Feb 12 2013
Janine: I was initially going to review Maire Claremont’s debut, The Dark Lady: A Novel of Mad Passions, alone, but when I discussed the novel with Sunita, she caught a couple of historical errors. Since she is also knowledgeable about India, where part of the book takes place, I invited her to join me.
Sunita: I had heard about this book for a while, and it sounded unusual and potentially interesting. It’s definitely dark, and it draws on settings and conditions we associate with the Victorian era and which I’d like to see more of in the genre, so when Janine offered to do a joint review I accepted immediately.
Janine: And now for the plot summary. The Dark Lady opens in 1865. Ian Blake, a viscount, returns to England after two years of military service in India. He dreads seeing the woman he has loved for years, Eva, because she’s now the widow of a man he was charged to protect in India.
Hamilton, Lord Carin was Ian’s childhood friend, but something went awry in India and he was killed there. Eva has not returned Ian’s letters since.
But when he arrives in Eva’s home, Ian is greeted by Thomas, Hamilton’s brother. Thomas, always an odd one, has now replaced Hamilton as the earl, and he informs Ian that Eva lost her mind after her young son’s death and is now being cared for in an asylum. Ian drags out the name of the asylum from Thomas and goes there.
Meanwhile, Eva is indeed in the asylum, and it is a horrible place where the guards rape the female inmates. By some (rather unlikely, I thought) stroke of luck, Eva herself has not been raped in two years there. But her roommate Mary has been attacked in the past, and Eva dreads another such event.
Eva is also kept drugged with heavy doses of laudanum, and consequently the details about her son’s death are shrouded even in her own memory. She knows she took him with her to deliver a letter, and he was flung from her carriage and died, but she does not recall her reasons for wanting to send the letter or its intended recipient.
As Eva feels responsible for little Adam’s death, she would just as soon not know.
When Ian arrives at the asylum, he pretends to be Thomas and bribes the owner, Mrs. Palmer, into letting him take Eva away. But just that night, Eva and Mary are attacked by a guard, and Mary kills the man. Eva and Ian attempt to take Mary with them, but they are stopped and forced to leave without her.
Now they are on the run, trying to beat the clock and get Eva to some kind of safety before Thomas, who clearly does not have Eva’s well-being in mind, discovers that Ian has her. Soon others are in pursuit, and worse, thanks, to her “treatment” in the asylum, Eva is addicted to laudanum while Ian is determined to force her to quit the drug.
Meanwhile, the story of Ian and Eva’s childhood meeting and teenage love is told in flashbacks that gradually lead to their separation at their guardian, the old Lord Carin’s request.
And in the present day, although Ian and Eva are each haunted by guilt, for the deaths of Hamilton and Adam respectively, there is still a connection between them that is not easily broken.
But neither quite recognizes the person the other has become over the past two years. Can they find their way to forgiving themselves, freeing Eva from the laudanum addiction and Thomas’s guardianship, and returning to one another’s arms?
Onto our discussion of this book. On paper (or more correctly, on the internet), The Dark Lady sounded like a book that would appeal to me. The plot is an unusual one for a historical romance, the characters’ backgrounds have the potential to present them with complex conflicts to overcome, the novel takes us to some unusual settings, including a lunatic asylum and India, and there is a dual-timeline flashback structure as well as plenty of angst.
So I should have loved it, right?
Unfortunately I didn’t. I really wanted to, for all the reasons listed above, but the execution was flawed enough to make this one of the most disappointing books I’ve read in a while.
I did like Eva a lot. She had suffered so much that it would be difficult for anyone not to sympathize with her, but beyond that, I felt that Claremont struck a delicate balance in getting her fragility across very effectively and yet at the same time keeping Eva from ever becoming a doormat.
I was a lot less keen on Ian. He was dictatorial and non-communicative, with a tendency to wallow in his feelings of guilt in a way that came across as melodramatic. Also, when he could have explained to Eva, who was fresh out of the traumas of the asylum, that he was attempting to protect her and help her, he simply dragged her around and laid down rules.
As a result, the much vaunted emotional connection between Ian and Eva felt like something I was frequently told about, but hardly ever shown.
In his past, Ian was said to have been a sensitive boy who nurtured animals, but it was very hard to see that side of him in the present day storyline. It didn’t help that the sections in his POV were full of melodramatic thoughts. For example, the opening line (in his POV) is “The road stretched on like a line of corrupting filth in the pristine snow.”
Ian did have some substantial things in his past to angst about, so I think that if the language had been more understated, I might have been able to relate to him more. As it was I wanted him to get over himself.
Sunita: We start the book in Ian’s POV and we return to it regularly and for long stretches of time. Like you, I found Ian hard to warm up to. He was full of anger and resentment, but as you say, these emotions were asserted rather than emerging from his behavior and thoughts. As a result, he felt pretty one-dimensional to me.
I liked Eva somewhat better, but again, the writing style didn’t make me feel that I really got to know her over the course of the book. She just was the way she was, and I was an onlooker rather than an engaged reader who was invested in her.
Janine: I like your statement that emotions were asserted rather than emerging. Thinking about it, that feels like a big part of my issue with the novel – there is a sense of the authorial voice trying to impose its vision on the reader, rather than allowing it to bloom as a natural outgrowth of the characters and their situation.
In addition, the language struck me as overwrought and awkward at times, rather than flowing naturally. For example, take this sentence:
His breathing began to slow from the ragged, impassioned force it had known just the moment before.
It feels like a sentence that tries to say something simple in an overcomplicated way, as well as to interpret for the reader. Because I was distracted by sentences like this one, I could not sink deep into the world of the book. The novel’s failure to absorb me left me aware of more flaws than I usually notice in books while in the act of reading them.
Sunita: I found the writing really distancing, which is the opposite of what I expected to feel. From the first page it was clear that this was a novel steeped in atmosphere, but the writing often went too far. There were so many similes that I started noticing them as constructions rather than being swept up in the imagery.
Janine: I did too, but I’m not sure if that was because there were many of them or because of repetitive word choices. Combined with repeated assertions, the latter gave the book a stuck-in-certain-grooves feel.
Sunita: I also found the language jarring at times. The word “filth” is used over and over again, to describe everything from villainous Englishmen to Indians to dirty shirts. It’s a powerful, evocative word, but it becomes a bludgeon here.
Janine: Yes, and it’s a disturbing word when applied to human beings.
I also want to mention the side characters. I did like Ian’s aunt, and Eva’s asylum roommate, Mary, two secondary female characters.
On the other hand, the villains – and I lost count of how many different villains appeared in this novel – didn’t have much subtlety or shades of gray, and some were over the top to such a degree that I found it difficult to suspend disbelief.
Sunita: Honestly, the depictions of the villains were so over the top that I started to make up extenuating circumstances and excuses for their behavior. The one-sidedness of the portrayals had the contradictory effect of making me less sympathetic toward Ian and Eva, because I began to distrust their POVs. You would think that the burden of guilt might make the bearer somewhat more sympathetic to others, but no one who stood in their ways had any redeeming qualities.
Janine: Good point. I didn’t make up backgrounds for the villains, but I did feel I was being hammered on the head with how evil they were.
The book also had multiple dropped threads and inconsistencies. For example, much is said about just how difficult Eva’s withdrawal from laudanum will be in the early part of the book, so I took this to be foreshadowing, but when she finally quits the opiate for good, a lot of the withdrawal period is skipped over.
Many of the flashbacks to Ian’s time in India are narrated in the dead Hamilton’s POV. This is unconventional enough that it made me wonder if Hamilton was not dead after all, and we were going to see him return to England before the end of the book. No such thing happened, so that turned out to be a big distraction.
Sunita: I never thought Hamilton was anything but dead, but he was such an unbelievably unpleasant person. I don’t think it was necessary to the plot to make him quite so irredeemably awful; after all, Englishmen died in India all the time, and Ian could have been wracked with guilt for any number of things that might have led Hamilton to an early grave.
Janine: I found it disappointing that while we were told Ian and Hamilton used to be good friends before Hamilton turned evil, except for one brief childhood scene, we only saw Hamilton in his villain mode. That made it hard to connect with Ian’s feelings of having lost a good friend. Shading Hamilton’s character and making him more nuanced could have helped us care about Ian more, IMO.
On a related topic, despite Eva’s supposedly deep love for her son Adam, she keeps thinking about how she and Ian should never have given in to the old earl and parted so she could marry Hamilton. That marriage produced Adam, but except for one brief nod to that, it was pretty much portrayed as a horrible mistake. That didn’t strike me as consistent with her love of her child.
Another inconsistency is that the asylum-owning villainess, Mrs. Palmer, all but cackles and rubs her hands in planning revenge on Eva, and there is more than one mention that Eva could be indicted for the murder of an asylum guard she didn’t kill. Yet nothing ever happens on the latter front, nor do we ever see Mrs. Palmer’s defeat on page.
And in another dropped thread, in the middle of the book, Ian’s aunt interrupts Eva and Ian in the midst of a hot kiss, and then lectures Ian about it. She seems determined to chaperone Eva in the middle of the book out of concern for propriety, but toward the end, Eva and Ian sleep together multiple times while residing in the same house with Ian’s aunt.
No explanation about how they pull this off is given, but I don’t see how it could possibly be kept hidden from all the servants and consequently from the aunt. Given the time period, it struck me as outrageously unlikely that someone as determined to protect Eva’s virtue as Ian’s aunt would suddenly begin to turn a blind eye (if that is what happened).
Without giving spoilers, the particular HEA we saw in the epilogue was historically inaccurate. If I’d been able to suspend disbelief, I would have found it heartwarming, but it isn’t true to the Victorian England class structure.
Sunita: Surprisingly, the historical errors were not the main thing in the book that bothered me. There were some obvious ones: Ian and Hamilton join the Khyber Rifles in the early 1860s, which is impossible since the unit wasn’t formed until nearly fifteen years later. The flashbacks to army life in India and the depiction of the Indian troops and civilians didn’t ring particularly true either, but nothing in the book really depends on them to be authentic, the scenes in India are just backstory to Ian and Eva’s travails in 1865 England.
And I agree with you about the ending. The tone of lighthearted happiness was hard to believe after the almost unremitting gloom that preceded it. When characters go through so much trauma and torment over the course of a story, it just doesn’t work to wrap it up in a chapter. And I can’t say more because of spoilers, but the plot twist at the end infuriated me.
Janine: It pains me to say this, since I know the author of this book a little bit through Twitter, and what I know of her, I’ve always liked, but with all the frustrating issues I had with this novel, I’m going to have to give it a D.
Sunita: While I had a lot of problems with the characterizations and the writing style, I gave the author credit for trying something different. It was a C/C- until the last couple of chapters. Unfortunately, at that point it lost me for good and I agree with your grade of D.
PS from Janine: A question about the ending has come up. Since answering it involves going into a BIG SPOILER I’m going to put the answer below.