I’m not sure how many people will have read this last and least known book of the Wyckerley trilogy, so I’m going to make the above-the-fold part spoiler free. Spoilers are welcome in the comments.
In my Grad School Years I read a lot of “Condition of England” novels, in many of which the romance plot provides a symbolic resolution to the class conflict and social changes the novel explores. Gaskell’s North and South is my favorite example, and the one best known to most romance readers: Margaret represents the South; the past; the power of the gentry/aristocracy; a paternalistic, almost feudal view of charity. Thornton is the North; the future; the power of industrial wealth and the rising middle class; individualism and a belief in the self-made man. Their interactions change both their views of class relations, and their marriage represents a union of the best in both their worlds.
Gaffney’s Forever and Ever, in its opening, presents a similar opposition. Sophie Deene is a mine-owner, the niece of Wyckerley’s mayor, secure in her status in her small world. Proud of it. Connor Pendarvis is from a Cornish mining family [my husband was born in Cornwall, where his dad was studying to be a mining engineer; I loved the references to Redruth] and he’s undercover (of his brother Jack’s name) to expose conditions in Sophie’s mine for a reforming politician.
They meet on the village green, which works in this novel as a place where class differences are temporarily set aside (at the Midsummer festival, for instance, where the whole village mingles). “Jack” rescues her when her hair gets tangled in a little girl’s button. They’re instantly attracted to each other. When he comes seeking work at the mine, Sophie is disappointed: he’s not, as she thought, a gentleman, and nothing can come of her attraction to a miner–especially one who’s her employee.
But something does come of it, of course, in a series of meetings in Sophie’s rose garden, another natural space set apart from spaces where social hierarchy divides them (the mine, her house with its servants). Still, the reader (and Connor) knows a confrontation with reality will eventually come, and it does, with a vengeance.
I loved the beginning of this novel. The class conflict is real and openly debated between them, including through a lively discussion of Austen’s Emma. Though class and power are an issue between them, they make a much less dramatic barrier than those in the previous two novels (where Anne is initially married, and Sebastian . . . well, you know). This book allows me to enjoy the fizz of mutual attraction. Each has some power here, Sophie as the boss and a “lady,” Connor because of his secret investigation. While that power leads to them hurting each other, it also makes them equals. Their first kiss is a great example of this: Sophie has hurt and angered Connor by condescending to him (she uses his “inferiority” to goad her uncle). She apologizes–an act that recognizes him as an equal. On that footing, he kisses her, and Sophie thinks:
If she’d seen anything in his eyes like triumph, anything like complacency, she’d have bolted, heartsick. But all she saw was the same gladness she was feeling.
There is a mutuality here, right from the start, that I appreciated after the fraught power dynamics of To Have and to Hold.
I think each of the novels in this trilogy sets up a high-conflict situation between the hero and heroine. For me, this one felt most “natural,” probably just because it reminded me of Victorian novels I’d read and because I didn’t know exactly what was coming so it didn’t feel like a “set up” for a particular later situation. I enjoyed the first part of the novel very much and found it the most romantic of the three–the attraction between the heroine and hero made the most sense to me or felt most effectively described. The second half didn’t work as well, mainly because it piled on one traumatic event after another and I felt to some extent it went for drama over a deep exploration of the class issues that open the novel. That’s mostly to do with my personal tastes as a reader, though.
SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT.
After Connor’s deception is revealed and he leaves Wyckerley, Sophie learns she’s pregnant and in a panic confesses this to the conservative brewery heir Robert whose suit she’s rejected in the past. (It was interesting that she saw him as socially beneath her when she’s also “in trade” of a kind). And of course he rejects her in horror. I wondered why this humiliating scene was necessary. Wasn’t it hard enough for her to have to go to Connor and beg him to marry her? I wasn’t sure why she had to be brought quite so low (when her cousin Honoria, whose class prejudices are depicted as worse, is not). It felt like angst for angst’s sake.
I liked the way Sophie reacts to the revelations in Connor’s mine report (which were exaggerated by his compatriots). She’s always meant well, and conditions at her mine are better than some–she doesn’t let children go down until 14, for instance–but she has not been down to see them for herself. Once she does, spurred by the report, she makes changes. I felt, though, that this happened too easily. It could have made a lot of the conflict in the second half of the novel, along with her shame over Connor’s origins, and his political ambitions. Instead, it was easily resolved before their reunion, and the conflict in the second half was high-drama stuff like her walk through the storm and subsequent miscarriage, the theft from the mine, and another mine disaster, which felt like a retread of book one. I did enjoy parts of this. I thought Sophie’s depression/despair post miscarriage and the way their love couldn’t help her out of it–discussed in this post by Victoria Janssen–was beautifully rendered. But I would have liked a story with the Big Events dialed back better.
Marriage of Convenience is my favorite trope, and I liked a lot about how Sophie came to admire and believe in Connor and he came to trust that she didn’t see him as “beneath” her. They really felt like partners at the end, as well as lovers. That’s my favorite thing about the MoC trope: how do these disparate people, forced together by circumstance, learn to be a couple? (The novel’s original title, From This Day Forward, would have fit it better in some ways). There was also some of the “captivity” element that Robin finds interesting about MoC. Each feels trapped in some way by the other: Sophie’s lost her legal power over the mine that was her identity; Connor has to ask her for the money that is legally his, as if he were still her employee.
This scene on their honeymoon is a great example of the early tension and struggles of their marriage:
She caught him staring at her, and she didn’t like the speculation in his eyes. He was waiting for something, and it didn’t take her long to realize what it was. . . . Something in his expression assured her he was aware of, probably amused by, her discomfort. “I have a say in this,” she burst out suddenly, apropos of nothing.
“Not much of one,” he shot back, understanding her perfectly.
“Because you’re my lord and master?”
“Now you’re getting the idea.”
“In a pig’s eye.”
Connor is not Sebastian. He doesn’t force her. These two fight it out, and neither gains supremacy. Neither worships the other. I think Sophie’s professional role is actually important here, because it provides her a model for or experience of power relations outside the domestic, female sphere. That helps them create something new out of the various power roles they’ve occupied before, something that works for both of them.
At first, I thought the big ending with brother Jack as first villain and then hero was a distraction from the central romance plot, except that it provides an opportunity for Sophie to demonstrate her faith in Connor. But it does assert other themes of the whole trilogy: community, home, finding a place to belong. The novel, and thus the trilogy, ends with almost everyone (even secondary characters) paired off, everyone with a place that suits him or her–it ends, in fact, like Emma, though “place” is much less determined by class hierarchies here.
In that sense, it is firmly in the tradition of Classical Romance, which ends with the restoration and renewal of community. Thinking back to the opening of the trilogy, where the ineffective viscount is dying in his dilapidated house, alone with an insecure priest, and then the awful heir shows up, we can see how much stronger and better this community is, how much injustice has been righted. Despite all the angst and tragedy of the stories, then, this is romance as a subset of Comedy. The happy ending reaches beyond the romance of the individual couples to the whole community.