I read three Mary Burchell books from the 1940s back to back because I borrowed a three-book collection from Open Library: it included Take Me With You, Choose Which You Will, and Meant for Each Other. (This was my first experience with Open Library, and although there were a lot of OCR errors, I learned to interpret them pretty quickly and only occasionally felt confused. Things like “/ *wi” for “I’m” did take some decoding. I look forward to reading more hard-to-find older genre fiction soon. *side-eyes TBR*)
I avoid “glomming” an author, and although I enjoyed all three of these books very much, reading them in quick succession reminded me of why I don’t glom: there are a lot of similar elements (including two heroes named Lindsay). Young (18-20ish) orphan heroines who need to make their own way in the world; older (late 20s-35), wealthy, often cynical heroes; a glamorous Other Woman; at least one character involved in the theatre. The basic trope here–the poor young woman and wealthy older man–is one I’d say I Don’t Like in the abstract. But there are books featuring it that I’ve loved, including these. So this isn’t a review but a meditation on why some iterations of what I’ll call the Cinderella trope work for me. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments on how a particular author/book has made you like Something You Usually Don’t.
Most (romance, at least) authors who write as prolifically as Burchell does tend to produce variations on favorite themes. To me, such books feel like tired formula if I don’t care for the author’s voice (Stephanie Laurens); they feel like tired formula but I don’t really mind if I do like the author’s voice (Jayne Anne Krentz); and then sometimes they don’t feel like formula at all–I can’t say exactly what it is, but when I feel like there’s some energy behind the story still, when the book seems engaged by exploring familiar themes in a slightly different way (Heyer, for one). The theme-and-variations in these three Burchell books felt like the last kind to me.
I think part of why the Cinderella trope worked here for me is that the books are self-conscious about it: the heroines want to be independent, for instance, and resist too much rescue; they are aware that part of their attraction for the hero is their naiveté and have mixed feelings about that; the heroes don’t have all the power–they are often constrained in various ways from pursuing the heroine and taking over her life (which is when I often hate this trope, though Betty Neels has made it work for me). At the end of Meant for Each Other, the hero declares that
“of course [our marriage] isn’t especially suitable. I’m too old for you. . . . And I’m not an ideal husband for an innocent young girl.”
I actually believed in their happy ending all the more because he acknowledged that love wouldn’t conquer all differences between them and there would continue to be issues to work out.
I do love Burchell’s voice. There’s a tartness to it sometimes, and a psychological astuteness, that means she doesn’t write these Cinderella tales as pure fantasy.
“I haven’t any kind women friends. I’m not that sort of man,” he told her dryly.
“Oh.” Thea wondered irresistibly what sort of man he was, but didn’t see how she could ask.
The heroes are not entirely idealized. The heroines think the best of them, certainly, but are aware of their mistakes (which are often emotional ones). In general, their rakishness is presented as a mis-step rather than as the source of their attractiveness. And the heroines are emotionally self-aware as well. One thing I like–and which reminds me of old Amanda Quick historicals–is that the heroine brings out the best in the hero by seeing it and believing in it. She notices that he’s kind to her and insists that he’s a kind man, despite his insistence that he’s a cynical reprobate. And she is, ultimately, right. I’d get tired of a steady diet of books where the heroine does the emotional rescue work while the hero does the practical kind, but Burchell did make that seem like a reasonable balance here–to be happy, the heroes really need the emotional honesty and fresh perspective the heroine brings.
I do have a soft spot for Cinderella rescue stories when they aren’t romance. I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess in my youth, when the downtrodden orphan Sarah Crewe is mysteriously showered with comforts. Ohhh, when she finally wakes up warm under a beautiful quilt and finds breakfast waiting for her! I think I said before that Burchell’s style, and Neels’ too, reminds me of some favorite children’s books, not because they are simplistic but because they come from the same time and place, mid-century Britain. Maybe this association I have with Burchell and Neels makes me more comfortable with this trope in romance? Although combine that with very young heroines and heroes who sometimes call them “my child” and . . . look, let’s not delve too deeply into my pscyhe, OK?
Possibly I just don’t know myself–I’m not as emotionally honest or self-aware as Burchell’s heroines. I mean, Meant for Each Other is an angsty marriage of convenience story with a deception and a Big Misunderstanding. I’d have said I only liked one of those things (marriage of convenience is a favorite trope), but I raced through the book, breathless and with aching heart. I haven’t been so moved by a genre romance in ages. To some extent maybe I avoid tropes and elements I feel I shouldn’t like, telling myself I don’t like them. I think voice and craft come into play again here: if an author is good enough, she gets past my defenses and I let my id reader out.
Finally, and this is a huge one for me: the heroes in Burchell and Neels are rich, but they aren’t Billionaire Rich. They’re Old Money, mostly. They have nice flats in Georgian houses with comfortable, well-loved furniture and art in Good Taste. They have cozy, family-sized and family-style country houses, not Mega-Mansions. I was raised to find New Money tacky. I’m not very interested in the trappings of super-wealth and books with helicopters and brand name dropping and private islands don’t do much for me. But heroes who have comfortable, old money, professional-class lives and taste I admire? Bring it on. This is partly personal taste, obviously, but it’s also that the heroes can certainly help fix things for the heroine but not buy her whole world: get her a job as a typist in their company, yes; buy the company she works for, no. There’s enough money to make life much easier, but not enough to buy your way out of every problem. There’s a class-power imbalance between the hero and heroine, but not an absolutely overwhelming one. As Elizabeth Bennet says, “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.” (What I wouldn’t give for more comfortably middle-class characters in historical romance, by the way). I guess this is really, again, about my preference for some realism in my fantasy.
Now if only I had a hero who could fund my acquisition of Mary Burchell’s many works without blinking. One at a time, I guess.