Dear Ms. James:
An Affair Before Christmas is the first book of yours I read, and I did so without knowing where it is in your canon or how it relates to any other books (now I know that is it second in your Desperate Duchesses series). The title of the series reflects a heroine-centric focus I appreciate, and the obvious overlap of characters from book to book creates a community sense that appeals to me. Both of these elements make me glad I tried An Affair Before Christmas, and even though the book didn’t wow me, I will likely read the next in the series to find out what happens to the secondary characters.
Before I go any further, I will warn anyone who dislikes spoilers that this review depends on a few of them.
When we first meet Poppy and Fletch, they are a young couple, engaged and hopeful and celebrating Christmas in Paris where they met and fell in love. We're not yet privy to Poppy's marital aspirations, but we discover that Fletch is anxiously awaiting his wedding night and the chance "to worship Poppy’s body, taste the sweet salt of her sweat, kiss away her tears of joy after he brought her to the ultimate happiness." It is a "French-inflected lust" Fletch feels for his "little Poppy," and he is especially anxious because despite Poppy's sensuous beauty (Fletch imagines she will be more delectable than a truffle), she is not particularly welcoming of his tongue in her mouth or anything more earthy that Fletch would like to try with her — no doubt to bring her to that "ultimate happiness.”
So it is no surprise to the reader that four years later, when the novel opens properly on the life of the Duke and Duchess of Fletcher, their marriage is troubled by incompatible expectations and a lack of communication. Both Fletch and Poppy are troubled, Fletch by the lack of passion his wife shows in the bedroom (and his inability to bring her to that much imagined rapture) and Poppy by an inability to understand her husband’s simmering resentment, dwindling interest, and startling transformation into one of the most sensually beautiful noblemen in England – a man who “prowls” rather than walks, and who leaves his hair unpowdered because “when he pulled his hair from its ribbon, unruly locks tumbling to his shoulders gave the impression that he just rose from a bed in which he had been well pleasured.” Poppy, on the other hand, is as exquisite and fragile-looking as any china doll, petticoated and panniered, her hair a veritable tower of bows and feathers and intricate coils of flaxen tresses. These affectations reflect the masquerade of their marriage, which is mutually unmasked when Fletcher publicly humiliates Poppy at a ball, catalyzing a separation that only one of them seems anxious to mend.
The anxious one is Fletch, which might seem a bit counter-intuitive, until we find out a bit more about Poppy and all the steps that brought her into a marriage with Fletch. Or at least the one giant step, namely the push her controlling, ambitious, and rigidly unpleasant mother gave her from birth in the direction of any eligible duke. Practically from the cradle Poppy was conditioned to marry a duke, with absolutely no instruction in the actual art of marriage beyond securing her position as duchess. The cruel Lady Flora also ordered her daughter to “suffer” the “indignities” of sex for the purpose of an heir and freely expressed revulsion to anything resembling physical intimacy and sexual pleasure. Consequently, Poppy grows up repressing her own interests and following her mother’s example in sexual remoteness, learning to appease a parent who would resort to hysterics and even physical assault when her word was questioned or circumvented. So poor Fletch, with his idealistic vision of bringing his lovely young wife to rapture, was frustrated instead, confused and hurt, yet unable to bring himself to seek out another woman as mistress. It’s Poppy he wants to love and please.
But the separation has shaken something loose in Poppy (not her hair, unfortunately), and for the first time in her life she feels free from the expectations of either a husband or a parent:
What she felt was weary. Tired of people who disapproved, people who were impossible to please, people who made her feel inadequate. Stupid. That was the one clear thought she had in her head. She didn’t want to be screamed at by her mother. And she didn’t want to see that closed, disgusted look on Fletch’s face ever again, even if that meant she never saw him again.
She tries to talk to Fletcher, but like everything else in their relationship, the exchange merely reflects their different paradigms for marriage. Poppy has tried to please Fletch by “submitting” to his wishes in the bedroom, and Fletch views her efforts as a rejection or sorts. Tired of disappointing Fletch, unable to appease him as she has learned to do with her mother, Poppy leaves Fletch and moves in with the slightly scandalous Duchess of Beaumont, able finally to indulge her real first love – Naturalism.
I have a soft spot for “marriage in trouble” scenarios, because marriage provides a convenient frame for the more prickly emotional and physical levels of intimacy. And although I rolled my eyes in the prologue at the idea of one more sexually inhibited heroine, I understood that the sexual incongruity in Fletch and Poppy’s relationship was symbolic for mismatched expectations. I similarly hoped that Poppy’s love of Naturalism would complement the relationship conflict; however, it created one of my biggest problems with the book.
Poppy isn’t just a hobbyist when it comes to her Naturalist tendencies; she writes letters to various scholars advising them of opposing opinions and questioning some of their conclusions. Which, in my book (har har), means she’s a scholar by nature, even if she had to hide her father’s Naturalist texts under her bed and her interest from virtually everyone. Loosed from the hold of her marriage, Poppy is free to exercise publicly what she has been nurturing in private: her love of all things, well, natural. Which brings me back to the issue of her marriage and the question of her blind subservience to her mother’s harsh advice, both about dress and sex.
While I suspect I was supposed to enjoy the irony of Poppy’s interest in Naturalism and ignorance of socially-ordered relationships between humans, instead I found her inability to think past her mother’s words unrealistic. Not that I expected her to take Fletch’s pre-wedding advice and consult the Duchess of Beaumont on the custom of romantic kissing. But why wouldn’t a woman so deeply inclined to puzzle through the natural habits and customs of animals spend so much time wondering why she was a disappointment to her husband and not conducting some sort of research, even if it was casual observation of others or exercising her well-developed talent for acquiring and hiding contraband books? Even the “real” reason for some of her sexual remoteness seemed a perfect subject of inquiry for the naturally curious Poppy, and the fact that she never really pursued an investigation struck me as strange. Especially because Poppy is obviously using her natural insight and analytical skills on Fletch before they are married:
Lady Poppy was a practical little soul, at the heart. She could see that her husband’s easygoing manners and sweet eyes masked a sturdy determination to get his own way. One only had to look at his wind-swept locks to see that. Never a touch of powder!
And when they do finally find their groove, Poppy treats Fletch’s body to her own scientific exploration, and “[b]eing a naturalist, she accompanied her little experiments with a stream of commentary.” I just was not able to reconcile Poppy the tenacious and insightful Naturalist with Poppy the miserably confused and ignorant wife.
Because I could not fully embrace Poppy’s characterization, I also could not fully understand her love for Fletch, whose adolescent desire to please his wife sexually was so obviously much more about him than about Poppy. And as amusing as that was, I did not see such a profound change in Fletch, whose honorable (and perhaps unfashionable) refusal to take a mistress could not fully eclipse the way he continued to see their relationship in primarily sexual terms. Sure he suffers through the museums of natural history and the lectures at the Royal Society with Poppy. Yes he shows a moment of real insight when he realizes that Poppy feels overwhelmed sexually and works to earn her trust by promising her a life without sex. But I never felt he got past seeing his “little Poppy” as a reflection of his own masculinity; in fact, he almost seems disappointed when she finally starts responding because he cannot understand why it happened:
Well, what was it? How could it be the same woman he’d made love to for years? What happened to her?
It made him feel uneasy, as if the ground had shifted under his feet. Only last year she would lie before him like a chilled piece of molded butter, and now she was melting and shrieking… and it wasn’t anything he did, either.
And when they are finally reconciled, and Poppy tells him that she doesn’t deserve him, Fletcher responds with this: “I feel the same way. The way you respond to me while making love-” By the end of the novel, despite the fact that he recognized his wife’s value in editing his wildly popular speeches in the House of Lords, I’m not sure how far he has gotten past his initial estimation of her: Little Poppy was the sweetest girl in the world, but she was devilishly hard to kiss. She may no longer be hard to kiss, but I wonder how easily Fletch understands his scholarly wife. Her mother he seems to understand, though, although her characterization didn’t seem particularly subtle or complex, and I did enjoy the nice twist he serves that seriously twisted character.
While the main romance did not totally succeed for me, I did like the ensemble-feel of An Affair Before Christmas, especially the situation of Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, and Charlotte Tatlock’s interesting dilemma. Although at times the writing felt a bit forced, when the characters relaxed into real dialogue, I fell right into the rhythm of the prose and enjoyed a number of small descriptive moments, like Jemma’s characterization of Fletch as “tediously beautiful,” what with “the way he slouches through a room, burning with something or other.” I also loved one scene in which Fletch and Poppy share a revelation about her hair that advances the emotional intimacy of their relationship; had there been more thoughtful moments like that I might have been better sold on the characterizations and the True Love.
I do not know if An Affair Before Christmas is classic Eloisa James or not. Despite what didn’t work for me, though, I had enough interest in the writing, the dialogue, and some of the secondary characters to try the next book in the series and perhaps a backlist title, as well. For this book, though, the highs and lows of my reading experience average out to the middle ground of a C.