Book Review

The Lady by Anne McCaffrey


Title: The Lady
Author: Anne McCaffrey
Publication Info: Ballantine Books 1988
ISBN: 978-0345356741
Genre: Historical: European

Book The lady I’ve been in a place for the past couple of months where it’s been hard to read anything new.  Like my brain is just not willing to focus on a new thing, and the only things that can keep my attention are things I’ve read already, and things I know so well that it’s like snuggling up with my favorite blankie and my teddy bear and listening to my mom tell me a story.

One of the books that has been on the Old Friends list for a long time (as in, I’m on my second copy because the first one was read to death) is The Lady, by Anne McCaffrey.  Anne McCaffrey was my gateway into genre fiction as a whole- I was given the first three Pern books as a birthday present in 5th grade (from the same friend who got me into reading romance at not that much older, so we can thank Hannah for a lot of things).  My copy of Dragonflight fell apart last year (do we see a pattern?).  Anne McCaffrey has been an influential author for over 2/3 of my life. 

Of course, one of the things that happens when you read something at a young age is there is stuff that you just don’t get.  If I didn’t understand it, I just sort of ignored it (Or had super amazing and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with my mom. One reason my mom is awesome is that she never banned reading material, ever and would answer questions as age-appropriately as she could). This has made rereads of some books to be amaze-balls experiences, and some books to be horrific revelations.  Anne McCaffrey can be a mix of the two.  There’s a lot of dubious consent to sex, a lot of archaic ideas about homosexuality in her books, and a lot of loose relationships to in-universe continuity.

This book has some of each.  On its surface, it’s a coming of age story about a 13 year old girl, Caitriona, in Ireland in 1970.  Her family owns a horse farm, and she’s been riding since she could walk.  She’s trying to balance the expectations of her non-horse person mother and her desire to be a horsewoman and just figure out who she is.  The other part of the story is her father, Michael, and his impossible relationship with his wife and his burgeoning relationship with Selina, an upper-crust society wife who boards her mare at his stable.

Yeah, its one of those.

Caitriona’s mother, Isabel, is described as gently bred and convent reared- she married Michael in the heady days before he shipped off to WWII, and neither one them really understood the other person.  Her introduction to sex was…. Not pretty, because she hadn’t been told anything about it, and even though Michael apparently was rather successful with the ladies, he never got her to enjoy it.  She suffered him for her sacred Catholic duty, and raised 6 children.  Caitriona is the youngest, and Isabel finds her enthusiasm for horses to be unwomanly and almost heretical. She spends a lot of time in fervent prayer, asking the Virgin Mary to make Caitriona stop riding.

(What she thought she was getting into when she married a man who had every intention of getting into the family business of raising and training horses, I don’t know.) 

Selina has been boarding her horse at Michael’s stable for year, but they never really interacted until a hunting accident where Caitriona’s pony died.  Selina still had her pony from when she was a girl and gave him to Caitrinoa and then agreed to show some of Michael’s horses and it becomes a thing and they make eyes at each other and then Isabel dies and they begin an actual affair. 

(We’ll get to that.)

There are a couple of other subplots, too- a visiting American cousin, a horse show season, going on after unexpected deaths, an unplanned pregnancy and who is to blame for it, spousal abuse, an unexpected wedding, and antiqueing. 

But those things are not what this book is really about.  What this book is about is feminism and the changing roles of women in Ireland.  Divorce in Ireland was prohibited by the Constitution until 1996.  Sex education was non-existant (Isabel only forgave her mother for not explaining things to her before her wedding not only when she tried to explain things to her oldest daughter before hers), and the American cousin makes judgey faces at the ads for unwed pregnant girls in the newspaper (and an irate father says there’s no way an innocent girl like his daughter could possibly say when her pregnancy was conceived- how would she know?).  What happens when a husband dies with huge debt, no will, and never told his wife about the state of their finances? What can she do, when she’s never held a job in her life? 

Every woman in this book is faced with a choice about how she will handle her life in a period of unimaginable change, and every man is faced with the fact that change is coming, or change is here, are you going to get run over, get out of the way, or get the hell on board, for the good of your wives, lovers, daughters, sisters? 

McCaffrey is not always a subtle writer- a relationship that was bad enough with basic neglect, patronization, and general dumbfuckery implodes with spousal abuse and rape- just in case we didn’t think the husband was worthy of hatred before.  Caitriona’s mother is uber-religious, and basically plain doesn’t like her daughter and is flat-out described as frigid.  I’ve seen some reviews describe Caitriona as a Mary Sue- she’s an excellent rider and she can draw exceptionally well without training- but like all Mary Sues she’s bad at math as her given flaw (I don’t agree with that assessment at all- I think Caitriona is fairly well-realized and you can see where her decisions come from). 

It is uncomfortable that McCaffrey is okay with her heroine committing adultery, but her hero holds off on an affair until after his wife is dead (an affair with the heroine- he’s got a discreet liaison on the side with his wife is alive).  It is also a problem that Isabel is so traumatized by her wedding night that she won’t drive by the hotel they stayed in even 20+  years later.  As I recall someone asking- what did Michael do to her?  And she would submit to his advances even after she’d had a hysterectomy, even though, she says, the Church is very clear that that is only for procreation.  I don’t think Isabel would consider that rape (it was an unpleasant duty), Michael almost certainly didn’t, hell, Ireland didn’t recognize that marital rape was a thing until 1990, and McCaffrey seems kind of mixed on the issue (Dubious consent, especially for first times is kind of a regular issue for her).  So I still don’t know what to do with that. 

But problems aside, this is still one of my go-tos for soothing comfort reading.  The groves of the phrases are etched into my brain, and I find them soothing like a worry-stone when I need to read but can’t focus to keep track of something new.  There are horses, and there is feminism, with a dash of politics.  What more could a girl want?

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  1. 1
    LG says:

    I stuck to reading Anne McCaffrey’s sci-fi/fantasy, so I’ve never read this. Her books were comfort reading for me, too. I haven’t actually reread any of her books in over a decade. I’m a little afraid to – what if I ruin my warm, fuzzy memories? I’m pretty sure there are lots and lots of things that went completely over my head, since I’ve seen comments about her Pern books that made me go “Wait, what? I don’t recall anything like that being in her books…”

  2. 2
    CidiRo says:

    This is one of my favourites too.  I lived quite close to the area it’s set and when I first read it as a teenager in the early nineties, it read like a contemporary. Except for a few historical events mentioned, this was the Ireland I knew. Cats mother being such a “holy jo” wasn’t such a stretch for me to believe because I had a great aunt just like her. But scarier, much much scarier! Flash forward 15 years, I finally get my own copy and I realise how much our small island had changed, some of it sad, no more Barley Fields, but so much better.  I have choices that previous generations never had. That’s why I love the Carradyne Touch (alternate title) so much, for all its flaws, it makes me realise how bloody lucky I am.

  3. 3
    mochabean says:

    @LG I have the same feeling—I loved, loved, loved, the Pern books when I was younger (middle school, high school, college) and then I was thinking about them years later and suddenly realized that the the books featured an entire underclass of “drudges” who were both mentally challenged and happy to do pretty much all of the heavy labor on the planet, and I found myself saying, “wait, what now?” and then I thought about the old skool sex and creepy relationship between Menolly and Master Harper Robington and I was like “wait, what now?” and I am not sure that I would give them to my 10 year old daughter, but on the other hand, telepathic dragons you ride!

  4. 4

    This is one that, if not a personal favorite, I always find an interesting read.  Mc Caffery is such an excellent storyteller that any of her books are go-to comfort reading for me, and I generally discover something new every time. Love her to bits.

    It might not have been as bad for the average Irishwoman in the 1960’s/1970’s as it was for both Isabel or Selina, but on occasion, surely it was much worse, and they had ZERO recourse. That thought is always so horrifying to me.

    No culture is free when some of its members are virtual slaves.

  5. 5
    tea says:

    I feel you on sometimes being unable to find anything new that I like – those are the times I go reread my Bujold books. I have big love for my childhood McCaffery but the non-Pern books are hard for me to return to, because there are a lot of “Wait, WHAT!?” moments in relationships – the stern lover with his punishing kisses, the smart-mouthed wench who needs to be tamed/taught a thing or two/taken down a peg. Some shudders, there, but I do love the “Petaybee Trilogy,” published with Elizabeth Anne Scarborough,  which starts with THE POWERS THAT BE. It’s published in 1993, so there’s bad shoulder pads, but not so much alpha-posturing. Good stuff. Happy comfort reading.

  6. 6
    Elyse says:

    My mother had a similar approach to what I was allowed to read. Looking back I’m grateful for it. There were plenty of things I didn’t understand, but I also learned a lot about sex and sexuality without feeling like it was “bad.”

  7. 7
    Anony Miss says:

    Lovely review RHG, but why no linkyness to the book?

  8. 8
    Amy Raby says:

    I loved the Pern books when I was a teenager, and I think the problematic gender stuff went over my head at the time. Later I reread as an adult and noticed, in addition to the dubious consent, that the dragon system is sexist. If I remember right, the dragons rank as follows: gold (female dragon, female rider), bronze (male dragon, male rider), brown (male dragon, male rider), blue (male dragon, male rider), and green (female dragon, male rider). Gold dragons are rare, so only a few “exceptional” women get to ride dragons. The rest are relegated to roles like kitchen staff. Furthermore, the female dragons are placed similarly—a handful of exceptional females (golds) at the top of the rankings, all the rest of the females (greens) at the bottom.

    Despite the problems I had with the series as an adult, there was still much about them I enjoyed, so I tried to read one of the Harper Hall books to my son. It’s interesting how much has changed between my generation and his, because he actually commented on how disturbing the gender roles were and asked me to stop reading it. Which I did.

  9. 9
    Ruby Duvall says:

    Wow, I really liked that write-up. I have the same experience with some of my first reads as a fourteen-year-old. Shirlee Busbee’s “While Passion Sleeps”, anyone?

  10. 10
    Deana S says:

    Is it too much to ask to spell her name correctly throughout? In the headline at



  11. 11
    SB Sarah says:


    Somehow we ended up with two versions of RedHeadedGirl’s review, one that was closed, and one that was open. The closed one had all the links and whatnot, and the open one – which is this one – didn’t have any formatting or editing or, you know, McCaffreyness. I’m not sure what the hell the database was thinking, but I’ll accept the blame on its behalf. Damn database.

    So I’ve fixed the links, the spelling (though the URL still has the mis-spell because changing it is like crossing the streams. You only do that when you want to melt a 10 storey marshmallow dude) and the images. Sorry about that, y’all.

  12. 12
    redheadedgirl says:


    (Captcha: System27.  I got 27 problems and the system is like 28 of them)

  13. 13
    Nita says:

    Great review. Never did make my way around to this McCaffrey, though I devoured most of the Pern series and all of the Rowan/ Pegasus books. I, too, have issues with some of the gender role stuff, yet will reread anyway. I just look at things with a different eye now than I did when I was in high school. Even the author acknowledges the old-fashioned setup of the dragon hierarchy, though: I forget in which book, exactly, but it’s blamed on the geneticist who bred the dragons from fire lizards. And of course a few female riders of other colors are introduced later (like Mirrim).

  14. 14
    kkw says:

    That sounds…awful.
    I have random comfort reads myself, no judgement or anything, but I am confused about the good parts. What are they? Familiarity, for those that are familiar with it; horses – ok, I grant you horses are theoretically appealing; “feminism” that seems to take the form of an object lesson in crappiness; and a dash of politics, which is a dash too much for my taste, but whatever, everyone skims something. Is there, in fact, a romance in the novel? Is it happy making? Producing fluttery feelings, or gooeyness, or tears of ecstasy and angst?
    The review reads more like a caveat than an endorsement to me. It sounds like an F+ book, if not an outright fail, so clearly I’m missing something.

  15. 15
    cleo says:

    I have such a complicated relationship with Anne McCaffrey as an author.  She was the first author I consciously broke up with. I read the pern and pegasus books as a girl. And then I read a pern book when I was 20 and I was SHOCKED at the misogyny. OMG. It made me so angry. Some 20 years later, after she died, I reread the first 6 pern books. And you know, they didn’t inspire the same hulk smash rage of my early 20s or swoony happiness of my preteens. I can see that she was ahead of her time but still behind ours in terms of gender politics etc.

    Capcha – summer81. Why yes, I think I was reading the pern books the summer of 81.

  16. 16
    Joy says:

    Anne McCaffrey’s first book published in 1967 was Resortee—a sf romance (now available digitally).  Its one of my favorite re-reads and still holds up pretty well now.  Its a classic wish fulfillment fantasy where a homely girl is kidnapped to another planet and turned into a beauty.  The science fiction is outrageous but it has a quirky appeal. 

    McCaffrey had a fling with romances publishing 2 in 1971—Ring of Fear and The Mark of Merlin.  Ring of Fear also has a riding theme.  The hero is forceful but there is a spanking scene that even in 1971 I had trouble with.  As an aside I asked Anne McCaffrey once if she had Harlan Ellison (another famous SF writer) in mind when she wrote the book—short, darkhaired, dynamic.  She admitted it was a good fit and maybe in the back of her head but not consciously.  Ellison had a reputation for forcefulness but could be quite charming.

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