Reading Diary: A Lady's Secret by Jo Beverley
It isn't often a man hears a cursing nun.
Robin Fitzviry, Earl of Huntersdown, was finishing his meal at a table by the window and thus had an excellent view of the woman out in the coach yard. There could be no doubt. She was muttering curses, and she was a nun.
She was standing beneath the outside gallery that gave access to the bedrooms upstairs, so her grey clothing blended with the shadows, but her clothing was a nun's habit or he was a mother superior. Her plain gown was belted with rope, and a dark head cloth hung down her back. There was even a long wooden rosary hanging from the belt, and perhaps sandals on her feet. She had her back turned, but he thought she might be young.
"Maledizione!" she exploded. Italian?
The reason I came to love Jo Beverley so much was that I learned I could trust her. Many Historical Romance novelists will write what Romance readers call "Wallpaper Historicals" populated with modern characters in period dress, but not Beverley. Her dedication to research has always guaranteed a high degree of historical accuracy, but the main reason I trust her so much is her writer's sensitivity to people from different times that I can only describe as historical honesty.
Now that I've read one of her latest books, however, I'd like to qualify everything I've just said about her.
With less than three pages of this 416-page book to go, I was ready to give A Lady's Secret a respectable mark of B. It didn't quite enter A territory like some of Beverley's earlier books, but it was a pretty entertaining and believable read that charmed me enough to make me overlook its few flaws. So you can imagine how satisfied I was, when I suddenly read--
Robin's mother was [at the wedding], along with his sisters and brothers. There hadn't been enough time to truly get to know them, but she sensed harmony was possible. His mother, to her amusement, had been disapproving rather than approving of Petra's devotion to the faith they shared, but once Petra had assured her she would accept her children being raised in the Protestant faith, that barrier had fallen away. [Emphasis mine]
Take note, fellow readers!!! For here we have our first Jo Beverley "Wallpaper Historical"!
All right! Where to begin? . . .
A Lady's Secret has very sparing sprinkles of Petra's Catholic faith. We know she carries a rosary and a well-worn breviary. She silently calls on a some saints for intercessory prayer at a couple of harrowing points in her adventure. She encounters English prejudice against "Papists" several times before she even arrives at England; and when she does, she is careful to say her prayers silently and avoid crossing herself. At the end, when she says her wedding vows in an Anglican chapel, she is satisfied that they are the same promises as those she would have made in a Catholic ceremony--satisfied enough to go without without the Eucharist for the rest of her married life.
While I'll grant that perhaps a young woman who came of age in 1760s Italy and lived for several years in a religious order dedicated to serving the poor (but never actually took vows as a sister) might be convinced that the faith she was raised in is not important enough to pass on to her children . . . I find it absolutely impossible to suspend disbelief when I read that the man she marries is the son of a Frenchwoman who made a similar decision over twenty years earlier and thinks that all women in the same position should do the same. There is more angst about the loss of the sacraments in Anne Rice's Feast of All Saints, and the character in that book has been surrounded all her life by women who gave up the sacraments in order to become legal mistresses.
Now that I'm writing this, I realise that this isn't new for Beverley. In her Traditional Regency Diedre and Don Juan, the hero has a Spanish mother who seems to have made a similar compromise, out of love for his English father. Which leads me to ask: Is Catholicism so incompatible with Romancelandia?
The sad thing is that Beverley used to be reliably spot-on when it came to Catholics. At least her Medievals were. Her pitch-perfect writing in The Shattered Rose is still the Medieval Romance standard for me. There is a hilarious scene in which one character is trying to escape house arrest at a convent by climbing down a wall using her girdle as a rope. The wall is high and she is scared, so she prays to several saints, including, strangely enough, St. Thomas the Apostle. "Let me not doubt that this cloth will hold me!" she begs . . . and immediately the girdle snaps and she lands on her behind, a mere few inches from the ground. Classic!
The plot involves another character being beaten with a thin rod by the mother superior of the same convent. You can imagine how nervous that made me, living as I do in a world where most people can't see past the blinkers of the so-called Enlightenment. Yet the way it all works out in the book is just beautiful. As the character says, "I did sin . . . In the adultery, but more so in defying God. I needed to be punished . . . The time apart, time and peace to pray, cleansed me . . . I learned about myself, and the punishment helped in some way. I found I couldn't control my body's weak reaction to pain, but I could control my mind. It made me stronger. Cleaner. I am at peace with myself and God, and ready to start again without wounds or shadows."
Well, okay, there are two occasions in which the characters are askance at a "new" proclamation from Rome about Mary's Perpetual Virginity . . . but as I've said, it is historical honesty rather than historical accuracy that I've come to expect from Beverley.
A Lady's Secret didn't have to be that way. There was a great opportunity to play on the theme of sinners and saints. At one promising point, the hero even asks himself whether a person can be both! Yet all this is soundly dropped in favour of wordplay over the names of the hero, the heroine, and even the hero's little dog. He is Robin, and therefore identifies with the "Cock Robin" of the nursery rhyme; she is Petra, and so is compared to a little pebble; the dog is a papillon from Versailles named Coquette, who thinks she's a huge, capable guard dog rather than the ornamental bit of frippery she is. It's all very cute, until the Church becomes the real coquette--and that is where Beverley becomes the most historically dishonest she has ever been.
Well, all right, I admit that wordplay has always been Beverley's favourite game--and you don't get much of that with the words "saint" and "sinner" without turning the banter into a sermon. She also likes symbolic role play in which characters identify with figures from history, myth or literature; and thus, her stories feature an inordinate number of masquerade balls. While Petra is a good Catholic girl in a grey habit, there is nobody for the hero and heroine to compare themselves to . . . except Abelard and Heloise!
Right now someone may be thinking, "Enbrethiliel, don't you think you're letting your personal feelings about the Church get in the way of your enjoyment of a perfectly decent book?"
To which I reply: "Yes, that's probably exactly what's happening. You see, it's what Catholics do. That Petra doesn't also do it is, therefore, an Epic Fail on Beverley's part."
Having said all that, I'd give A Lady's Secret a still-respectable B-minus . . . but I'm probably never going to read any of Beverley's new books again.
(You might be interested in an old post on Beverley's older books, from my now-defunct MySpace blog: Where Beverley Meets Chesterton.)
Image Sources: a) A Lady's Secret, b) The Shattered Rose