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Eileen-Dreyer

REVIEW: Always a Temptress by Eileen Dreyer

REVIEW: Always a Temptress by Eileen Dreyer

Dear Ms Dreyer:

For the first third of this book, I had real doubts about whether I would finish it. The hero, Major Sir Harry Lidge, had fallen in love with Lady Catherine Anne Hilliard Seaton, Dowager Duchess of Murther ten years prior but because he believes that she tried to foist a bastard baby on him when she was fifteen and he was twenty, he despises her and attempts, at every juncture to wound her.

Always a Temptress by Eileen DreyerHarry is now one of “Drake’s Rakes”, a spy organization designed to bring down the Lions, a group of Englishman who want to see Wellington killed, and the current royal regime replaced. (at least that is what I think is the purpose of the Lions).  Harry kidnaps Kate on the very thin pretext that she might be a Lion.  This kidnapping sparks an idea in Edwin, the current Duke of Livingston, and Kate’s brother.  He uses a painting of a nude with Kate’s head on it to provide justification that Kate must be institutionalized.  Kate’s family has always held Kate in disgust.  Harry finds himself battling his conflicted feelings toward Kate while trying to protect her from the Lions and her brother.

Jayne mentioned in her review of Barely a Lady that she was troubled by the portrayal of Jack who was inexcusably cruel to the Grace, calling her a whore, casting out her pregnant self, and heaping abuse on her head. Harry follows a similar path. At twenty years old, Harry, the local squire’s son, had worshipped Katie’s father, the Duke of Livingston. When he met Kate that summer, he fell in love with her. Kate begged Harry to marry her, to save her from a marriage Livingston had planned with Murther. Yet Harry was told by Kate’s father that she was pregnant with a groom’s baby and given the opportunity to enter the Army to get away from Kate.

Harry hates Kate for lying to him, making him fall in love with her, for making him enter the Army, and for two failed engagements in the past ten years. Harry isn’t a rational thinker because none of these things are really Kate’s fault. She never lied to him. Harry fell in love with on his own. He blamed Kate for the Army commission (and at one point said it was a banishment) but he was the one that choose that direction. While Kate may have whispered a few things (although this is never elaborated), the inconstancy of his fiancees never seems to occur to Harry.

Harry isn’t a thoughtless, action first type of guy thus his actions toward Kate can’t easily be excused by a natural character flaw. But writing the overly angry cruel hero is one way to ratchet up the angst. It builds sympathy for the heroine and creates a perfect scenario for the grovel, something that seems pervasive in this series based on the reviews of the Drake’s Rakes books from Jayne and Lazaraspaste.

What made Harry’s actions problematic was not only that he has nursed these hard feelings toward Kate for ten years but that they are so easily resolved with just one discussion. It is true that he observed Kate for a few days and discovered she had suffered a terrible marriage with Murther, but not once did he doubt the lies that Kate’s father told him, not even with the stunning evidence of Murther’s cruelty toward Kate. He did not doubt the lies of Kate’s father even after he realized that Kate wasn’t the whore he called her, but more chaste than perhaps any woman he knows.

That Harry’s obtuseness toward Kate, whether deliberate or unconscious, can be resolved with one discussion was incredibly frustrating, yet, once this revelation happens, the story takes a complete turn. Harry goes from being the worst kind of man enacting revenge to a solicitous and tender lover, trying to help Kate overcome her fear of intimacy created by years of abuse at the hands of her former husband, Murther.  Harry is given this opportunity when Kate is kidnapped by her brother, Edwin, and taken to an asylum.  Harry steps forward to say that he is Kate’s husband and thus only he can make decisions about her mental fitness.

The writing tics that were noted in Jayne and Lazaraspaste’s reviews are obvious in this book as well. There are multiple PsOV from characters who have had their own books which added very little. For instance, Grace’s musings about how she wished Harry and Kate could overcome their differences to find happiness appeared out of nowhere and was, I suppose, to seed hope in readers that Harry would get his head on straight. The use of Lady Bea Seaton, an elderly woman who speaks in riddles, is a convenience because she inevitably hold the answers to the mystery that Harry is pursuing.  The overarcing mystery of the group named the Lions pervades the story, provides suspense, and is used to set up later books yet because little about the Lions is ever resolved in the story, I felt it more irritant than aid.

There were two competing internal conflicts. One conflict was that Kate did not want to give up control and the second was that Harry’s dream was to travel the world and see the marvels of the world’s architecture. Kate’s issue with control is dropped and never really resolved and the emotional conflict centers itself around Kate’s desire to stay at her home and Harry’s desire to travel.

Yet, despite this, Kate and Harry’s romance is inevitable and necessary.  Kate is presented as an indomitable spirit.  She has survived and flourished despite her neglect as a child and her abuse as an adult.  What I did wonder is why Kate hadn’t found a beard in society to serve as her husband and protect her against Edwin and his machinations in the past.  She lived a scandalous life and surely she could have found someone who would not be interested in her person or in her property.  But, of course, if she had, she would not have been available for Harry.  If there was one flaw in Kate’s presentation is that she was constantly being saved by Harry.  I would have liked to see Kate save herself once. She was surely capable of it.

For me, Kate was the best part of the story.  Ballsy, sharp witted, and loyal, Kate’s ability to stare down her worst danger brightened every page.  I wanted to spend more time with her and in her head, and less time with Harry.

Harry, setting aside his behavior toward Kate in the early part of the story, was presented as a battle hardened Army man who suffered from nightmares and emotional fatigue from the war.  Their characters, as written, matched and there were scenes in the book that poignantly showed that as the two held each other through the night taking turns comforting the other from their night terrors.

This is an emotional and angsty historical romance beset by spies, dropped plot lines, and bad hero behavior.  I think a reader who has enjoyed the Dreyer series in the past will find this one to be satisfying.  For a new reader to the series, like me, some of the Lion mysteries will be confusing and distracting.  In a less talented author’s hands, I think the problems would overcome the beauty of the romance.  C

Best regards,

Jane

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How to Do “Exotic” Right: Eileen Dreyer’s <i>Never A Gentleman</i>

How to Do “Exotic” Right: Eileen Dreyer’s Never A Gentleman

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People who know me know I’m hyper-sensitive to the portrayal of India and Indians in romance novels, especially British India in European historicals. Eileen Dreyer has a new trilogy, the second volume of which features an English heroine who accompanied her military officer father around the world, including campaigns in India in the early 1800s. Last year I wound up in a conversation with Ms. Dreyer in the comments to a negative  review here at DA of the first book, Barely A Lady. I liked it better than Jayne did, but I agreed with many of her criticisms. In a spinoff discussion in the comments, I made some unflattering remarks about western women who wear native garb out of context. Ms. Dreyer chimed in and participated, and rather than upbraiding me for my ignorance and rudeness (which she would have been well within her rights to do), she explained the situation. Long story short (you can read the long story here), she not only displayed tremendous sensitivity to the issues I was raising, but she looked awesome in her made-to-order sari.

Nevertheless, I approached Never A Gentleman with some trepidation, because I’ve found that even authors with some background in Indian history or culture can set off my radar. I spent my childhood in India as a member of my Indian father’s extended family, and then I studied Indian history and politics from college through graduate school and in my academic career. For more than 25 years I’ve spent between three and eight weeks there almost every year, and I’ve traveled through many of the Indian states. I’ve spent many months researching archival materials from the 18th and early 20th centuries. So you could say I’m pretty invested in the material.

I’ve learned in part to control my tendency to rush to judgement when reading romance novels. After all, I happily read books set in periods and places about which I’m pretty ignorant, so why should the poor authors who wander into my bailiwick get skewered? And I am still drawn to see how they write about places and eras near and dear to me even though my expectations are fairly low. Therefore, given my willingness to criticize any and all mistakes, when I come across what I think is a good portrayal of Indian history, culture, fashion, etc., the least I can do is flag it and say why I think it works.

In Never A Gentleman, Grace Fairchild has spent more time abroad with her General father than she has in her native land. When he is killed at Waterloo, Grace decides that she can finally go home to England, bury herself in Longbridge, her country estate, and breed horses. Grace is not pretty, she is extremely tall and thin, and she has a lame leg, so she has no expectation of marrying. Nevertheless, the machinations of conspirators against the British Crown cause her to wind up in a Marriage of Convenience with the gorgeous, rakish Diccan Hilliard. When Grace accepts this outcome, it becomes apparent to her that being a good wife means jettisoning not only her interest in horse breeding, but her attachment to the colors, textures, and practices of the vibrant worlds of the Mediterranean and South Asia. She leaves her faithful Indian retainers at Longbridge and decorates the new London townhouse in muted pastels and clean lines. Back at Longbridge, her Indian treasures, which include silks, embroidered Kashmiri shawls, and a golden Ganesha statue, stay packed away in crates. The description of these treasures is lovely:

He grabbed the first thing he felt and pulled it out.

A pillow.

An emerald green silk pillow with gold tassels and an ornate gold needlwork peacock. Diccan stared at it as if would explain itself. He threw it down and reached into the crate again, only to come out with more of the same: pillows in jewel tones, a sinfully soft gold paisley Kashmiri throw, seemingly endless lengths of silks in hot colors: orange, pink, chartreuse, yellow. He walked to the next crate, and the next, only to find them precisely packed with more pillows, more fabric, glints of brass and beads and bangles. He even saw a girdle worn for belly dancing.

"What the hell?"

He recognized it all, of course. The booty of an oriental merchantman. The interior of a vizier's tent. The color and texture and sounds of exotic lands most people could never even hope to see.

In addition to her interests in fashion and furnishings, Grace has learned quite a bit about sex and sexual pleasure from her time abroad. In the novel, the explanation for why she was mixing with sequestered Muslim women is that she was in a zenana during a siege; this sounds sufficiently plausible that I didn’t rush to look it up. In addition, she spent her childhood years in Calcutta, so she spent a lot of time with native Indians. This also rings true to me, since the servants would be Indian and even British children would be mostly in their company. Grace’s mother abandoned her and her father didn’t seem to be hugely anti-Indian (besides being busy Generalling), so she could easily have seen a side of Indian culture that was warm and welcoming to a lonely, neglected child. Similarly, her attachment to her Indian retainers make sense given how excluded she feels (and often is) from English society.

It’s not quite clear where Grace came across tantric temples, carvings, and paintings, although there are several temples with tantric influences in Bengal, and Grace spent time in several places across the subcontinent. Certainly they wouldn’t have been in the zenana (since Islam doesn’t allow figurative representations of divinities and Muslim invaders repeatedly destroyed figurative temple art in India). So when it comes to Grace’s understanding of sexual practices and Hindu art, there seems to be some mashing together of Muslim and Hindu influences. This could be an error on Ms. Dreyer’s part, or it could be an accurate reflection of the way people in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would have come into contact with cultural material from both religions. More important to me is that these experiences are part of Grace’s personal development and help shape her desires, rather than being used as ooh-isn’t-this-exotic interludes to spice up the sex scenes.

The final marriage scene is almost over the top, but by that point I trust Ms. Dreyer enough that I buy it happily. And I can see the two of them living in their colorful, texturally rich, very un-English home.

In comments to Lazaraspaste’s  review, a reader expressed dissatisfaction with the West-as-muted, East-as-colorful metaphor, and I can understand that reaction, because it feels like a stereotypical shortcut. But in my experience the metaphor is on target. India is an unbelievably vibrant, colorful place, to the point of overstimulation. Black and white are traditional indicators of isolation and mourning rather than sophistication. Everything is colorful, even the poorest villages. When people have a little bit of money, they dress themselves, their houses, and their animals up in bright, shimmering shades. It’s not that Western art and fashion isn’t colorful, it’s that it doesn’t combine colors and textures in the same way, or across all social classes. For example, here is a snapshot of my cosmetics case:

It’s just a normal, everyday product, but it mixes a number of colors and dresses them up in gold-thread embroidery. To me, that is what Ms. Dreyer captured about India and showed Grace responding to.

Finally, and perhaps best of all, she gave Grace a fount of sexual understanding based on her experiences in the Exotic East without invoking those two dreaded words:

Kama. Sutra.

Brava, Ms. Dreyer, and thanks.