May 22 2009
Frankly, 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
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