REVIEW: Scandal by Carolyn Jewel
Everybody’s Talkin – Scandal by Carolyn Jewel
Reading is so much very about context I sometimes wonder how on earth we’re meant to sensibly assess our responses to, well, just about any book we pick up. I came to Scandal immediately after Bared to You, which had left me a very sad llama indeed. But then Carolyn Jewel took me in out of the rain, wrapped me up in a blanket, gave me a cup of tea and made it all okay again.
I liked Scandal a lot, and I’m 90% certain my enthusiasm wasn’t solely related to the fact it wasn’t Bared to You. It’s a bit of a puzzlebox of a book and it only really comes together after you’ve finished it when you can see where all the pieces are meant to go, which meant it engaged me intellectually more than it drew me in emotionally. That threw me a bit because it’s not what I’m used to in romance, but it was also part of the reason I was so terribly interested in Scandal. It’s quite unlike any historical I’ve read before. From my vast pool of, like, six but y’know.
The book takes place across two timelines. It opens with the Earl of Banallt, ye traditional Regency badboy, rocking up to propose to the heroine, the recently widowed Sophie Evans. They have a hinted-at history of friendship and betrayal from a time when they were both previously married, Banallt to a disappointingly invisible woman (more on this later) and Sophie to a faithless, worthless rake who only wanted her for her fortune. So far, so typical. But Sophie listens very politely to Banallt’s proposal and then turns him down, and that was so not what I was expecting it blew my little socks off. And I spent the rest of Scandal fascinated and confused in almost equal measure.
It’s the first straight romance (straight in the sense of having no paranormal, fantasy or mystery elements to create an external plot) I’ve read where I had literally no idea what was going to happen next, or how the happy ending was supposed to come about. On the one hand, this was quite exciting but, on the other, I found it difficult to get a handle on the emotional trajectory, so that by the time Sophie and Banallt had decided their love and future happiness was actually viable, my response came down to “huh, well … that’s good?” rather than anything more impassioned or joyous. I can’t tell if this was a weakness in me as reader – perhaps if I was more familiar with the genre, I’d have been less hopelessly lost – or a natural consequence of the preoccupations and priorities of the text itself.
Scandal struck me as quite Austenian in many intriguing ways. I’m not trying to play amateur comparative lit here, but one of the things I really like about Austen is what you might call the “love … and” principle: this notion that love can’t just be this abstract thing, it has to be mediated through economics and society and selfhood; that it has to inform behaviour, and engage the mind, as well as the heart and, err, other bits. With Sophie and Banallt, the attainment of love is very much not the focus of their story. It’s already there. It’s about negotiating the possibility of a life together around love and interaction of behaviour, principles and emotion within particular social and personal contexts.
Just as Darcy’s love is pretty much worthless to Elizabeth unless he learns to behave in a way she can admire, Banallt’s love has no meaning to Sophie without his fidelity as well. She turns him down at the beginning of the book, not because of his past betrayal or because she doesn’t have feelings for him, but because – freed from economic or social constraints – she has resolved to marry only for love, and to a man she believes will be faithful to her. This is the spine of the conflict that keeps them apart for much of the book: Sophie’s private Catch 22 of being in love with, and loved by, a man she believes cannot be true to her.
As you might expect from a book called Scandal (a theme, a theme!), society plays a strong role in Sophie and Banallt’s story. One of the most effective aspects of the book, for me, was the portrayal of the deeply claustrophobic world which Banallt and Sophie move through and are trapped in. This is a long quote but indulge me:
Guests had begun arriving from other engagements, and the parlor was now noisy in addition to crowded. He deliberately sought out Sophie so as to avoid meeting her. Despite the crush, he found her quickly [..] She stood near the middle of the room with his cousin Harry’s wife Margaret, facing the door he’d come in by. Sophie’s dark-lashed eyes were fixed on a woman he’d once have pursued straight to a mattress. Mrs. Peters stood with her back to him, so he could only imagine the quizzical expression on her face from the way her head was tipped to one side. Margaret watched Mrs. Peters with an expression that suggested whatever she was hearing from the woman was not to her liking. Sophie looked as if she’d d just been insulted.
The book is full of scenes like this. I don’t think I’ve read a historical (again, pool of six, so take it with a pinch of salt) that has so effectively conveyed such an intense and discomforting sense of social reality. Gatherings feel bewilderingly full of people. The text itself is a crush of names and faces, deceptions and rumours. It’s a world full of watchers, in which Sophie and Banallt’s mutual hyper-awareness creates a lone point of stillness that anchors them not only to each other but to themselves. And the nature of their society, with its hypocrisies and stifling mores, provides both backdrop and context for Sophie’s concerns about Banallt – he wants to prove to her that he’s a changed man but his society will only ever see him as the rake he used to be, and I think one of the many things Scandal wants us to think about is that intersection of our public and private identities: can we truly be someone other than the person people perceive us to be.
Equally, I found the dynamic between Sophie and Banallt both fascinating and utterly different to anything I’ve encountered in the genre before. I think he’s pretty much the only hero I’ve met who has come to the conclusion that, perhaps, the best way to make a woman like you is to, y’know, be nice to her. His initial introduction and betrayal aside, he consistently treats Sophie well over the course of the book, supports her, admires her beauty and her intellect, wants to protect her but at the same time respects her right to make choices – even if those choices do not include marrying him. This shouldn’t be refreshing but it totally was. Also there’s a bit towards the middle of the novel where Sophie decides that, even if she won’t marry Banallt, she might as well accept the fact she fancies the breeches off him … so they become lovers, something that causes her not a moment of guilt or shame:
She was a wicked woman now. An immoral woman. And she didn’t much care. (p. 170)
Go Sophie, go Sophie. And what’s even more interesting about that sequence is that Banallt only agrees to it because he loves her and he’ll pretty much do anything she wants for a hope of winning her heart:
He didn’t want Sophie to be a lover of his. What he wanted was to a permanent, legal relationship duly sanctified by the Church of England. But he knew better than to the raise the subject directly … “If that’s all I’m to have from you Sophie, we’re lovers.” (165)
So you have this completely delicious – and slightly tragic – reversal where the woman is in it for the no-strings bonking and the man desperately wants to get married. Also, I know reformed rake is a centuries old fantasy, but I think Scandal offers an interesting twist on it: Banallt is not reformed by the love of a good woman, he goes to some quite significant effort to reform himself for the mere hope of the love of one particular woman. To me, at least, that’s a far more romantic proposition, because it suggests both agency and real personal commitment. I guess I’m just not a DIY fan, especially when it comes to partners.
The downside of all this was that I didn’t really get much sense of Banallt’s rakishness, and therefore why Sophie was so convinced he hadn’t changed, and wasn’t able to. When we first meet him, he’s in full Shithead Mode, turning up at Sophie’s house with her awful husband and a bunch o’ whores, but he’s clearly a much better man than Tommy and, despite their rather tense beginning, Sophie and Banallt soon establish an understanding together. At one point Sophie tells Banallt: “I would rather die than marry the man my husband wished he could be” (p. 20) but since this side of Banallt’s character is neither established or addressed in the book itself – just alluded to – it’s hard to really understand what was going on with him. I mean did he just wake up one morning and decide to be a corrupt, immoral rake for a bit? It wasn’t that I needed to have a specific explanation (like his parents didn’t love him enough or a woman was mean to him once) but it was hard to read any depth into Banallt’s decision to be a better man when I had no idea what drew him to being a bad one. By the same token, I was rather interested in this wife he claimed he loved, but wouldn’t be faithful to, but apart from conveniently dying, she’s otherwise completely absent from the text.
Sophie I found generally likeable but, unlike Banallt, she doesn’t really change over the course of the novel – she just changes in her response to him– and that’s measurably less engaging. She’s one of those not-beautiful heroines everybody fancies, which is fine, although I was slightly exhausted by the number of people who ended up wanting to marry her over the course of the book. We were seriously in “form an orderly queue, gentlemen” territory. There were lots of things I admired about Sophie – she writes books, she’s sharp and intelligent, she got through a basically miserable marriage reasonably intact – but I never really warmed to her as much as I felt I should have done. I think it might have had something to do with just how infatuated Banallt is with her. His POV is so very saturated in Sophie-adoration I found a bit wearying at times and, strangely enough, it kind of got in the way of seeing Sophie. She’s constantly at the centre of Banallt’s desperate yearning which means it’s always less about who she is than who she is to Banallt. But, then again, I guess that’s thematically appropriate because it’s a book so absolutely embedded in ideas of perception and context.
I know I’m using a lot of words like “interested” and “fascinated” and “intrigued” to talk about Scandal, and that brings to me to my main issue with the book, which was that I remained interested, fascinated and intrigued, but I didn’t really feel very much while I was reading. The basis of Sophie and Banallt’s relationship – the friendship that develops into love – is mainly established in the backstory timeline but, even though the sequences are textually close together, they’re chronologically not and I felt like I was being asked to carry forward a lot on pure faith. I really enjoyed the backstory segments because they were the moments when I felt closest to understanding who Sophie and Banallt truly were and what they gave each other but, because nearly all their future interactions are, to some degree, socially constrained or involve some element of holding back or concealment (even when they’re having sex), by the time they got married and decided to have a HEA, I’d sort of lost them in the noise.
Similarly, I’d spent the whole book trying to figure out how Ms Jewel was going to extract her characters from such a deeply complicated mess of human feeling, moral principle, social pressure and past history. I think because I perceived the obstacles standing between Banallt and Sophie as being primarily internal, I expected the resolutions to be likewise. But, instead, at the midpoint of the novel there’s a sudden death and a welter of happenings, none of which seem all that closely connected to the events preceding them. John and Fanny Dashwood turn up on temporary loan from Sense and Sensibility to make Sophie’s life miserable and – out of other options – she decides she might as well marry Banallt for money and security, after all. It’s possible I missed something, but this jarred me slightly loose from the text. It wasn’t what I thought the first half of the novel was leading me towards and, consequently, I found it a bit lacklustre as a conclusion to all the stuff that had initially drawn me in.
Looking back on the book, I can see (and admire) the intricacy of the way the dual chronologies interact, reflecting and contextualising each other. I was, however, sometimes at a slight loss as to know how to read particular scenes in juxtaposition. Banallt’s big betrayal is a somewhat aggressive attempt to sleep with Sophie, not long after receiving the news that his young daughter (the one good thing he says he has ever done in his life) has died. In the present timeline, when Sophie is herself bereaved, she turns to Banallt for physical comfort, which he gives her, utterly selflessly. Obviously I spotted the parallelism (give the man a prize) but I wasn’t sure how to interpret it: was it meant to redeem Banallt’s original betrayal (as he gives, without thought to himself, that which he would have previously taken from Sophie) or to expose the hypocrisy of Sophie’s original refusal. After all, when somebody you love is suffering, it seems a bit harsh to reject them because of your personal morals or your sense of public ethics – especially when you’re clinging to those for someone you doesn’t love you, and has treated you really badly. Or perhaps it was simply meant to reflect on their mutual selfishness at that time – Banallt pushing Sophie for sex, Sophie pushing him away – and their gradual movement to place where Banallt is willing to give and Sophie is willing to accept his giving.
Overall, Scandal struck me as a genuinely unique book – one I suspect I’d probably appreciate even more on a second reading. I liked the depth of the world, the ambition of the premise, the multiple timelines and the way it challenged basically all of my genre expectations. Your mileage may vary on that one but my tiny mind: we may consider it blown.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Scandal: apparently unattractive women are the most beautiful. Speculating randomly about the colour of a woman’s nipples is perfectly normal behaviour. Two timelines are better than one. When in doubt, become a romance writer.