Ms Royce’s Once Beloved opens at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition. Heroine Helena Martin, née Thornton, is overwhelmed by the crowd. Two-years widowed and a recluse, she ventured out for her young sons’ sake. Helena suffers from agoraphobia and panic attacks, her anxieties stemming from the incident that killed her beloved husband. Her unexpected rescuer is Daniel Lanfield, brother to the fiancé she abandoned in Marksby, her native village, to elope with Isaiah Martin. When Daniel recognizes who she is, he expresses disgust and antipathy. But Daniel is too decent to leave Helena in this state. He helps her and, when she receives a summons from her only living Marksby relative, her ailing, possibly dying grandmother, he offers to take her in his cart. Accompanied by Helena’s niece, Vanessa, Daniel and Helena make their way to Marksby where Helena will confront her youthful actions’ fruits – an economically devastated village and cold, hurtful, insulting reception. Though he still resents her, Daniel becomes Helena’s unlikely ally in this journey of reckoning into the past.
Royce’s Once Beloved‘s strengths are myriad. Miss Bates was enamoured of her fine, even, delicate writing and, in particular, the lovely descriptions of the rural setting. London’s bustle, framing the novel at beginning and end, is also well done. In turn, Daniel Lanfield’s characterization is cleverly associated with the land and his sheep-herding work. Though Daniel looks and sounds Gabriel-Oak-like, Miss Bates was glad that he wasn’t earth to Helena’s metropolis. Daniel is committed to the land and animals from which he and his family live, but also aware of the difficulty of their way of life and its inevitable erosion by industrialization. He is a wonderful combination of working to preserve and aware of the need for change, nay, even embracing its gifts. Moreover, he is part and parcel of Helena’s return to the home she relinquished and her slow realization of everything it meant to her. We see the land through Daniel’s steadfast eyes and Helena’s poignant, nostalgic rediscovery of nature’s beauty.
Royce adeptly and originally uses the classic enemies-to-lovers trope. There’s no pretend animosity: Helena damaged Daniel’s still-embittered, older brother, Gordon, as well as impoverished her village. (Apparently, the village’s fortunes relied on a land deal between the Thorntons and Lanfields which would’ve brought prosperity with a railway deal. The railway agent was Isaiah Martin. When she eloped with Isaiah, it brought all financial possibility to an end.) Daniel’s enmity is believably visceral: “She ought to look like one of Macbeth‘s gnarled witches, her outside matching her base and ugly spirit. No one with a soul could live with bringing about the ruin of her village. He’d never in his life do a woman harm, but he could wish he hadn’t noticed her distress, to begin with. As if this trip weren’t enough of a dismal failure, meeting that viper again made London a new level of hell.” Despite Daniel’s animosity, he finds some sympathy for Helena, which he squelches with this delightful metaphor: “He stomped on the delicate sprout of sympathy he felt trying to take root.” Helena’s response to Daniel is not as conflicted. She atones and apologizes for what she caused. She’s often on the defensive. Her inner conflict comes with her attraction to, and liking for, Daniel. She loved her husband and they shared a robust love life. Her physical yearnings and heart-stirrings elicit painful guilt and doubt. Royce’s widow’s grief and, in turn, recovery from, is refreshing, believable, and touching.
While Miss Bates enjoyed Once Beloved, there were aspects that took her out of the narrative. The romance is weak and distancing. While Daniel’s rancor and Helena’s self-justifying are convincing, the abrupt switches to attraction, liking, and then suddenly LOVE, less so. Once Helena and Daniel are lovers, no thought is given to pregnancy. (Miss Bates did have impression that Helena and Daniel are older protagonists and maybe that shouldn’t be an issue.) The HEA is preceded by a secondary character’s contrived villainy, another detail taking Miss Bates out of the narrative. Miss Bates’ main contention, however, is with the hero’s marital status. Daniel is married. Early on, we learn that his wife left him (this is not a spoiler). And yet, his assumption that he and Helena can marry makes him look like a dummkopf. He doesn’t seem to give any consideration to the minor matter of bigamy?! The issue is resolved, however, to render the HEA plausible. Nevertheless, Miss Bates admits a personal prejudice in this case: it was unacceptable to her and may be so for other readers. Read Once Beloved for Helena’s resurrection, a marvelous sheep-herding scene in inclement weather, another of lovers under the night sky. With her reading angel, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says Royce’s Once Beloved provides “real comfort,” Emma.
Amara Royce’s Once Beloved is published by Lyrical Press (Kensington Books). It was released on November 10th, 2015, and is available in e-book format at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Lyrical Press (Kensington Books) for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.