REVIEW: The Hidden Heart by Laura Kinsale
I’ve been rereading and reviewing Kinsale’s backlist for the past several years. (I’m only now halfway through! Man, I’m a slow reader). My Sweet Folly was already on my Kindle, ready to go. But I was feeling stressed by life and needed a treat and so decided to acquire the Kindle version of this, Kinsale’s first published romance. It’s not so much that I like The Hidden Heart better than My Sweet Folly (though I do remember having problems with the latter book when I read it). Rather it was that I remembered so little of the actual plot of The Hidden Heart that I reasoned it was *almost* like having an all-new Kinsale to read.
This ended up being something of a mixed blessing, since I found myself troubled by some elements that I probably wasn’t bothered by 20 years ago or so when I first read this (it was published in 1986). More on this in a bit.
Lady Tess Collier has been tramping around the jungles of South America with her naturalist father for the better part of a decade. Now, at 18, her beloved father is dead (her mother died years earlier), and Tess is attempting to honor his wishes that she return to England and find a suitable husband. To that end, she meets Captain Gryphon Meridon, who is tasked with taking Tess and her many plant samples back to London on his ship. He’s also tasked, by a family friend of Tess’, with staying in London and secretly vetting potential suitors for Tess. Gryf is given a powerful financial incentive, but he’s conflicted because even after just a few brief meetings, he’s half in love with Tess himself.
Gryf is a very much a tortured Kinsale hero. As a boy, he was traveling with his family from India on the same ship he now captains (and cherishes). They were set upon by pirates, and almost everyone aboard, including his parents and sisters, were slaughtered. Gryf was left to grow up with the only other survivor of the massacre, a ship’s mate named Grady. Grady is a surrogate father to Gryf and perhaps his one true friend in the world.
At the time of the attack, Gryf’s ship had been accompanied by a British warship, but it sailed away rather than engaging the pirates. That ship was helmed by a man who turned out (not so coincidentally) to be a distant relation and the eventual heir to Gryf’s family estate and title. When a young Gryf, accompanied by Grady, traveled to England and attempted to confront Captain Nathaniel Eliot and reclaim his title, he was branded an imposter. Gryf fled but was hunted down and almost killed. Since he knows he can’t prove his identity, Gryf has left his former life behind and built a new one as a ship’s captain.
Back in the present day, Gryf has serious emotional scars (understandably) and feels unworthy of Tess. Meanwhile, Tess is falling in love with Gryf, too, though she knows nothing about his true identity, his title or the fortune attached to it.
Once in London, Gryf and Tess grow closer but the machinations of others tear them apart. This sets Tess off on a disastrous union with Stephen Eliot, son of Nathaniel and absolute villain. Gryf and Tess break apart and get together several times, and usually the breaking aparts have a least a whiff of the Big Mis about them. In the middle of the book she assumes he’s read a letter she gave him when he didn’t (he tossed it overboard in anger) while he assumes that
It’s hard not to think that if they just TALKED the book would be a lot shorter, which is my main criteria for calling a plot contrivance a Big Mis. To be fair, Gryf is Very Tortured, and so even talking wouldn’t magically heal his emotional wounds. But at least the reader wouldn’t have to be subject to each character’s mental musings on the false assumptions they’ve made about the other.
I had some other issues with The Hidden Heart, bigger than Big Mis cliches. I kind of hate to wade into this (and maybe I wouldn’t even bother if similar issues hadn’t come up in some of my other Kinsale rereading), but there are some situations and depictions in the book that struck me as racially insensitive. In the prologue, Tess has arrived in town after being paddled up the river by a group of natives:
“She pushed back a loose strand of ebony hair and generously informed the Indians that the jungle monsters with holes for faces were no longer in pursuit, and now that the boats had been unloaded, the men could return home in perfect safety. The relief on their faces was sadly comical. The had escorted the white woman out of Barra do Rio Negro in order to save themselves from the supernatural beasts that she had said would surely descend upon them if they hadn’t. All the way down the river, they had cast worried looks over their shoulders.”
I get that we’re supposed to view Tess as a resourceful badass here, but I was 1) disturbed by her manipulation of the natives and 2) put off by the depiction of them as childlike rubes. The whole thing isn’t even very indicative of Tess’ character; she’s not the manipulative asshole she comes off as in this instance. (Later she does trick Gryf into thinking she’s in danger so he’ll come to her rescue. But in that she just comes off as immature.)
Anyway, at this very early point in the book, I was thus already feeling uncomfortable. I was then almost immediately put off by the description of a “….naked little Negro boy.” Now, Negro wasn’t an offensive word in the time the story is set. I’m not sure it’s even technically offensive now; it’s more that it’s archaic enough to sound weird to modern ears and possibly a bit off, depending on the context. I felt like there was a barrage of people being described as “Negro” that followed, but when I did a count I was surprised that there were only five total – four of them early on while the action is in Brazil. Besides the “Negro boy”, there’s a “Negro maid”, a “Negro footman” and a “Negro gardener.” Later in London a character who actually has a name – Mahzu – is introduced as a “massive Negro” with a “cultured accent at odds with the savage tattoo on his cheek and his canine teeth sharpened to vicious points.”
So. I don’t know if I’m being too sensitive. I have had this experience before with romances that are a couple of decades old (so I’m not singling Kinsale out; it’s just her books that I happen to be rereading now, and I did have issues with Seize the Fire). It’s tricky because there are sort of multiple levels of “okay/not okay” going on from my point of view. A book set in the 19th century and written in the 19th century that used the word “Negro” wouldn’t bother me. The incident with the frightened Indians and the stereotypical depiction of Mahzu would, but I could place it all in a context that would make it less troubling to me (I happen to be reading an 19th century novel now that has a couple of unfortunate references to both Jews and Africans; I don’t love it, but, again…context).
If the book were written today, it would probably *all* bother me. Even if Negro would be the word that the hero and heroine would have reasonably used in the time, the othering of these very minor characters would grate. They’re in Brazil – presumably many people are shades of brown, unless they’re the English characters. So why single out the black ones? None of the descriptors in the paragraph above needed to specify that the characters were black. So again, if it were written today I’d be really pretty disturbed by it.
So what about the in-between – written three decades ago, when people were less sensitive than they are today, depicting a time when people were *way* less sensitive than we are today. Of course, I’m completely in favor of the sort of sensitivity I’m referring to. I just have trouble deciding how troubled or offended I should be, if I should be troubled or offended at all.
In any case, the story quickly moved onto European locations with a brief stint in Tahiti; I didn’t note anything disturbing in the depiction of the Tahitians.
(Oh, wait, one last thing – Gryf has done blockade running for the Confederacy, purely for financial gain. I wasn’t offended by that but I was a bit grossed out. Gryf is not the most moral of ship captains – he bends the rules at times – but Confederacy stuff is kind of a trigger for me.)
There were echoes of later Kinsale books in The Hidden Heart – the heroine suffering trauma to in some sense match the hero’s trauma was reminiscent of Seize the Fire (as was the shipboard setting). The dynamic between hero and heroine reminded me at times of The Dream Hunter (and Tess and Zenia have some similarities, both having spent considerable time outside England and both feeling the pressure to be the ideal English lady).
The Hidden Heart does feel like a first book in that some of the emotional underpinnings aren’t as developed as in latter books. Tess seems to recover too easily from the horrors of her marriage to Stephen. There’s something a bit elliptical about Gryf’s intense torturedness. I mean, one can fill in the blanks – obviously, the massacre of his family was an intensely traumatic event. But he doesn’t seem to have developed much in the way of coping mechanisms in the years since the event – he doesn’t have Sheridan’s (of Seize the Fire) sardonic attitude, for instance. He’s just numb until he meets Tess, and while that may be realistic (I guess?) it’s not necessarily that interesting. Also, he kind of just gets over it abruptly.
Again, comparing The Hidden Heart to Seize the Fire – I think some readers don’t like the ending of the latter book because it’s ambiguous and perhaps hard to believe in an actual HEA for these two massively damaged people. The Hidden Heart has a happy epilogue to drive home the idea that Gryf has just let it all go. On the one hand, it’s reassuring. On the other hand, it’s not as interesting (and thus maybe not as satisfying?) to me as the more realistic ambiguity in Seize the Fire.
Okay, I’ve said a lot, and some of it has been pretty critical. But I did like The Hidden Heart, quite a bit. Laura Kinsale remains one of my favorite historical romance writers, and I tend to judge her books against each other rather than romance as a whole. On that scale, The Hidden Heart is between a B and a B+. I’m interesting in rereading its sequel, The Shadow and the Star, soon. (Though that’s another book with some potentially tricky racial politics, since it features a white Ninja hero. Sigh.)