REVIEW: Tackling the TBR One Letter At A Time: “A” Is For Archer

Velvet Bond“The best laid plans of mice, men” and Miss Bateses often run astray, ’tis true. Miss Bates, with doubt and trepidation vis-à-vis her resolve, embarks on a quest, sprigged hankie in hand: To Defeat The TBR (insert Rocky theme) … one letter at a time! Miss Bates herein commits to methodically and systematically whittle down her prodigious TBR, which now runs at … blush …  ahem … over 800 titles. Among whatever reviews she may have committed to elsewhere, she’s going to nab at the TBR every once in a while and send some snark 😦 or hark! 🙂 your way. Moreover, she’s exploring the whys and wherefores said volume ended up in the TBR. It’s interesting to her why we choose the books we do; join her in the comments to share the state of your TBR and its whys and wherefores. Miss Bates’s first Great TBR Whittle is brought to you by the letter “A”: Catherine Archer’s 1995 Velvet Bond.

Velvet Bond is no knight-in-shining-armor, jousts, and ladies-fair medieval romance, but an engaging shotgun-marriage-sans-bébé narrative, with negotiations, compromises, unfulfilled desires, latent needs, and unavowed love. Miss Bates liked it a lot until the final chapters’ not-so-delightful case of 90s romance-kitsch.

Set in Edward III’s reign, Velvet Bond is the story of Lady Elizabeth Clayburn and Lord Raynor, Baron of Warwicke. One of Miss Bates’s earliest romances was Woodiwiss’s The Wolf and The Dove (1974, ‘member that one?) and her reading of medieval romance was marked by it. Archer’s category romance holds up rather well, better than Woodiwiss’s, because the love-making scenes are without questionable compulsion on the hero’s part. They’re consensual, few, and surprisingly gentle, tender, but, alas, corny in the final chapters.

Elizabeth and Raynor meet at Edward’s court where Raynor requests the king grant him custody of his daughter, Willow. She’s been claimed by her step-uncle, Nigel Harrington who, only to Raynor’s knowledge, raped Raynor’s best friend and neighbour, Louisa (who died in childbirth chez lui, where she’d sought sanctuary from Nigel). Raynor has sworn to protect Willow and claims her as his own illegitimate offspring to that end. When Elizabeth’s brother, Stephen, asks him to dine with them, he accepts. However, a last-minute summon by the king has Stephen leaving his sister unchaperoned with Raynor (actually, Elizabeth machinates this because she’s so attracted to Raynor 😉 ). Caught in a compromising embrace, they must wed. The rest of the story recounts Raynor’s mistrust of Elizabeth: did she trap him into marriage? Will his feelings and desire for her weaken him? Can he allow her allure to compromise his independence and freedom? Can he risk his heart to gain hers?

Raynor has serious mommy issues. His mother manipulated his father, used his love to squander the family fortune to satisfy her penchant for luxury. She betrayed him and bore another man’s child. When his father died, she tried to do the same to Raynor. He needed whatever will he possessed to fight her. This runs through Raynor’s mind as he navigates his newly married state. This is what he’s known and assumes this is what his life with Elizabeth will be. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is wilful, stubborn, and independent, but moral, kind, funny, affectionate, and caring. The more he experiences this never-have-I-known-such-a-woman Elizabeth, the more vulnerable he feels as he falls in love and gains in respect and consideration for her character. When he weeps, it’s not full-on as Miss Bates likes, but it’s in character: discreet and a leap across the chasm of never admitting his feelings. So, it’s still pretty good.

Archer does hero and heroine alternating, POVs well. One of Miss Bates’s favourite moments in any romance is the moment when one of the leads notices the other. The other is no longer an object in one’s gaze, but a person of mystique and mystery. This is what Elizabeth thinks when she first sees Raynor, “He made her think of a dark forest in moonlight, and his expression had a strange haunted quality, as if he were used to being alert for hidden danger.” A description that captures that quality of strangeness, of fascination with the other as a creature that compels. Attraction, desire, mesmerizing drawing-towards, like a wild and beautiful and dangerous animal is the language Archer sets for Elizabeth. For Raynor, his diction is flatter, painful, resistant, as evidenced here, “Elizabeth Clayburn was certainly the kind of woman he had learned to avoid – young, beautiful, and sure of her female power.” That very female power needs to be harnessed before Elizabeth “gets her man.” Before she “gets” him, she must convince him that she “stands by him.”

If you’re looking for a feminist treatise in this romance, you won’t find it. Yet, one of the things Miss Bates loved about it was the battle of wills between these two. Elizabeth exhibits intelligence and the determination that Raynor will never see her cry, never see her vulnerable or disappointed, nor would she give up persisting in winning him over. Her instincts are unapologetically nurturing; yet, she never loses herself in the hero, never concedes her strong sense of who she is and what she wants. Witness this exchange: Raynor “I cannot see you as anything more than a well-favored thing.” Elizabeth “What you are willing to give would not be enough for me. I am no well-favored thing.” Love. It.    

In Velvet Bond is the idea that the heroine can only get her man when she has conquered and controlled her “passions,” not her sexual urges, but her temper, her anger. It is a phenomenon that the romance tradition inherits from Jane Eyre. One of the most interesting aspects of Jane is that first chapter when Jane’s displays of temper, rebellion, and disobedience in her aunt’s household are tempered by chastisement, unjust as it is. More importantly, we witness this restraint in Jane, following Helen’s death at Lowood and in light of what Jane gleans from Helen’s meek and mild ethos, accomplished by Jane’s will.

Jane wills her anger and temper and penchant for sass and rebellion away until she emerges, like tempered steel, into the glare of Rochester’s world-weary cynicism and dissipation. She can only “do him good” when she herself has defeated her Achilles’ heel. There is in Jane, much as Miss Bates loves it … the idea that it is only thus a woman gets her man. We see the heroine of Archer’s novel do the same to get hers. It is no wonder to Miss Bates that Archer’s bio on the Harlequin site attributes Brontë’s novel as her primary influence. How many of us have had a similar experience with our beloved Jane?

Once Elizabeth exerts her will to temper her temper, the narrative goes kitschy and the prose over-wrought. The love scenes, in particular, succumb (pun intended) to … um … put it delicately a baroque quality. As hero material, Raynor methinks doth protest too much, but his qualities are such that the reader recognizes he deserves the heroine. And Elizabeth deserves what her heart desires. She’s wonderful. Nevertheless, Archer’s Velvet Bond does have the dubious honour of singlehandedly containing the worse phrase to describe the hero’s desire for the heroine: Raynor sinks into Elizabeth’s “buttery darkness.” ‘Tis enough, dear reader, to render even Miss Bates speechless …

How did this baby end up in Miss Bates’s TBR? Firstly, it was jotted in Miss Bates’s Little Black Book Of Romances To Read because All About Romance gave it an “A+”. Secondly, Miss Bates likes Medieval-set romance. Then, a few years ago, a glitch on the Harlequin website gave buyers a coupon that resulted in most titles costing mere pennies. Considering Miss Bates’s great love of category romance, she went to town and is still reaping the dubious benefits.

Miss Bates think you should add Velvet Bond to your TBR pile; here’s a romance indicative of “a mind lively and at ease” EmmaVelvet Bond was re-issued by Harlequin in 2012 and is available in e-format from the usual places.

How does your TBR grow? What have you whittled from it lately?


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