In the spirit of Disclosure! that has been the subject of an interesting discussion at Something More, Miss Bates confesses to being disposed to like Barry’s Brave In Heart for reasons other than her love of: American-set historical romance, spinster-schoolmarm heroines, military heroes, and Ken Burns’s The Civil War. Ms Barry is a sympathetic and likeable blog presence to Miss Bates, though they’ve never met in person, nor communicated in any other fashion. Frankly, Miss Bates was whew-relieved when Brave In Heart, Barry’s Connecticut-Civil-War-set romance captivated her from the opening sentence … and proved to be without any connection to one of Miss Bates’s most abhorred novels, Gone With the Wind. With only minor bumps along the road to reader-joy, Miss Bates loved Brave In Heart … and, like Oliver Twist, begs for, “Some more, please.”
Even if Miss Bates were not already inclined to like Brave In Heart, the elements she listed above would lead her to it. Its opening line, for example, “I wish to release you from our engagement … We don’t suit.” Ha. Words to warm a spinster’s heart and elicit a flood of what-could-have-been memories; some spinsters are made by choice rather than circumstance! Thus, in 1859 Connecticut, on the brink of the American Civil War, our heroine, Margaret Hampton, breaks off her engagement to our hero, Theodore Ward; what a great way to begin a second-chance romance … with the end of the first!
Despite the finality of her decision, for the next two years, Margaret harbors a secret: she loves Theo, but did not marry him because he is not “brave in heart.” He suffers from what Margaret identifies as “an inability to act on the ardor in his heart.” What a great line, thought Miss Bates. Margaret, an older heroine at 35, gives up any chance of happiness; she is, after all, self-admittedly “on the shelf,” an orphaned schoolmarm and spinster; Theo, a man of wealth and privilege. She ponders her future thus: “In jilting him, she was ensuring a hard, lonely future for herself. Teaching the same books until the covers fell off. Emphasizing the same rules for young women until her voice was strained. Scrimping for new gowns and darning stockings past serviceability.” Though Ms Barry lauds the virtues of schoolmarmishness elsewhere in the novella, here is a bleak view of the profession … boo hoo, thought Miss Bates … Margaret obviously doesn’t know the year-in-year-out joy of teaching Hamlet to high school seniors.
Margaret is a woman in love and her future without Theo is what is bleak about it; like Jane Eyre, however, she is unwilling to relinquish her principles for her man, though Margaret’s protestations are not half as convincing as Jane’s. And here is Miss Bates’s quibble: Brave In Heart suffers from some confusion regarding the conflict in this early stage. Margaret’s reasons for giving up Theo are not all that convincing to Miss Bates … and she has much reason to claim, as her students would say, echoing that pernicious grammatical child of GoodReads, that Margaret is “relatable.” Shudder. The conflict between Theo and Margaret that Barry develops after they marry, though it has its origins here, is much more potent, believable, and sympathetic.
Though they live in the same town, Margaret and Theo do not meet again until two years following their broken engagement, at a ball abuzz with talk of civil war. Theo, at this point in his life, is aware that he has sacrificed his dreams of working for the abolitionist cause, political aspirations, and need for wider spaces and exploration, to the only-child obligation he feels for his mother and elderly business partner. This is the gist of what Margaret sees as his cowardice, his inertia. Theo, in turn, says that Margaret’s insistence on his taking risks with his life’s staidness and stability left them at an impasse, “All he had ever done was disappoint her, and all she had ever done was make him frenetic.” Sad … true, and well-put.
The moment Theo sees Margaret, however, the love, yearning, hurt pride, broken heart, frustrated desire, and anger simmering within re-emerge. He is determined to change his life and win Margaret once and for all. In recounting this premise of Barry’s novella, Miss Bates wishes to point to its nod to Miss Bates’s two favourite novels: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the ur-second-chance romance novel; and, of course, her beloved Jane Eyre in yet another tale with an orphaned schoolmarm as its heroine of indomitable will, strength, integrity, and moral rectitude. In the ballroom scene initiating a second-chance-at-love, Barry, like Austen and Brontë, is able to capture both the external social world and the rich interiority of our hero and heroine as they grapple with the re-enlivening of their love and attraction. The richest expression of this comes from Margaret’s wonderful turn of phrase encapsulating the essence of Austen’s Persuasion, “Instead of moving forward together, they had stood still apart.” Ah, thought Miss Bates, like the Captain and Anne. Miss Bates always wanted one perfect phrase to capture their stasis until their meeting nine years after the broken engagement and this is it.
Theo insists on dancing with Margaret at the ball and meeting her later in the week where, once more, the ancient disagreement over his inertia flares into argument. Theo leaves Margaret determined and enlists in the Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. That night, he sneaks into Margaret’s school grounds, passion overwhelms them, and Theo convinces her to marry him. Miss Bates loved Theo’s reasons why they ought to: not because she’s been compromised, or it’s the proper thing to do, but because he says, “it’s time” and he loves her. Margaret accepts Theo, but tells him she doesn’t love him, which isn’t true, but understandable. Margaret had made her peace with her life … and now, all the uncontrollable passion, yearning, and love rush back in … she tries to hold it at bay, but Theo’s enlistment and her potential loss open the floodgates and Margaret is helpless before them. Though she remains stoic at the time, no spinster’s-avowal can resist Theo’s proposal, “And until this war is over and we can be together, let me spread my mantle before you. Marry me.”
Miss Bates loved loved loved this second half of the novella. She’ll try not to wax too much about it lest she stray into spoiler territory. Firstly, one restless frustration that she sometimes feels vis-à-vis the romance genre is the narrative movement toward the HEA that ends with a marriage, or some sort of permanence to the hero’s and heroine’s relationship. Here the permanence is a done deal. It is the working out of that union with the painful, life-altering crisis of separation that war brings to a couple that makes for a great story … well-conceived and well-told. Margaret’s final admittance that she loves her husband and all she stands to lose in this war is excruciating … and a wonderful portrayal of a person whose emotions had been in check for a long time finally allowing them free rein. Theo, in turn, stars and stripes in his eyes as he goes off to fight for a cause that he’s only paid lip service to, is hardened by the “fog of war;” as he states when Margaret presses him to talk to her of his experiences, “It had forced his hand and taught him about action, but it also proved the limits of humanity. The emptiness of the soul. The fragility of life.”
The war-time separation allows Barry to write a wonderful exchange of letters between Margaret and Theo. Miss Bates loved the letter-exchange and her only quibble is that there weren’t enough of them! They were beautifully written, poignant, romantic, and contained that wonderful cadence of the letters in Burns’s documentary. Moreover, at the novella’s crisis-climax, Margaret utters a prayer that, in its heartfelt faith and humility, is better than anything Miss Bates has read in an inspirational romance.
Miss Bates urges you to read Brave In Heart for all the reasons she’s laid out here and others that even her loquaciousness can’t describe … like the wonderful portrayal of Theo’s mother, or the atmosphere of the ball, or Theo’s final war experience, or the hero’s great weeping, or the final re-union scene of husband and wife. Let Miss Bates say only that the sprigged hanky was soaked. The initial conflict is a little nebulous and there is some uncertainty in the dialogue between capturing the rhetoric of the times and making characters sound natural enough to be appealing; nevertheless, in Barry’s novella, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart” Emma. As a matter of fact, “tender of heart” is as good a title for this novella as “brave.”
How did this novella end up in Miss Bates’s TBR? A wonderful review over at Badass Romance convinced her of its worthy inclusion!
Brave In Heart is published by Crimson Romance and available as an e-book, easily found in the usual places. Miss Bates purchased it herself.
Miss Bates loves American-set historical romance novels, despite her snark towards Gone With the Wind. What are your favourites? … because her TBR is now down by two!