Over the past few months, I've increased my Twitter following to include political commentators, feminist news sources, various Hulks, and people whom I've ended up chatting with about subjects only tangentially related to romance novels. One of them is Jessica Luther, who is on Twitter as @scATX. Jessica likes romance, particularly historicals, and she asked if she could review a Meredith Duran novel she loved for me. Here is Jessica's bio:
Jessica is a trained historian of slavery and the early modern English empire and is currently working towards her PhD. She also is a reproductive rights activist and blogger. In her remaining time, she devours romance novels, specifically those set in the English regency period, though not necessarily so. She finds romance novels to be perfect antidotes to the heaviness of her research and her activism. When they have good history in them, it's even better. Jessica is the creator and editor of http://scatx.com.
Here is Jessica's review:
Duran's latest novel opens in 1709. Adrian is running through the countryside, hoping and praying that Nora, his beloved, has not married another. Without finding out what has happened, Duran transports us forward in time to 1715.
Nora is living alone at Hodderby, the home she grew up in. Riders come with a writ of Parliament, put everyone at Hodderby under arrest, and take over the premise in order to wait for the return of Nora's brother, David Colville, a possible traitor to the Crown. Leading the riders under the direct order of the King is Nora's former love, Adrian.
We soon learn that Nora's more formal name is Lady Towe, the name she took upon marriage to Lord Towe, her now-deceased husband. Adrian had, in fact, not made it in time to stop her wedding in 1709 and Nora and he have had almost no contact since that day. He has returned to Hodderby with the other riders to arrest David Colville upon Colville's expected return to England. Nora has vowed to protect her brother.
The underlying problem and tension of the work is that Nora and Adrian have never stopped loving each other, even if it takes them a while to acknowledge this (Nora longer than Adrian). The events that led her to marry another are revealed slowly over time. We find out that Adrian was from a Catholic family and has since rejected Catholicism for Protestantism, though sometime after Nora's wedding. We learn about Nora and Adrian's previous sexual relationship, that one perfect time in a meadow. And we find out why Nora and Adrian did not end up together, a terrible confluence of prejudice and poor timing.
I adore Duran's writing style. I find her choice of words and her pacing to be breathtaking at times. A perfect example of this is well into the story, when Nora is thinking back to an earlier, more difficult period of her life. Duran writes
“The memory of that time lived in her flesh. It overwhelmed her now, dark and suffocating, like the locks of her hair, fallen free of her pins, that snaked around her face and throat. She shoved them away, heedless of snarls, glad for the pain they caused as she ripped through them with her fingers.”
I can feel those words on my skin as I read them.
Perhaps more than anything else, though, my favorite aspect of this book is the larger historical and political context in which Duran places Adrian and Nora's story. In 1714, Queen Anne died. Her second cousin, George I, born in Hanover, Germany, was her closest Protestant relative. He ascended to throne, passing over dozens of closer Catholic relatives (there was a law in place at the time making it illegal for a Catholic to sit on the throne). This caused lots of discord – a foreigner ruling the country – and in August of 1715, the Riot Act went into effect, which allowed the Crown to search any house that may be harboring traitors. It was under the Riot Act that Adrian was able to enter and take over Hodderby.
Nora's brother, David, is in France, along with Nora's father. They opposed George I's accession and had gone to France to join the Jacobite effort to put James II, a Catholic, on the throne. The irony, of course, is that Adrian, the former Catholic, is the one in England defending the right of Protestant George to remain monarch, while the Colvilles, who opposed Adrian and Nora's wedding because of Adrian's Catholicism, are risking everything on a Catholic usurper.
Duran captures the feel of the uncertainty of this historical moment, as these actors try to position themselves in this political battle. It is not clear at all, as it would not have been in 1715, what the outcome of all of this would be.
More than anything, it is Nora's reality as a high-born woman maneuvering in this dangerous political landscape that I found most interesting. English common law held that a woman was covered legally by her father and then husband (for this reason, it is referred to as “coverture”). She could not own property, sign contracts, or earn wages under her own name but also, in many cases, was not able to be held legally responsible for her actions. Widows, like Nora, had more power under the law but for high-born women, even if they legally had some power, they were restrained culturally and socially by their position. Duran captures this magnificently.
Throughout At Your Pleasure, Nora talks often about the constraint she feels around her ability to choose her path in life, the duty to be a good wife/daughter/sister, “the whole burdensome world of womanhood,” and how tragically her desires would deviate from the choices she felt compelled to make. Other readers have commented online and to me personally that they find Nora to be frustrating because she often makes dumb or strange decisions or takes too long to make critical ones. Her character can seem confusing for this reason. And while I share these feelings and did find Nora to be irritating at times, I thought that Duran highlighted how feeling so harnessed by legal and cultural bindings would cause delay and inconsistency in a woman's decisions. Nora is constantly trying to decipher if she is making the right decision, if she is doing so for herself or for someone else, and, if for someone else, why she is doing it at all. She feels used and used up.
Early in the work Nora thinks, “Men had endless needs. Her father, her brother, her late husband – all of them impatiently had required her attention day after day, year after year.” Later, in a moment of anger at Adrian for stripping her of her ability to decide something very major about the course of her life, is stunned that he would do such a thing, “that he of all men should treat her only as a woman, as all men treated women – as a witless creature born only to do men's bidding, at men's convenience.” So while Nora is frustrating, I would imagine that the mind of any early 18th-century English woman mediating between the traitorous affairs of her family, the long shadow of her dead husband, and the desire to embrace her former lover who is also attempting to arrest her brother would be a frustrating place to visit. Duran shows this through her words and Nora's actions.
This plays out in important moments. The first is when Nora realizes that in choosing to be with Adrian she can finally, after decades, make a decision that honors her desires:
“I long. I long for him. It is I who do this. I, I, I. A knot formed in her throat…Adrian's silent invitation made obvious that there was, again, a part to play for her will. Hers. Not her father's, nor her brother's, but her will, her desire.”
The second is late in the story, in a pivotal scene. While Nora cannot make any decision she wants in that moment, she does get to make a choice and it sets in motion a series of events for which she must take responsibility:
“She would never regret it. She would have made the same choice again and again. But it would haunt her. It haunted even this vast and fathomless love that overwhelmed her when she gazed on her husband.”
Even in the end, even when Nora finally gets to be in charge of her life in a way that is significant, Duran does not let fall away the impact that choice has on Nora's life.
This is not an easy story but it is a wonderful one. I am sucker for a romance novel that leaves the end uncertain until very late in the story. I also love good history. Duran accomplishes both in a most satisfying way.