Saturday, January 25, 2020

8. Devil on Horseback by Victoria Holt

I've been aware of Victoria Holt for a while now, having a sense that she is/was a big name in gothic romance. I picked this one up at the Concordia Book Fair, despite the horrific cover.  When I started it, I had a sudden frightening yet delicious feeling that I had finally found my crack cocaine of genre literature.  The set up was great, combining the complex clash of class and aspiration in 18th century Britain with the potential for political intrigue and adventure.  Because the protagonist is a woman, young yet educated, capable and smart (and as we learn headstrong), you have the built in underdog fighting against they system theme.  I was quite excited and imagined myself with a future of Victoria Holt reading ahead of me.  Unfortunately, the actual story did not quite achieve this potential  Whether or not this was because the author failed or her aims (and those of most of her readers) did not meet mine, I am not yet sure.

Minella Maddox is the daughter of a teacher who have a nice position on a Lord's estate.  He sends his two daughters to their schoolhouse, which then attracts the other gentry and ensure they make a decent living.  One summer, a french count's daughter comes to the school to learn english.  She is two years younger than Minella and her positive spirit makes her and Minella become friends.  The count is a very powerful figure in French politics and known to be a frightening tyrant to his people.  He is also intense and handsome. Minella first sees him on horseback as he checks out her school from afar.  She christens him The Devil on Horseback and learns that that is also his appellation back at home (though never to his face).  There is also the son of the British lord, a super nice guy, who takes a liking to Minella.  They go horseback riding every day.  He is super nice.  And though he is quite clearly into her, Minella being a realist feels there is no chance, as his parents would never approve.

So that's the basic setup but then fate hits as her mother dies and Minella struggles to keep the school afloat.  The count's daughter runs away with a handsome groom and gets knocked up.  The lord's son is sent away by his parents on the European tour (which I guess is a thing the sons of gentry did back then), ostensibly to separate him from Minella.  Oh yeah, and also during a game of hide and seek in the manor, Minella goes downstairs, where she is caught by the Count sneaking into their bedroom.  He kisses her and she pushes him away, outraged, but against all her judgement, powerfully stimulated!

So the Count finds out what his daughter has done and convinces Minella to accompany her to a small village where she will have the child in secret, pretending they are cousins (Minella's french is excellent, but they will say she is a long-lost cousin from England).  This is where I started to get excited.  France is near the breaking point here, so that aristocrats often do not leave their manors without guards.  The town is very small and people start asking questions about the two ladies.  There was lots of potential for a Fingersmith level of adventure here, with two aristocrat women on the run in revolutionary france, trying to get away with an illegitimate child.

Instead, we keep going back and forth between the Count's place in Paris and his castle in his ancestral domain and the main narrative starts to reveal itself.  Really it is about whether or not she should love this dashing handsome count who has done all kinds of evil shit in his life, has a wife confined to a sick bed and a mistress in a cottage nearby.  There is conversation after conversation where he declares his love for her and she remains prim and British, but oh what about her feelings!  It builds and builds as does the revolution, but we only get any real action in the last thirty pages or so where the mob rises up, the count is freed from the guillotine, we learn about a believed dead twin brother and she can finally love the count and they get married and live happily in England with his past behind them.

I'm a romantic guy and do enjoy that element (and can actually enjoy it as the primary narrative when it is done well).  Here, it just wasn't done very convincingly and I kind of guessed what was going to happen.  It all felt like a overly-complicated way to get a prim young British girl with a dashing French badboy on a horse together in some way that would still give her some clout.  It sacrificed so much potential, both for dashing adventure and for some complex gender-role challenging on the way.  I did not expect much of the second category but I do think I could have a bit more from the first at least.  I don't know, maybe Holt pushes herself farther in some of her other books, but I fear this stuff may just remain in the mainstream mode.

This pastely channel 9 Masterpiece Theatre vagueness
 is the kind of shit that I hated about the 70s when I was a kid.

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