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CLASSIC REVIEW:  Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux

CLASSIC REVIEW: Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux

This classic review is by The Fallen Professor who is a former literature academic who now runs her own freelance business and indulges in whatever the hell she wants to read. She’s especially fond of historical and paranormal romances, though she won’t turn her nose up at a good contemporary. Visit The Fallen Professor at her blog.

Knight in Shining Armor Jude Deveraux

A COUPLE OF NOTES:

 1.  Since one of the unique aspects of this novel is its ending, this review contains some spoilers. And, even though it’s a classic romance that’s been around for a while, I believe that new readers should be able to experience the ending for themselves if they wish. If you are such a reader, you’ll be able to easily avoid the spoiler section, since I’ve placed it at the very end.

2.  For this re-read, I picked up the Kindle version of the updated (2001) edition. According to the author, this new edition doesn’t change any plot points or characters, but adds some 50 pages to the original. Since I don’t have my original paperback anymore, I can’t tell where they were added, but I certainly don’t feel any big changes. The 2001 edition also includes an author’s note where Deveraux explains how she came to write this novel, and what it’s really about. This last point is important because it changed the way I viewed a couple of the main characters; but since I didn’t read the author’s note until I had finished the novel, my original opinion of these two will stand as-is, and I’ll elaborate on it in the spoiler section.

Dear Ms. Deveraux,

When I decided to revisit A Knight in Shining Armor (which was the secondromance novel I ever read, after Savage Thunder), I confess that I was almost afraid to re-read it for a couple of reasons. First, I remembered crying buckets_ during certain scenes, and honestly that’s not the kind of story I tend to read these days. Second, I worried that if I didn’t cry buckets this time around, I’d come away with a less than flattering view of my past self. I know, I know.

The good news is that (1) I didn’t cry (or, as Nicholas would say, get “onion-eyed”), but (2) oddly enough, I was probably more moved than the first time around. As the novel shows, time and experience leave their mark on a person, and that certainly includes me as a reader.

Also, just as I remembered, Dougless did enough crying for the both of us. Poor Dougless Montgomery, with her overachieving family and her inability to find her dream man. She’s gone from one bad boy to the next, and at the start of the novel is saddled with Robert Whitley, a surgeon who treats her like crap and who has what to me seemed like a really creepy relationship with his daughter from a previous marriage. This is one aspect of the novel I really didn’t like: Robert and Gloria are sometimes implausibly mean to Dougless, so much so that she ends up stranded in the middle of nowhere in rural England during a “family” vacation. To make matters worse, Gloria snatches Dougless’ purse when she drives off with dear daddy, leaving our heroine destitute as well as heartbroken.

Gloria is in her early teens, and Dougless constantly describes her as “pudgy” as well as spoiled and mean. And this petty behaviour on Dougless’ part really bothered me as well. I understand that Dougless feels legitimately victimized by Gloria, who is herself an insecure girl feeling very threatened by the lovely young woman her father lives with (he shares custody with his ex). But here’s the thing. Gloria takes her anger out on Dougless by lying and pouting and generally behaving like an adolescent. And Dougless, who’s an elementary school teacher and thus well acquainted with unruly behaviour, finally snaps and… slaps Gloria? Really? This was still a shocking scene the second time around, and seemed just as uncharacteristic of Dougless as the first time I read it.

Anyway, once our villains are out of the way, Dougless is left to fend for herself, so she does something that isvery characteristic of her and breaks down in tears. And yes, I know I’m being mean here, because Dougless has every reason to have a nervous breakdown at this point: she’s finally found a man she thinks she can take home to her family, one who had made it seem as if the trip to England was going to involve a marriage proposal, and she finds out he’s an abusive jerk who just gave his daughter a $5,000 diamond bracelet. However, any reader familiar with this novel know just how many tears Dougless sheds throughout the story, even if those tears play an important role in connecting with Nicholas.

Nicholas is Nicholas Stafford, Earl of Thornwyck. It is his tomb that Dougless cries on after being abandoned, and his effigy she gazes at as she wishes for a “knight in shining armour.” And voila, he appears, albeit only in half-armour (details, details…). Nicholas is understandably confused, since he had been sitting in a cell writing a letter to his mother and trying to avoid being executed for treason when he was called forth in time by Dougless’ despair. Soon this confusion turns to anger, since he believes Dougless to be a witch, and this conflict marks the start of their relationship.

I like the way the novel is constructed, with the first half taking part in the twentieth century, and the second in the sixteenth. The very beginning, however, takes place in the past, and the very end in the present. This juxtaposition very much pleases my pattern-loving brain, and feels well thought-out. It also underscores the fact that bothDougless and Nicholas are on personal quests, and that they both need to make fundamental changes. Finally, I think this construction helps us understand, and perhaps, accept, the ending. But more on that later.

Another aspect of the plot that I like is the shared sense of uncertainty: neither we nor the characters know what the exact “magical” item/piece of information is that will send Nicholas hurtling back into the sixteenth century. Without giving too much away, Dougless believes she has the answer at one point, but Nicholas remains. Then something important happens between them, and he does go back to his own time; however, when Dougless checks her history sources, she discovers that the worst has happened to Nicholas.

It is at this point that Dougless is sent back in time, and then the story becomes really interesting, because she’s sent back to four years before Nicholas is accused of treason. Which means that she’s trapped in 16th-century England and Nicholas doesn’t recognize her. I like this detail because, not only does it make sense from the point of view of the story (Dougless needs to prevent a long chain of events that would otherwise lead to Nicholas’ imprisonment), but also because it adds risk and adventure, and becomes the catalyst for Dougless’ own transformation. Because, in reality, Dougless is there to save herself as much as she is to help Nicholas. Her experiences in the 16th century will be a test of those qualities that usually fail her: confidence, a strong sense of identity, and ultimately the ability to make good choices for herself.

Once she finds herself in Elizabethan England, Dougless wheedles her way into the Stafford household, much to a suspicious Nicholas’ chagrin, and begins to work her charms on his family. Eventually, Nicholas begins feeling an uncanny connection to Dougless, and following a series of dramatic incidents he believes her claims of having come from the future to help him. However, there is one thing she asks him to do that he feels he cannot, and this becomes a source of tension with his family as well. The end of her stay is highly dramatic, alternating between joy and despair, with a final sense of bittersweet accomplishment.

And it is here, dear readers, that I must talk about the ending and other details that will definitely spoil a first reading. This is a long spoiler section, and I don’t want to make you scroll all the way down for my final thoughts and grade, so I’ll put them here. Readers wanting a more complete opinion can keep reading below the spoiler line.

A Knight in Shining Armor has many of the hallmarks of its time: melodrama, bigger-than-life characters, and a redheaded heroine who fights for the love of her life. These, I think, make the novel feel a little dated. There are also some aspects of Dougless’ and other characters’ behaviour that I really didn’t like, and that spoiled some scenes for me. But buried deep beneath all the drama and passion is a lovely meditation on history, and memory, and the ways we can (and cannot) control how we are remembered. It is these insights, the realism with which life in a different time period is approached, and the courage of the ending that make this novel worth reading. Therefore, I give this book a B+.

Thank you for the memories, Ms. Deveraux.

Sincerely,

FP

SPOILERS BEGIN

The novel ends with Dougless being sent back to her own time, alone. She has managed to keep Nicholas from marrying Lettice, and both the date of death on his tomb and the history books attest to the fact that he lived a long, fulfilling life. No longer seen as a playboy who got himself beheaded for treason, the Nicholas ultimately remembered is a scholar and architect who never married but whose son from a pre-Dougless union goes on to make the Stafford line prosperous.

And here’s the problem for many readers: Dougless doesn’t get her HEA with Nicholas. Instead, on the flight back from England she meets a man who eerily resembles him, and the book ends with their sharing a meal on the plane. This is a bold move for a romance novel ending, but for me it works.

You see, I find most time travel romances highly problematic for me for a couple of reasons. First, because I feel that there’s often too much of a compromise that one of the characters needs to make in order to reach an HEA with their hero/heroine. Second, because the way this compromise is attained is usually to make the alternate time period completely comfortable and attractive to the person who will be displaced.

In my opinion, the best aspect of the time travel in A Knight in Shining Armor is the fact that it doesn’t pretend that one can move seamlessly from one time period to another; there are repercussions, and especially serious ones for Dougless. There’s also a theme of responsibility that’s crucial to this story; allowing either Dougless or Nicholas to remain in the other’s time period would mean that one of them would not be taking responsibility for their actions, and thus a much needed transformation would not occur. In the end, how could either Nicholas or Dougless love someone willing to abandon their family and duties?

Therefore, it’s important that both Nicholas and Dougless realize that they belong in their own time, even if it means being apart. Nicholas, interested though he may be in modern life, will always have a sixteenth-century mentality. He’s never going to be the man Dougless really wants, because his concepts of honour and love are very different from hers (the scene where they argue over the meaning of Romeo and Juliet is especially telling here). Also, because he is honour-bound to his family, he cannot possibly remain in Dougless’ time; doing so would truly make him the irresponsible man whose legacy they’ve been trying to alter.

Dougless, for her part, needs to face the challenges of her own time, and not escape into a fantasy world. In this sense, I think the novel does a great job of showing the gritty realities of life in the sixteenth century, and of showing that without the Staffords’ protection, a lone woman in Elizabethan England would not fare well. And here, there’s also the crucial element of perception: while to future eyes Nicholas might pass for an eccentric who believes himself to be from the past, a sixteenth-century view of Dougless is much more dangerous. With her odd speech, wondrous medicines, and offbeat knowledge, she might naturally be thought to be a witch, and her fate would not be as benign. In other words, there’s something to be said for the way society’s opinions of outsiders have generally evolved over time. Yes, we might still be suspicious of things we see as “too different,” but realistically Nicholas would fare much better in twentieth century England than Dougless would in his time.

Therefore, to me it makes sense that they cannot end up together. If they did, they’d have to make compromises that would go against some very valid beliefs; and, more importantly, they would not fulfill their personal quests because of these compromises.

So the novel uses the trope of a reincarnation of sorts. Reed Stanford is the architect Dougless meets on the plane. She’s distraught, and initially refuses his attempts at comforting her. But eventually, he shows her the miniature Nicholas had commissioned of her, with the words “My soul will find yours” on the back, and explains he’s had it since childhood. And at this point, Dougless understands that she will, in a sense, reunite with Nicholas through this man who so uncannily resembles him.

Reed’s appearance works for me in several ways. First, I like the fact that he’s not presented as a direct descendant of Nicholas. His last name -Stanford- and his nationality -American- do suggest that he might belong to a branch of the family that emigrated to the New World (Nicholas had shown interest in Dougless’ home country), but he’s not the duke mentioned as the current heir to the Stafford estate. That would have cheapened the ending for me. The fact that Reed is an architect was also a nice detail, since this had been Nicholas’ passion, but one he didn’t feel he could freely pursue due to his social class. Finally, though there’s a strong sense of recognition between them, Reed and Dougless are going to start any potential relationship from scratch. And hopefully, by this time Dougless has become more confident in herself (we see she’s off to a good start in the way she speaks to her sister and deals with Robert upon her return to the present) and doesn’t revert to the doormat she was in her part relationships.

And here I’ll add a final note about her past relationship with Robert, and the way it’s resolved. As I mentioned at the start, I had a difficult time with Robert and Gloria throughout the novel, because they seem like cartoon villains. However, the author’s notes explain that there’s a good reason for his behaviour: A Knight in Shining Armor is a novel about alcoholism. Not about the drinking per se, but about the “alcoholic personality” that drives people to try to destroy those they believe to be more fortunate.

As Robert explains in his final meeting with Dougless, and the afterword confirms, the root of Robert’s anger is his feeling that Dougless is just “playing” at working for a living, because her rich family can bail her out any time she needs; while he has always struggled financially, and even as a prosperous surgeon he obsesses about money. So he takes this out on Dougless by making her pay for expensive things with the argument that as a “liberated woman” she should be glad he’s treating her as an equal; and Dougless, who has spent years going from one co-dependent relationship to the next, can’t find any arguments against this. This is another reason why it’s important for Dougless to remain in, and confront, her present. If she stays in the past with Nicholas, she’ll be trapped in a similar relationship, as his mistress; in the present, she has the chance to achieve closure with Robert and rebuild her self-esteem with the hopes of a future happy relationship with someone who loves her without wanting something from her.

SPOILERS END

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Dear Author

What Makes A Romance Novel Endure?

Specifically, what makes a Romance novel endure? Think about the hundreds of Romance novels published each month –  in a multitude of subgenres and formats – and the thousands that adds up to each year. Where do all these books go, and what makes one book remain in our collective memory over hundreds, even thousands, of others?

I started thinking about this when I was re-reading The Windflower for my conversational review with Sunita. Here is a book that in so many ways is indicative of its time (1984)—an innocent heroine with tons of bravado who pretty much grows up on page; a jaded hero who becomes emotionally in touch when he falls in lust and then love with the spirited but innocent heroine; and plenty of melodramatic urgency and extremity to make the hero and heroine’s journey to happiness both arduous and long. And yet, readers can still pick it up for the first time, years after its publication, and be immersed and enchanted. Is that what makes a “classic Romance”? And if so, what sets that book apart in providing that experience from all the others published along side it?

This question was raised in a sideways manner a few months ago when the idea of a Romance canon was raised. Wendy wrote a very good wrap-up of that particular controversy, with many suggested authors and books for a Romance canon.  And still, for every Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas, Joan Smith, Victoria Holt, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Nora Roberts, Christine Feehan, Bertrice Small, and Charlotte Lamb, there are dozens of names not only all but forgotten, but out of print to the point where their books are essentially out of circulation. And even for those authors whose names have not iconic, was their success presaged in their early works? Although the first few Lisa Kleypas books are among my favorite of her historicals, the writing is far weaker than her later books. And some of Charlotte Lamb and Anne Stuart’s books are just so chock full of crazy that some may wonder why they have remained so influential in the genre. And then there are writers like Bertrice Small, who, in some ways, are still writing in a similar vein to their earlier books, and whose work still seems to sell pretty robustly.

And then take a look at today’s market and how all over the place it seems. From the far extremes of erotic stories to the popularity of MC books and the upswing of New Adult, to the downslope of historicals, readers are complaining about poor writing, horrible editing, derivative plots, copycat themes, covers, and titles, and more chock full of crazy (can we just accept that that’s an ongoing theme in the genre?).

Italo Calvino has constructed a pretty famous checklist for designating a book as a classic. His list is pretty extensive, but here are a few key criteria:

The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.

A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

Salon’s Laura Miller took on the same question, pointing to Calvino’s list, as well as to a Goodreads discussion that raised the same issue.

Miller complicated the formula, pointing to the fact that individual taste plays a huge role in how a book is received:

This is why we will go on arguing about what constitutes a classic book for as long as we read books at all: While the label is bestowed by the culture at large and we tend to judge it by an unquantifiable impression we have of how much prestige has accumulated around a particular book, that prestige is still built from the idiosyncratic experiences of individual readers. The fact that many readers hate “The Scarlet Letter” can’t disqualify it as a classic, but only because many more readers have loved it, or at least found it profound. Yet that doesn’t mean the opinions of the rejecting readers don’t count or that they can’t at some point overbalance the novel’s admirers and cause it to drift into obscurity. No wonder those Vonnegut novels keep migrating. Whatever a classic book may be, it doesn’t ever seem to stand still.

And yet, there are books within the Romance genre that we almost universally recognize as classic. These are not even books that would qualify as pristinely written (Woodiwiss, for example, or Small), but they somehow rise above other books around them. Some books seem to have conflicted status – Judith Ivory’s books, for example. I know many readers who would not include them as classics and other readers who would. What qualifies or disqualifies her work from that title? Are Laura Kinsale’s books classics? How do her books compare to, say, Tracy Grant’s historicals? Or Christine Monson’s? When I was thinking about what character in genre Romance was most like The Windflower’s Cat, Samuel from Kinsale’s The Shadow and The Star was the first hero I thought of, except that Samuel had a big head start in terms of a loving family and a clear life path compared to Cat. Fallen Professor compared Cat to Dain from Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels, a book that feels so much lighter in tone to me that I cannot compare them at all.  In fact, for me, Lord of Scoundrels is a book the appeal of which I have never fully understood. Is it because I did not read it at the time it was written? And yet, one of the supposed qualifications of a classic is that it speaks both of its time and beyond it. Is this a book that transcends, and if so, why?

Even if we discard the idea that every genre has the same qualifications for a classic book, there does seem to be some uniformity within genre Romance about which books have had lasting impact. Heck, there are some books that are still being read, thirty, forty, fifty, even a hundred years after publication. But why those books? Why are people still reading LaVyrle Spencer, or re-reading her, at least? What about Jennifer Crusie or Julia Quinn or Laura Lee Guhrke? What kind of endurance do we expect these authors to have?

For me, classic status is more an academic question than an emotional one. I like the idea of putting books in a certain order, identifying influences, looking at how the genre develops and evolves through certain books, and seeing a variety of tropes reinterpreted within different historical contexts, both inside and outside the books themselves. Perhaps it comes down to appreciation over adoration for me, although a combination of both is ideal. I would not venture to say this is true for all, or even most, Romance readers, though.

What, for Romance, make certain books unforgettable, and is unforgettable the same thing as classic? Can notoriety alone create a classic read, or is there some standard of merit that must stand behind it? And if so, what standard? How do we define merit in a genre that may be more about emotional satisfaction and catharsis than wordsmithing? Even those books that may be deemed “bad” by current standards can be appreciated and even enjoyed as a nostalgic trip to the past. I’m not sure this is the same thing as a book “transcending,” though, if it doesn’t seem to retain a consistent standard of excellence. Still, what are the characteristics of excellence when we’re cataloguing Romance’s strengths?

I would argue that classic status requires more than popularity or memorability, but I’m not sure what. Is it the prose, and if so, what about it? Is it the tropes, and if so, why? Is it the character types, and if so, what type is more enduring or “classic” than another? Is it the tropes or the settings or the subgenres or the notoriety of a book? How many people think that readers are going to be picking up Fifty Shades in 30 years – or even thinking of is as a defining moment in the genre’s development?

Thinking back as long as you’ve been reading Romance, what are the books that stand out to you as genre classics and why? And thinking ahead as far as you can, what books published today do you think people will be reading? What books would you want them to be reading, and why?