I’ve been on a bit of a historical binge recently: testing some new authors, re-reading old favourites. This trip down the historical record lane is due largely to author Sherry Thomas. More to the point, to her recent novel Ravishing the Heiress.
No one was more surprised that me. First, I usually have a marked preference for contemporary stories. Second, (no doubt influenced by the first), I’ve had occasionally difficulty connecting with Thomas’ work in the past. This is not a criticism: I certainly like her stories and style to have read everything novel she’s written. But I never quite reached the reader’s high. Which, in case you’re wondering, that’s the feeling that makes you want to A) read it again immediately, B) stop strangers in the street to tell them how good it was, C) be all sad and mopey that it’s over.
Guess what? I hit that high with Ravishing the Heiress. It’s the second in Thomas’ new ‘Fitzhugh’ trilogy. The first in the series is Beguiling the Beauty, in which we are introduced to Venetia Easterbrook, nee Fitzhugh, who is quite possibly the most beautiful woman in England. While travelling, Venetia is publicly insulted by Christian de Montfort, the Duke of Lexington. Out of revenge, and in disguise, she sets out to seduce him. Naturally, they fall in love.
I enjoyed that book: I have a fondness for the inherent absurdity of disguises, and thought Thomas did a thoughtful and thorough job of the inevitably painful discovery scene. As a bonus, the first book introduces Millie, Venetia’s quiet, sensible sister-in-law. Ravishing is Millie’s book, and it is a very different kind of story. Because the love story is between Millie and her husband who, as the book begins, have already been married for eight years.
It was a classic marriage of convenience: his title, her money. It wasn’t an unusual arrangement back then. In fact, Millie had expected to marry the previous Earl, who was more than twice her age. Fitz, as the new Earl is called, is nineteen. He is also desperately in love with someone else. But he knows how badly his tenants and his lands need the money Millie will bring. That there is, in fact, no other way to save them.
For her part, Millie recognizes that Fitz is a man in pain. She tells him that she, too, is in love with someone, and that they could both use time to heal. She suggests they look at their marriage as a sort of business deal, and take a period of time to get to know one another before they decide to be intimate in any way, say six years Fitz ups it to eight. As Venetia’s story ends, Millie and Fitz have been married for just about eight years.
And then the woman Fitz loved so passionately at nineteen returns to London.
Ravishing could have gone wrong in so many ways, but Thomas doesn’t let it. Chapters from the past are interspersed with chapters from the present, revealing the growing relationship between Fitz and Millie. Together they claim his anscestral lands, weather the deaths of her parents, and take over her father’s business. Working together, the two of them build a neglected and crumbling estate into something both beautiful and powerful. As a metaphor for their relationship, it’s spot on: readers watch two responsible, polite, innately good people build something magnificent. Of course we, at least, know that something is more than just a house.
Throughout, Millie and Fitz treat each other with honesty and respect. Though there’s one thing Millie has never revealed: the name of the man she loved back when they married. Because for her, it was Fitz all along. She knew at their wedding that he was not ready for her feelings. And now, eight years later, just as their marriage is supposed to truly begin, she fears she might lose him for good.
Unrequited love, within the context of a marriage. It could have seemed ridiculous. But in Thomas’ talented hands, it is deft and complex (note to other writers: ‘complex’ is not just shorthand for ‘bad things happen’: it means layered, complicated, and made up of many contradictory things). Fitz is decent, and hardworking, and considers his wife his best friend. He is considerate and caring, a truly nice guy, which is kind of a rarity in the marriage of convenience situation. We know this, we watched it unfold. So we cheer when we see him finally realize that she is also a passionate, desirable woman.
I loved the book: the story, the characters, the prose. I loved how gracefully Thomas tied everything together. And I can’t wait to read the third book in the series, Tempting the Bride, about Fitz’s twin sister Helena. So what, you’re asking, do sewers have to do with anything?
As I said, Thomas inspired me to read more historicals. I tried a couple new authors, but had some trouble finding a good fit. So I went back to some of my favourites: Lisa Kleypas; Joanna Bourne; Eloisa James. Re-reading James’ When The Duke Returns crystalized a thought for me: I have zero desire to experience what it was like in the past.
This is, of course, true for many reasons. I like being considered a person, legally, spiritually, and economically. As a woman, wasn’t an option even as recently as a hundred years ago. Being able to vote, go to university, actually own what is mine –including my body — these are all rights that I will never give up. But When The Duke Returns draws attention to one of the greatest gifts of the modern age: proper indoor plumbing.
Without going in to too much detail about the story, suffice it to say that the book paints a graphic picture of what happens when someone tries to build sewer pipers out of cheap materials. Shit happens, literally. Even though I was only reading words on a page, James’s descriptions were eloquent enough to make my eyes water. Ick,ick, ick! Strangely enough, I’ve recently read two other books that deal with sewers, particualarly London’s sewers: Dodger, by the inimitable Terry Pratchett, and Whispers Under Ground, by Ben Aaronovitch. The former is set in Dickensian London, the latter today, but both offer pointed reminders that what we build needs to last. Even if it’s a sewer.
Chris Szego wants the carrion lickers who stole her computer to know that dire fates involving raw sewage await them. She would also like to thank James, who stepped into the breach.