I’ve been reading a lot of older historical romances lately, mainly those first published in the 1990s. Many of these are standalone stories, in the truest sense of the word, not parts of any series, so anything can happen, to anybody, apart from the HEA we are guaranteed by the end of the book. The hero’s charismatic best friend isn’t exempt from villain status, because no, we aren’t going to need him to be the hero of book two or there, because there is none. One hero, one heroine, one HEA, off into the sunset, done and done. That’s how my story brain naturally works, anyway, and I’d been craving the big, thick doorstoppers I used to devour (and still can, because keeper shelves and UBSs and e-books, yay publishing revolution) so I dove into this subgenre once more, with overwhelmingly positive results.
One of my best (but not surprising) re-finds was Barbara Hazard. I’d re-devoured her Georgian historical, Call Back the Dream, and wanted to dive into the sequel (I know, I know, I was talking about standalones only a minute ago, but bear with me; this is going somewhere) immediately afterward. I thought I’d packed that in the same box with the original, but then it would have been in the same bookcase. It wasn’t. Instead, there was A Handful of Dreams, also excellent, and completely unrelated.
I didn’t remember too much about A Handful of Dreams, though I’d first read it when it was fairly new. I remembered the scene where child Sally catches a coin tossed to her by a British soldier on horseback, but didn’t remember if that soldier would turn out to be the hero or not. As I read on, I still wasn’t sure. I did remember, very clearly, the fictional Sally’s abusive first marriage, her return to her family of origin, and her placement as the companion of the daughter of a different soldier.
Let’s say that Sally and her employer’s daughter had different expectations of the relationship and leave it at that. I’m not sure if that might have been explored differently, had the book been written today, and that’s something I will likely think about for some time. Sally’s employer decides it’s time for Sally to move on, and her situation, as it were, becomes a commodity.
A friend of the family, Harry, Lord Darlington, purchases the care of Sally, and his treatment of her didn’t -on either read- strike me as particularly heroic. He’s a cold father to his children from other relationships, including two marriages, even when Sally expresses her desire for the children to be part of the family. As a work of historical fiction, this works fine, and that’s how I read it this time around. There’s a friend of Harry’s, who also takes a liking to Sally, and there was a good portion of the book where I was thinking maybe I’d misremembered and he was the true hero.
Not going to give away spoilers, because there are two sorts of readers involved here; the ones that are going to track this book down o they can read it themselves, and those who will not, because old book, who cares, or they don’t read romance anyway. Either way, I finished this reread a couple of days ago, and, as much as I’d like to read another romance, my brain is stuck here. Lots of thinking.
Were I to publish this book today, I would class it as historical fiction rather than romance. Sally does find love, and that love is reciprocated. There’s even an acceptable heroic grovel on the part of the gentleman who fills that role, but, in the end, this is really her story and not theirs. I am okay with that. Romantic elements, yes, but this book is about Sally’s life, her struggle to find her place in the world, and the effect the cards she was dealt do have on what she can do.
Sally starts out Irish and poor, in the early nineteenth century. She’s also beautiful, exceptionally so, and that gets her noticed, not always for the right reasons. This is one of my favorite types of characters, where that beauty has its perils as well as its perks. There are those who don’t look below the surface, those who assume a certain set of facial features means a certain personality or mindset, when that couldn’t be farther from the case. Sally’s options are limited. She’s not educated, she doesn’t have a lot of power, but she is smart and she is strong, and she is a woman of her time. That’s important.
Some aspects felt a little too neat to me, others a bit rushed, and. for a historical romance, there isn’t a lot of emphasis on the relationship that should be the center of the story. I’m not sure I would have chosen the same hero, were this my story to write, but it wasn’t. I’d love to talk to the author, but without contact information, that’s not likely, so some of these things are going to muddle around in my own mind for a while. Maybe some elements will transfer and transform in my own work, but for now, I’m still thinking