I wrote a bit back about Cecelia Grant’s novel A Lady Awakened. As I said, I loved it all the way up until the last fifth or so, when everything got resolved happily, causing me to be deeply depressed.
After taking some time to get over my disappointment though, I girded my bits, and read the next two novels in the series: “A Gentleman Undone” and “A Woman Entangled.” Neither was really quite up to A Lady Awakened…until the end, when both were (not coincidentally) less disappointing.
The main difference between books 2 and 3 and book 1 is that 1 is more ambitious. In the first place, the lovers face much more serious difficulties Martha in book 1 has just lost her abusive husband, and needs a child and heir if she is to keep her place, so she hires her neighbor, Mirkwood, to sleep with her. Her husband abused her as well — the book is in many ways a long, painful ode to the powerlessness of women in that age. Moreover, while books 2 and 3 mostly stick to working for the happiness of their couples, book 1 spreads out to include the entire countryside, and the farmers and families for whom, as landowners, Martha and Mirkwood are responsible.
The ambition in book 1 is definitely part of its energy; book 3, deals with two bland social climbers who are pallid nonentities both compared to the courageous, broken, determined Martha, and the social milieu of drawing rooms and society barely registered compared to the multi-class social world of the first book, complete with importunate pig. But ultimately, book 1 buckles beneath its own sweep. I can believe that those two pallid nonentities in book 3 could get together and make each other happy; why shouldn’t they? I can believe that the wounded soldier and the fallen woman in book 2 could heal each other — a little more of a stretch, but not impossible. But that circumstances should fit together to not only extricate Martha from her own predicament, but that Martha and Mirkwood’s love should be so perfect as to spread peace and happiness throughout the hinterlands…it’s just not credible. Romantic love is not the solution to all social ills; two people, no matter how worthy, having good sex and meaningful conversation just is not going to feed the hungry nor (as book 1 suggests) abolish rape and violence.
This is one way, perhaps, in which a fantasy YA romance like Twilight, or The Host or for that matter, Tabico’s insect-sex apocalypse, have an advantage over the regency. the realism of the regency requires some grounding in probabilities; the gestures at social realism interfere with the sweeping fanciful dreams. Fantasy or sci-fi, though, mark their fantasies more clearly as fantasies. Love can save the world — provided it’s vampire love, or love with larva. I also appreciate the horror elements in both Twilight and Adaptation; the sense that, if the personal and sexual were to become social, the social would have to change in ways which would be not just beautiful, but traumatic. The revolution requires blood, of one form or another, or at least a transformation more thoroughgoing, and more potentially disturbing, than just marrying that nice landowner next door.
Though maybe, on the other hand, there is something uncanny and disturbing about regency’s, after all. The end of book 1 (A Lady Awakened), where problems fall away and everyone starts to have their personalities scooped out to be replaced with a sickly sweet happiness; that’s not utterly different form Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Or the way that, certainly by book 3, you know as soon as their introduced who is going to end up with whom, so that the rest of the novel becomes disturbingly like watching watching lifeless mannikins speak and walk and perform like human beings — there’s an uncanny valley charge there as well. If horror can often be read against itself to provide a happy ending for the monster, perhaps romance, too, can be seen not as a triumph of love, but as a beakly mocking, knowing patomime of despair.