In recent entries about alphas within marriage, I mentioned my deep abiding love of Catherine Coulter’s Midsummer Magic, which holds a place of honor as (a) the first romance I’ve ever read, and (b) the most mis-labeled, incorrectly-described romance in my collection.
Consider the description on the back of my copy:
Clever, Beautiful Frances Kilbracken disguised herself as a mousy Scottish lass to keep Hawk, the…dashing Earl of Rothermere from being forced to marry her. But she was chosen as his bride for that very reasons. Wedded, bedded, and finally deserted, Frances quickly shed her dowdy facade to become glittering London’s most ravishing and fashionable leading lady.
And even the 2000 Reed Business info quoted on the Amazon.com page:
Good beach reading, Coulter’s 1987 historical romance finds the beauteous and brainy Frances Kilbracken forced into marriage with the roguish Hawk (yes, I did say, Hawk). After fulfilling his conquest of Frances, Hawk abandons her and is smitten by a mystery woman, who actually is guess who?
Frances never goes to London. She’s either in Scotland, or at the Rothermere country estate, which is fifteen miles from York. Forgive my ever-dependable lack of UK geographical knowledge, but York is a mighty ways away from London, and I think the farthest Frances and Hawk travel during their marriage is to Newmarket, which is still some distance from London by carriage. Frances is never in London as a “leading lady” and while she is fashionable and ravishing, she hasn’t snuck into the ton to reveal herself. She’s still near York most of the time.
Moreover, while Frances does disguise herself as a dowdy mouse to avoid Hawk’s interest, when she returns to her normal, beautiful state, he knows exactly who she is, and is absolutely furious about the transformation and the deception.
The cover copy alone is ample evidence of what was wrong with romance covers back in the day – my copy was published in 1987, I believe – but then, consider the cover image itself:
We’ve snarked this cover hard, as it is one of the more fabulous examples of “Invisible Buttsecks” covers in romance history – not to mention the dubious decision to put a red-haired woman in an orange dress while wearing silver and turquoise eyeshadow. Also, did he just fart out a swan?!
But behind (hur hur) the cover, there lies one of my favorite old-school romances. And when I mentioned it last week as part of a larger discussion of alpha males, I realized that it’s been so long since I read this book that it might be time to revisit it, just in case my memory is faulty as usual, only this time instead of giving me a total blank, my doofy memory has added a patina of quality that the original book didn’t have.
Nope, my memory and I are in accord: the book is still marvelously good, despite the misleading cover copy, the cover image, and some of the worst typesetting errors sprinkled throughout the entire book. Typos, missing quotations, missing capital letters – Jesus Flapjack, who typeset this thing?! Even with all these distractions, I still love this book, and it’s not just the sentimental value talking.
Frances Kilbracken is one of three Scottish sisters whose father, Earl of Ruthven, made a pact with the Marquess of Chandos some years before. Seems Ruthven saved Chandos’ life, and Chandos promised to marry one of his sons to one of Ruthven’s daughters. When Chandos suddenly takes ill, he asks his heir, Phillip (more commonly known as Hawk – yes, of course he has to have a nickname of a predatory bird. This is old school romance after all!) to go on up to Scotland and marry one of the daughters, completing his oath to Ruthven.
Hawk is not at all pleased with this idea. He recently inherited the title at the sudden death of his brother, Nevil, and has been enjoying his new life. Instead of a soldier in Wellington’s army, he’s a Lord of the realm, complete with amorous mistress, neverending nightlife in London, and a healthy amount of wealth to his name.
Frances thinks the entire idea is barbaric, and when she hears of Hawk’s life in London, she figures he’d want a wife as festive, gay, entertaining, and social as the women he currently spends time with. So Frances turns herself into a dowdy, frumpy, socially inept sourpuss and tries to drive Hawk away.
Trouble is, Hawk figures that if he marries Frances, dumps her in the country and heads on back to London, his life can continue as it was, and he won’t have to change a thing.
Consider the multitude of plot elements that could go horribly wrong with this setup: the foundation of the relationship is essentially a Big Misunderstanding. Both parties are horribly blind to one another, plus there’s the aspect of sex between the unwilling protagonists to deal with. But Coulter balances out these tricky elements admirably, and this is still one of my very favorite old school romances.
First: the hero. Yes, the hero forces Frances to have sex with him. This is indeed the romance wherein he has to use cream to ease his way up her tender virgin passage because she wants nothing to do with him, but he has a responsibility to beget an heir, and she’s half the equation required for that result. She knows it, he knows it, and so she lies still, tries to hide from him at times, but submits to his passionless ministrations.
But Coulter’s master stroke (har har) in creating empathy for Hawk is in the first chapter: Hawk rushes from London because he is told his father is dying. The entire chapter reveals how much Hawk cares for his parent, how unwilling he is to live up to an oath he didn’t make, and how, despite that unwillingness, he is aware of the responsibilities of his new life as Earl of Rothermere. In 16 pages of writing, Coulter establishes a hero who is noble, caring, dedicated to his family and his role as heir to the title, and empathetic – because who hasn’t had to do something they really, really did not want to do?
Second: the heroine. Frances is headstrong, intelligent, clever, and utterly hoisted by her own petard. Hawk is gorgeous and she is undeniably attracted to him, but she doesn’t want to marry him, nor does she want to leave Scotland. She doesn’t want her life to change any more than Hawk wants to give up his social life in London.
Yes, there are parts that made me dog-ear a page and laugh out loud, such as Frances’ completely incongruous need for “something more” in her life:
“I want to marry a rich man. I want to be somebody. What else can a woman look forward to anyway?” Viola said.
That was perfectly true, of course, Frances thought, suddenly depressed, but it wasn’t fair. She repeated her thought aloud. “It’s not fair. We should be able to do anything we wish to do.”
I can hear the music from Mary Poppins now: No more the meek and mild subservients we! We’re fighting for our rights, militantly! Well done! Sister Suffragette! Frances at times is a blooming ludicrous example of contemporary mentality shoved into an historical heroine. Even with all that posturing, I like her anyway.
There are some other flaws to the writing, such as an incredible propensity toward head hopping, like the narrator is a Jack Russell terrier on amphetamines. And there is also some marvelously purple prose, plus one of my very, very favorite phrases in all of romance to describe female arousal: To her utter consternation, Frances felt a deep spurt of something very warm and urgent between her thighs.
Now, between you and me? If I feel that, it probably means my water broke. But for Frances? Her arousal “spurts” a few times here and there through the book. It’s enough to make you want to send a gyn back in time to help her out with that problem.
By far the largest topic to discuss regarding this novel: the sex scenes where Frances lies still, an unwilling partner, as Hawk does his best to cause conception as quickly and painlessly as possible. This is one of the few romances I’ve read that has multiple scenes that depict what sexual intercourse could have been like for a couple that wasn’t sexually interested in or even friends with one another. It’s a duty and an obligation, and it’s disturbing, but in this case, the process reveals a good deal about each character. Hawk will rise (har har) to his responsibilities, even if they make him lonely and sad, and Frances will acquiesce to her own duties, even if they also make her lonely and sad.
Hawk, of course, has friends and a very passionate mistress. Frances is in a new place with no one she knows, forced to make a new life for herself despite her best efforts. Frances was caught in her own trap, and in the end, only by revealing who she really is can she find happiness. The same, of course, is true for the hero. He doesn’t enjoy the passionless sex that is his marital duty, and only by admitting he too longs for “something more” between his wife and himself can he find happiness.
Pamela Regis, in her book A Natural History of the Romance Novel outlines the primary differences between what Candy and I call “Old School” and “New School” romance. One of them, and the one I find most interesting, is the requirement in “New School” romance that the hero make his own journey to become worthy of the happy ending. Despite Midsummer Magic bearing many of the hallmarks of “Old School” romance, Hawk evolves through the story into a hero worthy of Frances and worthy of their happy ending. He wasn’t a complete buttmonkey to start with, either – he started from a place of some established empathy: he thought his father was dying and had to honor his wishes – and evolves to a place of greater heroism: he finds a purpose in life, a suitable vocation he can indulge in with his spouse, and a path toward leaving a greater inheritance for his children. And on top of that, he finds a passionate and unique relationship with his wife. They were forced to marry, but as they reveal their true characters, they find that, as is proper in a romance novel, they are perfectly matched.