REVIEW: Unveiled by Courtney Milan
Dear Ms. Milan:
I have heard such good things about your early Victorian-set novels that I kept meaning to read one. When the controversy over the Publisher's Weekly review erupted, I knew I would have to read Unveiled. While more confused than ever about that infamous review, I have been thinking a lot about the book since I finished it, about how different books appeal to different aspects of our reading character. Unveiled is a book that appealed strongly and distinctly to my intellectual side.
Ash Turner always had a knack for the deal. He had seemingly infallible instincts in business and in people, and unlike men who deliberated and weighed options, Ash knew almost instantly whether he could trust a person or situation, and he amassed quite a fortune acting on those instincts. Ash had also made a promise to his father that he would look after his siblings, a promise Ash had always felt he had not really kept. While his father had been a successful mill owner, his death allowed Ash's mother to exercise her excessive zealotry (she gave her children whole Bible verses for names, which they shortened to one word), which ultimately resulted in his sister's death and poverty for his two brothers. Soon after Hope died, Ash left for India to make his own fortune, and by the time he returned, his two brothers, Mark and Smite, were homeless and alone in Bristol, unwilling – or unable – to talk about their experiences during that time. This only made Ash work harder to secure his brothers' happiness, which he felt could only be ensured once the family took its rightful (in Ash's view) place. Which is, unfortunately, occupied by Ash's fifth cousin twice removed, aka the Duke of Parford.
Privy to the fact of the duke's bigamist second marriage, Ash has petitioned the House of Lords to declare the duke's children illegitimate and therefore unable to inherit the dukedom, substituting Ash and his siblings in their place. And now Ash has arrived at Parford with his younger brother, Mark, in tow, assuring Mark that the estate will be a perfect place for him to finish his philosophical treaty on chastity (I cannot wait to read his book!) – not to mention a perfect time for Ash to ensure that the estate is in good working order and the accounts in tact before the House of Lords makes their final decision. Upon arrival, Ash spies among the servants waiting out front a woman he instinctively knew was destined to be his.
The woman, Anna Margaret Dalrymple, is the daughter of the duke who has remained behind in disguise as Margaret Lowell, nurse to her own ailing father, to ensure that the Turner brothers do no unnatural harm to the man standing between them and the dukedom. She should hate everything about Ash and his brother, and for a while she manages to maintain her disdain and her father's fragile health. However, Ash is the kind of man who has gotten a lot of what he earned by his innate charm and charisma, as well as the profound respect he pays to each person, regardless of station, education, or wealth. He knows what it means to be an outsider (he still feels like an outsider to his own brothers' close relationship), that money and station can purchase security but cannot guarantee it. Even though he believes Margaret to be a nurse, he regards her with deference and with kindness, making her believe that she has substance as a person beyond her title or name. With friends shunning her, fiancé abandoning her, father treating her as useless, and brothers off trying to persuade the House of Lords to their side, Ash's solicitous charm is ultimately more seductive than the humiliation his petition for her de-legitimation has caused:
"Do you know why my peers want their brides to have pale skin?”
She was all too aware of the golden glow of vitality emanating from him. She could feel the warmth in his finger. She shouldn't encourage him. Still, the word slipped out. "Why?"
"They want a woman who is a canvas, white and empty. Standing still, existing for no other purpose than to serve as a mute object onto which they can paint their own hopes and desires. They want their brides veiled.
They want a demure, blank space they can fill with whatever they desire."
He tipped her chin up, and the afternoon sunlight spilled over the rim of her bonnet, touching her face with warmth.
"No." Margaret wished she could snatch that wavering syllable back. But what he said was too true to be borne, and nobody knew it better than she. Her own wants and desires had been insignificant. She'd been engaged to her brother's friend before her second season had been halfway over. She'd been a pale, insipid nothing, a collection of rites of etiquette and rules of precedent squashed into womanly form and given a dowry.
His voice was low. "Damn their bonnets. Damn their rules."
"What do you want?" Her hands were shaking. "Why are you doing this to me?"
"Miss Lowell, you magnificent creature, I want you to paint your own canvas. I want you to unveil yourself."
And thus is the novel a series of unveilings: the revelation of the Dalrymples' illegitimacy, of the various relationships in the novel, of Margaret's self-discovery and the secret of her identity, of Ash's own secret, which he has not shared with anyone until he shares it with Margaret, and of intimacy between Margaret and Ash. Characters act as mirrors to one another, not necessarily reflecting truth, but rather confirmation of what characters see in themselves. When the old Duke of Parford looks upon his daughter, for example, he sees his own uselessness and projects it on to her. When Margaret initially thinks about her erstwhile fiancé, she sees her own unworthiness as reflected in his abandonment of her once her standing and inheritance were imperiled. Even Ash, who seems so very confident and certain of his decisions feels inadequate, especially when he looks at his brothers, who share an ease of kinship in which he cannot participate. Surface versus substance, innuendo versus meaning, station versus self – all of these relationships are examined in the novel, with deeper and deeper layers of awareness connected to greater happiness.
For example, when Margaret's friends deserted her, she took that as a sign of her unworthiness. Until, that is, Ash makes her feel that she is a real person completely independent from her superficial nobility. This revelation changes the way Margaret begins to carry herself and to pursue some of the old relationships she let slip away, and consequently some of those relationships do change. Not all of them, as this is not fairyland, but some of the connections that had substance before can be reconstituted in a different way. Similarly, relationships Margaret always took for granted – like those with her two brothers – suddenly become the subject of deeper consideration once the superficial markers of worth and value are stripped away.
Without a doubt, Unveiled is a smart book. Although the text does not identify him as such, Ash struck me as philosophically something of a Utilitarian (remember that both Mill and Bentham argued passionately in favor of equal rights for women, among other social reforms), focused on creating the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people in his life. The issues of identity and self-consciousness are good reminders of Enlightenment philosophies, as well as German idealism (Kant, Hegel, etc.) and romanticism. We tend to think of Victorian England as this stuffy, stagnant time, but in truth is was an exciting and dynamic time, philosophically, technologically, socially, and politically. These characters reflect evolving ideas about the self and society, and they are both idealists (and somewhat idealized) in their own way.
Which is why I wanted so much to love this book. To love it with the passion and the intensity with which Ash and Margaret love each other. However, as strong as this book was intellectually, I felt somewhat disconnected from it emotionally. I could almost feel the novel being built while I was reading, and while I could see the relationship between Ash and Margaret progressing, beyond Ash's initial conviction about Margaret, I felt that so much of their relationship was built on Margaret's adoration of the confidence Ash inspires in her.
Consequently, I felt led more than propelled through the book. For example, Ash tells Margaret a story about a tiger cub he adopted in India. He is so determined to win the cat's favor, he subjects himself to being bit by her, because if he "'could win this magnificent creature's regard, it would truly mean something.'" The allegory here is obvious, but Margaret must spell the message out to us: "He'd just told her that she was worth it — she and all her prickles." There are a number of such examples in the book, places where I feel that the lesson is being explained to me rather than simply implied, and even though I recognized its usefulness in Margaret's own process of self-discovery, it felt a bit overworked.
Many times during my reading I wished for more passion in the narrative, more of that same kind of emotional catharsis Margaret experiences. I kept thinking about how ashes are left after everything of substance burns away, and that image had a double edge for me: even as Ash and Margaret are both unveiled in their true form, there was a dryness to the narrative that made me feel like the passion had been burned away. Had that passion been present for me, this book would truly have soared. Without it, my experience was definitely positive, but not as profound as I wanted it to be and felt it could be. That said, I will definitely be reading about the other Turner brothers. B/B-