Flanders

I don’t know how I feel about Adam’s mustard-colored sweater, but I’m loving Jennifer’s boots!

Easily one of the worst early-1980s Harlequin American Romance covers, a feat not to be dismissed.

My guilty pleasure is vintage category romances, but the experience is often like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: for every melt-in-your-mouth truffle, you get three of those nasty nougat-y things that hurt your teeth and make you swear off Russell Stover for the duration. When you find an author like Rebecca Flanders, however, it’s like someone traded your Russell Stover box for a cute little bag of those Lindor Truffles — every one’s a winner.

I discovered Rebecca Flanders’ Harlequin backlist by way of Second Sight, which I found by Googling romance novels with librarian heroines (it’s for a project I’m working on — I have a great job 😉 ). One thing led to another, as it usually does with me and books, and within days (okay, hours) of finishing Second Sight, I’d also polished off Suddenly Love.  

Here are the synopses:

 

Second Sight

Harlequin American Romance, 1984

She gave him two gifts: her love and second sight
Normally, Jennifer Kiel was the head librarian in the town of Southworth, Massachusetts, but on that bright autumn day Jennifer had donned cape and veil, transforming herself into Madame Voltaire, the fortune-teller of Southworth’s annual fair. Somehow, Adam Wilson found his way to Madame Voltaire’s tent-and two lives were changed forever.
For Jennifer, who suffered a “condition,” who’d led a quiet life in which very little was allowed to happen, Adam was an unexpected gift. And for Adam, who’d been running away from himself, trying to outdistance time, Jennifer was the miracle he’d never thought he would find….

Suddenly Love

Harlequin American Romance, 1984

Her life was routine until suddenly love…
In the time it took to sneeze, Beth Greene hit him.
As he slumped over the hood of her car, she feared the worst, but the man insisted he was uninjured. Nevertheless, Beth drove him to her store, Greene Drugs, to administer first aid to a nasty scrape on his leg. It was then she discovered whom she’d hit: Corey Fletcher, the million-dollar face. Successful businessman, model, actor, racing car driver. Why was this jet-setter jogging down the peaceful streets of Virginia Beach? And worse, why did he keep returning?

If these synopses have you gritting your teeth against the unbearable sugary-ness, remember what I said about Russell Stover versus Lindor Truffles — like the best chocolates, Second Sight and Suddenly Love have that little bit of bite that keeps them from being cloyingly sweet. 

Second Sight really surprised me.  Jennifer and Adam may have the meet-cute for the ages, and there is an element of insta-love at work here, but as the story progresses and you get to know both characters better, both the meet-cute and the insta-love make sense, and the depiction of love in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business is revealed for the double-edged sword it often is.  

And, oh, these two crazy kids — Jennifer is a librarian, which gives her the winning combination of wisdom untold and utter unflappability, and Adam is a photojournalist who’s covered everything from war to soft-core porn. They fall in love (sorta) at the fair, but they really bond over a book, one that becomes important to the book’s secondary plot — an intellectual freedom battle in Jennifer’s library. The book (not a real book), The Tale of Elias Cotton, has “incest, rape, murder and explicit perversion… that precede Elias’s discovery of his own latent homosexuality” and naturally goes over like the proverbial turd in the punch bowl in tiny Southworth. Half the town, including Jennifer’s overprotective sister and brother-in-law, want to burn the book and fire Jennifer one after the other, and there’s a rousing scene in which Jennifer uses Shakespeare and the Bible as examples of works with similar content as The Tale of Elias Cotton. 

Oh, and there’s a love story, too. A very bittersweet love story, as both of  these characters have Big Secrets that I can’t give away without venturing into spoiler territory. Read it and weep, literally.

I knew after reading Second Sight that I had to read more Rebecca Flanders to know whether she was really as good as I thought. I chose Suddenly Love because it, too, works into an interest of mine — car racing as depicted in romance novels (I have theories about this like you wouldn’t believe. You’d think I was writing a master’s thesis).

Beth and Corey have a meet-cute that is even funnier than Jennifer and Adam’s. She’s suffering from a dilly of a cold, and hits him with her car while sneezing, then gets high on antihistamines and acts like a fool.

Beth is one of my all-time favorite small-town heroines, what with her almost-fiance who won’t commit, her bratty juvenile delinquent teenage nephew, and her dedication to her career as the owner of the only drugstore still selling ice-cream cones for a nickel. She’s happy with her life, and though she acknowledges her attraction to Corey from the get go, she’s not sure if she wants the disruption.

I was ready to dislike Corey early on. Flanders makes a near-misstep by making Corey too much. He’s an actor, a shill for a deodorant (actually, that part’s funny), and a genius in addition to being a racing driver. Thankfully, Flanders herself seems to lose interest in the acting and modeling, mentioning them only intermittently as the book progresses, focusing more on his racing career. 

And Corey is plenty larger than life as a racing driver. He wears bizarre clothing and often goes barefoot (more on that later). He shows up at Beth’s church in his bizarre clothing, much to her horror. He drunk dials and sends tacky flower arrangements. And he is adorable, and obviously crazy about Beth. You never get in Corey’s head — this is, after all, an early 1980s Harlequin — but the reader often knows better than Beth what Corey’s thinking.

“I don’t think you’re capable of talking seriously,” Beth tells Corey at one point. But by this time, the reader already knows that he always calls her Elizabeth when he’s serious. 

Beth’s big problem is his lifestyle, of course. One of the funniest parts of the book is when Corey tricks her into going to a racetrack to test a car with him. She’s disgusted by the racing groupies and the party atmosphere, where “a man with a shoulder-length braid asked her to go to bed with him. Just like that. She refused politely…” Okay, maybe you need to read the whole scene, but it’s funny.

Like Second Sight, the tone of Suddenly Love turns bittersweet as Beth and Corey try to fit each other into their very different lives. I will not spoil the story by going into the details, but the last three-quarters of the book will have you tearing up. 

What elevates both these books above the usual vintage (or new) contemporary is Flanders’ writing. She tends to get a little purple in the love scenes (both books have several) but otherwise, her prose and dialogue are among the best I’ve read in category romance.  In a wonderful scene in Second Sight, Adam is telling Jennifer about his progression from  a news photographer in Vietnam and to a photographer of Playboy-style centerfolds, expressing his revulsion for both assignments.

[Jennifer] said quietly, “are you as bitter as you sound?”
He refused to meet her eyes for a moment. “I hope not,” he said softly. And then, looking at her honestly, he added, “I try not to be.”

This exchange comes at a pivotal time in the development of their relationship, and tells so much about both characters.

That brings me to another point about what raises Flanders’ writing above other contemporaries — her heroes and heroines have lives outside of each other, and real careers. As a librarian and former newspaper reporter myself, I appreciated the very real, if dated, information Flanders gives about Jennifer and Adam’s careers. As for Beth and Corey, Beth’s job as a pharmacist and small business owner are so true to life, and also, surprisingly enough, is Corey’s career as a racing driver. Yes, you see the parties and the groupies, but you also see Corey at the tedious, smelly work of testing a car, and see him jet-lagged from a career that literally takes place on almost every continent.    

Second Sight and Suddenly Love are such an improvement over the usual Harlequin American Romance small town romances because Flanders really gives you a feel for the settings. Most of the small town Harlequins I’ve read fall into two categories: the ones where the small town serves as a cardboard background, or worse, the ones peopled with characters who seem to have no life outside of playing matchmaker to the heroine and/or hero. Suddenly Love’s Virginia Beach comes more alive as a town, but Second Sight nails the feel of a small town better — gossip abounds, everyone knows everyone else, and doctors still make house calls.

I give Second Sight 5 puppy-dog kisses. I give Suddenly Love 5 blowsy roses, and Corey 5 ugly printed shirts. YOU should give these two books a try! 

Two final notes about these wonderful books:

First, both books are very dated. From Jennifer’s stamping books and using card catalogs to Beth’s telegrams and Princess Diana hairdo, they are rooted in the very early 1980s. Personally, this is one of the things I love most about pre-1990s contemporaries; they are time capsules, in a sense, and reading them is more like reading historicals.

Second, but related — remember Corey’s awful wardrobe and predilection for wandering around barefoot? I am 99.9 percent certain that Corey is based upon a very popular Formula One racing driver of the 1970s, James Hunt. His physical description is very similar to James Hunt’s, as is his cheeky demeanor. To wit:

Hunt was also known for showing up at a racing banquet barefoot, and for wearing a patch on his racing coveralls that read “Sex: The Breakfast of Champions.” Just for informative purposes, Corey is the third racing driver romance novel hero I’ve come across who seems to owe a debt to James Hunt. Hunt, who died in 1993, was as large a personality in life as any of his fictional counterparts. He would have appreciated the gesture. 

More vintage contemporaries you might enjoy:

Heart in Hiding by Emma Richmond

Beyond All Reason by Judith Duncan

Bizarre Romance Novel Covers: Shadow of Celia by Elizabeth Jeffrey

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Here’s a cover so unintentionally icky that romance is the last thing on your mind.

I feel a little dirty just looking at this one. Especially when I consider that someone, somewhere thought this image of a little girl hugging her ostensible father would be just adorable.

Instead, she looks… strangely seductive. Sorta reminds me of what Graham Greene wrote about Shirley Temple.

If you can bear to look closer, check out the upper right hand corner. I’ll go ahead and disabuse you of the notion that the lurking blonde with murder in her eyes is the titular Celia — she’s not. Since this is a Harlequin, that’s our female protagonist. And yet? Relegated to the shadows by the little sexbot.

Just to round out the crazy, here’s the synopsis for this gem, courtesy of FictionDB:

Could she compete with a memory?

After her fiance’s death, Rachel had gone to Scotland to try to pick up the threads of her life.

Once there, however, her life became tangled with the lives of two others—an elfin-faced child who refused to speak after the tragic loss of her mother; and the ill-fated husband who must have truly adored his wife.

As governess, Rachel thought she could help Melanie. But there was nothing she could do for Richard Duncan, except fall in love with him!

Elfin-faced? That just adds insult to injury…