Miss Bates read … was it in The Invention of the Human? … Harold Bloom’s claim that there aren’t any happy marriages in Shakespeare. There aren’t any in romance either, but there is the assumption that the couple will be happy. The reader is left feeling that the HEA is a guarantee. It may not be conventional; it may not be traditional, but it will be blithe! Not so with The Bard. In Shakespeare, we sense that some couples, think Bianca and Lucentio, have misunderstand each other thoroughly and will be unhappy; some, like the Macbeths, are unhappy; and some, like Kate and Petruchio, will fall into the give-and-take/renege/renegotiate that every established couple reaches if they want to keep their sanity and commitment (even Bloom thinks these two might work out just fine). Gray’s A Lady Never Lies, based on The Bard’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, runs into that very problem. How could it not when it doesn’t consider the inherent irony in choosing to base a romance novel on a play called Love’s Labour’s Lost? How does a romance writer make the romance per se romantic when her narrative’s basis is The Bard’s ironic, farcical, comedic mode? Well, she certainly writes a hilarious narrative; as for the irony, she has to relinquish it about half-way through. What that does to the romance narrative (at least in this reader’s opinion) is make for an ambivalent, wonky first third. As the narrative moves away from irony and closer to the troth of love and sacrifice and care that is the mark of the genre, it gains in convincing us of the existence of love and sacrifice and care. Though, to credit Gray, it remains as droll and entertaining as its inception.
While Gray credits Shakespeare with the idea for this novel (and the two that follow it) Miss Bates would say there are influences here other than Love’s Labour’s Lost. The former is responsible for the plot’s premise and narrative structure, but Jules Verne’s Around the World In 80 Days, commedia dell-arte, and E. M. Forster are imprinted in Gray’s romance novel as well. There is also a touch of the mysterious, or the mystical. These are many elements to balance, but Gray manages them well. Adopting her basic premise from one of Shakespeare’s farcical comedies glues the pieces together, but doesn’t do much for her romance until it’s forfeited. The Bard’s characters’ weaknesses are not the romance genre’s characters’ vulnerabilities. In the great Sir Toby Belch from Twelfth Night, we have the cri-de-coeur of the dissipate, the denial of domestication, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” The romance narrative, by definition, must uphold the domestic as the virtuous: any narrative, such as Gray’s, based on the riotous farce and irony of the Bard’s comedies must turn its back on them. It may appear, at the end of Twelfth Night, with the siblings re-united, the lovers united and the household returned to order that domestication triumphs in Shakespeare as well; however, in Shakespeare, domestication’s victory is Pyrrhic. “Cakes and ale” resonates in a way that forgettable, interchangeable ersatz HEA lovers do not … and, one suspects, as Bloom does, that they’re not always so terribly happy after all.
What of Gray’s poor novel, which has received very little play here. It opens with a resolution and wager. Independently of each other, in late-Victorian England, a trinity of male and female characters, Phineas Burke/The Duke of Wallingford/Robin Penhallow and Lady Alexander Morley/Abigail Harewood/Lady Elizabeth Somerton, resolve to spend a year in Italy studying the classics and abstaining from any … um, engagement of a physical nature with the opposite sex. When they arrive at their Tuscan retreat, they find that they’ve rented the same castle and have to co-habit. A wager is set: whether the men or women will endure longest in study and chastity? The losers will publicly concede to the winners by advertising their defeat in The Times. Our hero and heroine, Finn and Alex, are instantly attracted to each other. Finn has an additional ambition to winning the bet: to perfect his electric car and race it in Rome. He’s here to tinker his way to victory. Alex is relying on her investment in the Manchester Motor Company to wrest her from a financial hole. She machinates her way into Finn’s workshop to glean what she can from his success. However, investments, industrial espionage, wagers, and gender-pride are forgotten as Finn and Alex fall in love and make love under the Tuscan sun and moon.
Like her Elizabethan influence, Gray wants to illustrate the theme that human passions are stronger than reason. To The Bard, this was the joy of pointing to the foolishness of human beings’ assumptions about control. To the romance novel, the concession to emotion is its bread and butter. In the former case, it is used for purposes of satirizing human behaviour and pointing to the necessity of order; in the latter, to validate romantic love and point to the surety of happiness. Thus, Gray’s novel, as it introduces and entrenches its characters in their follies, sets up the ludicrous resolution, establishes the wager, contextualizes it in the bucolic setting, and clinches it with marvelously droll secondary characters, including the wise and wily Italian peasant servants, slows down the romantic narrative to the drip of molasses on a winter’s day. The farcical tone and use of irony make the romance between Finn and Alex less convincing, less interesting, and definitely NOT front-and-centre to the narrative. All of this chewing over for Miss Bates to say, even though there were many amusing incidents recounted in the first third of the novel, she was a little bored.
A Lady Never Lies opens with a Jeeve-and-Woosterish scene amongst the three men, continues to Italy where it sets up everyone’s foibles like E. M. Forster, and continues with a kind of rustic commedia dell-arte which involves hilarious scenes, including one under a car and another involving goose feathers! The secondary characters’ shenanigans are more interesting than the romance. The use of comic irony in the first third of the novel creates a distance between reader and hero/heroine whereby the romance simply didn’t work for this reader.
Once sentiment, the killer of irony, comes into play, our sympathies are engaged for Finn and Alex; the romance is placed front-and-centre, tender and moving. Our characters are allowed to be more vulnerable than witty. After the novel’s contrived first third, the courtship revolves around issues of trust, worthiness, class, money, and gender equality (1890 is the eve of the suffragette movement, sufficient fodder for another post on this novel). One of the book’s successes is the working out of Finn’s and Alex’s relationship, which may appear conventional, but is a relationship of equals by the baby-less epilogue, hinting at yet another adventure for these two.
Despite Miss Bates’s misgivings, she did eventually come to enjoy this romance. It is interesting though that she’s not particularly keen on reading the next one in the series. Maybe it was because she felt distanced from the characters, even while they drew a chuckle here and there. Ms Gray’s novel is accomplished, but takes too long to engage the heart, providing only “tolerable comfort” (Mansfield Park). It deserves, however, to be called “almost pretty” (Northanger Abbey) for the polished writing, which is more than Miss Bates can say for this jumbled mess of a post.
A Lady Never Lies was published by Berkley in 2012. It is available in the usual formats and places. Miss Bates purchased the paperback in a recent shopping frenzy.