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REVIEW: Such Is Love by Mary Burchell

Dear Readers,

037310111xFrankly, before I read Ida Cook’s memoirs describing her life before, during and after WWII, I had never heard of her or her alias as Mary Burchell, Harlequin author extraordinaire. It was during the discussion of “Safe Passage” that several of her long time fans chimed in about their favorites among her many books. When Janine and I expressed an interest in reading one, Sunita, Queen Amongst Readers, generously offered to loan us her copies. Staggered by her willingness to mail off her own books, I stammered my thanks and looked forward to discovering just what it is about Burchell that still calls to readers decades after these books were first written.

Gwyneth Vilner eagerly awaits her marriage to Van Onslie. As she’s unpacking her wedding gown, her cool, collected and very unlovable mother drops a bomb. Gwyn’s aunt has decided to attend the ceremony after all and with that news, Gwyn is wrenched back to memories of six years ago. Then she was a silly, shy young woman of seventeen who fell for a bounder.

Terry Muirkirk, serial cad, took rich Gwyn for all he could then left her with the devastating news that he was already married. Gwyn’s hopes that it could all be forgotten were dashed when she discovered to her horror that she was expecting Terry’s child. Her mother and aunt took over, orchestrated the whole affair and, when Gwyn fell ill after the birth, broke the news that her sickly child had died.

It’s only in the days immediately before her marriage that Gwyn overhears the truth. Her child didn’t die and has been in an orphanage ever since and that institution is one of which her wealthy husband-to-be is a trustee. Dare she tell him the truth and risk their happiness? But even worse, what if he finds out on his own?

So here’s a Harlequin Presents with a twist. A typical slightly older, ‘titan of industry’ hero who believes his wife is pure instead of the usual She’s A Slut! plot we get now. Which of course is the irony of the story since this heroine did do the nasty when she shouldn’t have.

The thing that is obvious from the start of the book is that, despite the fact that it was re-released several times, it should be read as a historical. First published in 1939, I could see the plot working even as late as probably the 1970s (and indeed, that is when most of the reissues were printed), but today I would imagine most readers would shake their heads at the heroine’s dilemma. Illegitimate child? Big whoop. But then, it would have been social suicide to be an unwed mother. Especially if one were of Good Family.

The second point is that readers who don’t like a power imbalance between hero and heroine might find this one hard going. Van Onslie is 35 to Gwyn’s 23. He’s a steel magnate, a wealthy mover and shaker who is viewed by the world as a hard man. When he first meets Gwyn, he moves fast, too fast for her liking, to secure her as his own. But even with that shaky start, within a month, they’re engaged. It’s expected that Gwyn will stay at home as “Van Onslie’s wife” to do the social rounds as a “lady who lunches.” Shopping and later child care are the only things expected of her.

Gwyn, meanwhile, often comes off as slightly childish, despite her layer of sophistication and the hardening caused by her disillusionment with Terry. Yet, ironically, it is this very shell which first attracts Van and keeps his interest until he has a chance to get to know the real Gwyn. In addition, his occasional use of the term “child” as an endearment for Gwyn grated.

As I read the book, I kept thinking that Gwyn always seems so grateful to Van – and even she mentions this later on – and aware that his is the final word and say in all matters. She can cajole him, she can implore him, she can wheedle and – as her mother says – train him but it is always with Van that ultimate authority rests. Yet, in 1939, this would have been accepted as totally natural. Still, it’s hard to see these two as married when Van usually appears as a benevolent, slightly amused, parent, granting Gwyn’s wishes.

And wow does Gwyn have a major wish. After learning of her child’s location at Greystones, she jumps at the chance to visit the place with Van. Quickly narrowing down the list of possibles, Gwyn zeroes in on the one who she believes to be her child. Then manipulates her way into getting Van to agree to a month’s visit for the child followed by a more permanent solution. And all the time, Gwyn barely dodges Van finding out the truth. And all the time, she’s eaten alive with guilt at the secrets she’s hiding from her husband.

I wondered how long she would be able to carry it off and how she could contemplate living such a lie with a man she claims to love. It takes an outside event to precipitate the truth from Gwyn. And while she debated what to do, the tension built to an almost unbearable level. I almost had a sick headache reading as she agonized about whether or not to risk everyone’s happiness or to stay quiet. And here is where this book is timeless. For it wasn’t just her position as a wife to a wealthy man that kept her silent but rather her love for her husband and her wish to spare him any pain on her behalf.

Yet, I knew, and felt she knew, that the truth had to come out. That Van deserved the truth and the chance to react to it as he would, rather than be kept in the dark “for his own good.” At this point my questioning moved to how he would find out and if Gwyn would have the strength to reveal all, herself, or if she would take the coward’s way out. Her choice makes the book worthwhile while his earlier choice validates why she fell in love with him in the first place and defended him to those who thought him cold.

I could see myself picking the book up just to reread the last 5 pages
whenever I needed a pick-me-up. They’re that powerful and moving. They deliver such an emotional wallop and reveal the true strength of this couple’s commitment to each other. There are things about the book which still grate but this scene redeems almost all. It also makes me hope that one day Harlequin will re-release Burchell’s novels as ebooks. They deserve a wider audience. B

~Jayne

Post script – after I had noticed with horrified fascination that the book was originally published in 1939, I began to pay attention to the timing of events. Gwyn and Van marry in summer and Gwyn’s mother stays with them in London for a few days in September before supposedly heading off to Paris for some shopping. It sent a shiver down my spine, and made me wonder how far in advance the book was written before publication since no mention is ever made of the events reaching a boiling point in Europe during those very months.

This book is out of print. It’s original date of publication is 1939. The Publisher is Harlequin and it’s ISBN is 037310111X

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

28 Comments

  1. likari (LindaR)
    May 23, 2009 @ 14:21:15

    What a find — thanks for this review, Jayne.

    Part of the satisfaction (for me) of reading books or watching movies that were created in another era is experiencing the conventional wisdom of the time through the unquestioned assumptions of the creator.

    For instance, has anybody watched A Summer Place, Where the Boys Are, or The Trouble With Angels recently?

    I too hope Harlequin will release some of these gems from another time in ebooks — it would be no huge expense to them, and they could create a whole new line, maybe call it Love Somewhere in Time? ha.

    Again, thanks so much for this review.

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  2. Venus Vaughn
    May 23, 2009 @ 14:32:10

    What a lovely review. It’s nice to read about historical romances that were written as contemporaries for their time.

    Those ’70s and ’80s books that were written with Rape As Love being an undercurrent of the theme are as much of a commentary on their time as the 2000s books written with First Date Sex as Love are. It’s interesting to see how they age.

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  3. Susan Reader
    May 23, 2009 @ 14:57:54

    It’s very very hard to find a Harlequin that refers to ‘current events,’ whatever that might mean at the time it was written.

    All the Mary Burchell books were first published by Mills & Boon, which was a little more willing to accept the real world. So sometimes they had to be re-edited when Harlequin published them. There’s one I remember with a dramatic scene where a building falls down (or burns, details escape me). In the M&B original it falls down because it’s in the middle of the Blitz. In the Harlequin version, it just falls down–no explanation.

    Mary Burchell (not surprisingly, given Ida Cook’s personal experience) brought in a good bit of refugee experiences into her books. There’s at least one about displaced persons after WWII, and two or three that involve the Hungarian uprising of1956.

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  4. Sunita
    May 23, 2009 @ 15:33:13

    Jayne, how wonderful that you liked and reviewed this! What a terrific review, too.

    I agree that reading Burchell is really like reading historicals now, in the sense of reading old books that were current at the time they were written. I may be misremembering, but while the virgin-tycoon, adultery, and divorce plot points are very dated, I don’t remember too much of the sort of careless anti-Semitism and class condescension that makes some other authors more difficult.

    BTW, I finally read Safe Passage and had tears in my eyes repeatedly (which doesn’t happen very often. Your review was spot on.

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  5. Sunita
    May 23, 2009 @ 15:42:33

    @likari (LindaR):

    Part of the satisfaction (for me) of reading books or watching movies that were created in another era is experiencing the conventional wisdom of the time through the unquestioned assumptions of the creator.

    Yes yes yes. Even when there are aspects of the book that make it difficult to read, I appreciate getting the full picture, so to speak. Of course you don’t want contemporary authors who are writing historicals to reproduce all the unsavory bits of the era, but you can’t expect contemporary writers not to be products of their time.

    What I find so interesting about Burchell’s books was that they had a sexual tension and awareness that was clearly learned through observation rather than experience on her part. And unlike Betty Neels, she didn’t seem to be as insistent about writing about people and contexts that had clearly become obsolete (although her sales did fall off in the 1960s and 1970s, I believe, because she wasn’t writing the spicier types of books and heroes).

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  6. rigmarole
    May 23, 2009 @ 17:58:27

    I’ve been kind of nervous, hoping that the Burchells (whichever ones the reviewers settled on) would satisfy. So this comes as a relief and a bit of a surprise. Maybe I will now summon up the courage to rec some to my friends.

    I don’t have a good track record AT ALL.

    As a big fan of marriage of convenience plots, hers are among my very favorites, particularly when the couple actually has sex before the I love yous. I can’t think of any other Harlequin writers back then who went there.

    Also, I adore The Trouble with Angels! (I heart TCM the most.)

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  7. romsfuulynn
    May 23, 2009 @ 19:07:23

    You’ve inspired me to go back and read some of mine. She has an interconnected series about the world of music that I remember very fondly.

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  8. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 03:18:02

    Okay Jane, I want to know how you found this cover – which is the exact one on the edition I read. I searched and searched and didn’t find any covers for any of the editions of this book. Am amazed and astounded at your Internet powers.

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  9. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 03:21:44

    likari, love your idea of a new Harlequin line. Let’s hope they’re reading. And I adore “The Trouble with Angels.” I didn’t care for the follow up movie as much but Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russel are great in the first one.

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  10. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 03:26:07

    What a lovely review. It's nice to read about historical romances that were written as contemporaries for their time.

    When Sunita first sent me the books, I flipped them over to check out the blurbs. And was gobsmacked to read the bigamy, child-out-of-wedlock plot of this one. I sat there thinking, “Harlequin published this in 1939?!” Whoa and good on them.

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  11. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 03:32:28

    but while the virgin-tycoon, adultery, and divorce plot points are very dated, I don't remember too much of the sort of careless anti-Semitism and class condescension that makes some other authors more difficult.

    Actually, while there’s no anti-Semitism, there is some mention of class. Van’s niece’s subplot opened a whole can of worms about who someone’s People are and being properly introduced so that the Wrong Sort don’t climb their way up the social ladder. Remember when the orphanage director is telling Van and Gwyn about the child’s background and says that “the mother, at least, came from Good People”?

    BTW, I finally read Safe Passage and had tears in my eyes repeatedly (which doesn't happen very often. Your review was spot on.

    Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it. The thing that made it work so well for me is the matter of fact way that Cook tells her story. There’s no overdramatization or playing things up for the story.

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  12. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 03:47:24

    She has an interconnected series about the world of music that I remember very fondly.

    Sunita sent me the first in the Warrender series, “A Song Begins” which I hope to read soon. Since it was first published in 1965, I’m looking forward to seeing if her writing style kept pace with the social changes of the day.

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  13. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 03:54:38

    It's very very hard to find a Harlequin that refers to ‘current events,' whatever that might mean at the time it was written.

    Hmmm, I’m not so sure I want to read about current events in a contemporary. To me, it seems like that would just date the book in a few years. Yet, on the other hand, if the book is still being read decades later, that is what will add “period” feel to the story. Of course, I would think that an author would want a book to age well and still be thought of as contemporary even years later. It’s a puzzle to me as to which would be best.

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  14. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 04:02:24

    I've been kind of nervous, hoping that the Burchells (whichever ones the reviewers settled on) would satisfy. So this comes as a relief and a bit of a surprise.

    I’ve got two more that Sunita loaned me. We’ll see if my luck holds!

    Maybe I will now summon up the courage to rec some to my friends.

    Janine got one of the ones that you recommended earlier and I’m looking forward to her thoughts on it.

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  15. Laura Vivanco
    May 24, 2009 @ 04:11:58

    When Sunita first sent me the books, I flipped them over to check out the blurbs. And was gobsmacked to read the bigamy, child-out-of-wedlock plot of this one. I sat there thinking, “Harlequin published this in 1939?!” Whoa and good on them.

    There’s no way Harlequin could have published this in 1939, as it wasn’t founded until 1949, so it must have been published by Mills & Boon in 1939. As far as I can remember, according to jay Dixon’s book about Mills & Boon, they had quite a lot of storylines about adultery, too (though I can’t remember which of the early decades she was referring to when she wrote that). When Mary Bonnycastle started acquiring Mills & Boon romances for Harlequin she seemed to have a preference for doctor/nurse ones which had nothing in them that she deemed to be immoral.

    It also makes me hope that one day Harlequin will re-release Burchell's novels as ebooks.

    I wish they’d do this too, and do the same for Essie Summers’s novels. They’re also rather difficult to get hold of and so I’ve only been able to find a few. I’m sure there must be other authors from earlier periods in M&Bs/Harlequin’s history whose novels would also be worth republishing.

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  16. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 05:04:16

    Yes, you are correct. It was Mills and Boon. I’m afraid I’m using the two publishers interchangeably.

    Did Essie Summers write contemporaries or historicals?

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  17. Laura Vivanco
    May 24, 2009 @ 05:27:15

    Essie Summers wrote contemporaries, and as far as I know they tended to be set in New Zealand. There’s a list of her novels at Wikipedia, and a more detailed biography at Christchurch City Library’s website.

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  18. Sunita
    May 24, 2009 @ 09:54:56

    @Laura Vivanco: Laura, have you tried abebooks.com for Essie Summers? That’s where I picked up a half-dozen. Like you, I really like her books, and she was extremely popular in the same period as Burchell (although she came along to M&B later, if I remember correctly). I just checked the website and there are quite a few books available in the UK, even more across Europe and in the US.

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  19. Sunita
    May 24, 2009 @ 10:00:15

    @Jayne: Yes, of course, you’re right about the classism. I tend not to pay as much attention to that, because I always expect it (and spending my childhood in India with its caste and class hierarchies, I tend to have a bit of a tin ear even though I don’t agree with it). Virginia (veasleyd1) has a very insightful set of comments in a thread at AAR about the unthinkingly insulting way people refer to the “lower orders” in English set books, both contemporaneously and in historicals written today.

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  20. Laura Vivanco
    May 24, 2009 @ 10:31:06

    Sunita, I think you’re right that some of them are available for not too high a price, but when I looked online for copies of a couple that I’d got out from the library, the lowest price on Abebooks for one of them was £7.28 (not including postage from the US) and £7.62 (not including postage from Australia). They’re probably two of her older books, so it’s not surprising that they’d be more expensive than some of her rarer ones. It also suggests to me that Harlequin might make some money if they issued them as ebooks.

    Jayne, I’d second what Sunita said about Virginia’s comments. Her most recent comment on the topic seems to summarise a lot of what she’s said on that thread. It’s here.

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  21. Jayne
    May 24, 2009 @ 10:48:27

    Bah! It’s as bad as the way Georgette Heyer wrote about the boy who had been substituted for Leonie in These Old Shades. His upbringing and education had no impact at all — he had been born a peasant, so he was a clod.

    I so agree with this statement. I didn’t read “These Old Shades” until a few years ago and was appalled by this. While I also hate the “let’s be buddies and best friends” that I see between the upper classes and their servants in a lot of recent historicals, this denegration is one aspect of historical life that I’m happy to skip.

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  22. romsfuulynn
    May 24, 2009 @ 11:20:59

    Mystical Unicorn has some Burchell and some Summers
    http://www.myunicorn.com

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  23. likari (LindaR)
    May 24, 2009 @ 11:28:27

    This might be my own character defect, but I don’t mind classism in older historicals. In fact, the “let’s be BFFs” in current historicals turns me off.

    Classism existed, and it still exists.

    And I wonder: If you did a survey of who was offended by classism in older books and who didn’t mind it at all, I would be willing to bet that the ones most offended by it are the ones who might be described as “the higher orders.”

    I am definitely a lower-orders gal. The classism — along with the wish fulfillment and fantasies of riches (freedom from worry) — in romance, current and published in the past, are a balm to the constant existential anxiety of living in America these days with not enough.

    Not enough money. Not enough job security. Not enough retirement security. Not enough love.

    When an author pretends class does not exist, or prettifies the class power imbalance, it’s like pretending that the existential anxiety caused by “not enough” doesn’t exist. I don’t read romance to ignore my problems. I read it to soothe them.

    Well, actually, I read it for the fun of a good yarn, ha.

    But the class stuff is definitely a sub-element of my enjoyment.

    The upper classes (today) DO think the lower classes are, well, equal, if it comes to that — but not quite AS equal, if you know what I mean. I enjoy stories that don’t deny that reality.

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  24. Stephanie
    May 24, 2009 @ 11:53:27

    Surprisingly racy plot for a book published in 1939, and intriguing to read about. But am I the only one who finds the HP cover a bit disturbing? That big pink bow in the heroine’s hair makes her look about seven years old: not old enough for marriage and certainly not for motherhood. Add in the hero’s calling her “child” and acting more like a father figure than a lover, and well . . . my reflexive response is ick.

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  25. xaipe
    May 24, 2009 @ 19:09:57

    Yes, the Harlequin Presents cover is ridiculous and disturbing. I imagine that the illustrator was using pink because the first page refers to the pink tint of Gwyneth’s wedding dress, but I am certain that Gwyneth’s wedding dress must have been gorgeous and the dress on the cover is hideous.

    The cover of my M&B edition is much better, although the easel makes me think that the man depicted should have been the cad Terry.

    This was a great and fair review (especially Jayne’s comment about rereading the last few pages, which I do myself from time to time. I did it today after I read the review and it made me weep, as usual), and approaching it as a kind of period piece is useful. I will say though that Gwyneth is not the typical Burchell heroine, who often expects to work to support herself (or even if she wasn’t raised to expect to finds herself in a position where she needs to) before marriage at least.

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  26. Jayne
    May 25, 2009 @ 06:16:08

    Stephanie, I don’t like that HP cover either. But mainly because I hate 1970s fashions – and frankly can’t believe that they’re making a comeback now. But I do love the .95 cent price it would have cost.

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  27. Jayne
    May 25, 2009 @ 06:18:53

    xaipe, I love the cover you have! And I’m intrigued by your comment on the typical Burchell heroine needing to work. I guess that’s a reflection on Burchell/Cook’s own life where she and her sister worked as civil servants for years.

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  28. Janine
    May 25, 2009 @ 13:59:19

    The upper classes (today) DO think the lower classes are, well, equal, if it comes to that -’ but not quite AS equal, if you know what I mean.

    LOL Linda. I’m reminded of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”

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