Jo Beverley’s 1991 Emily and the Dark Angel restores your faith in the genre. That was Miss Bates’s thought as she turned the last page with a satisfied reader’s affection-sigh. Miss Bates is glad she read Emily Grantwich and Piers Verderan’s wooing on paper: a traditional format for a traditional Regency, which never loses its freshness, elegance, or emotional power. What brings about that lift, the reader’s spirit-rise, the recognition of “I’m in the presence of one of the genre’s greats”? It’s difficult to pinpoint, as elusive as catching a sunbeam. It’s trope-manipulation, or gentle tinkering; it’s psychological acumen. It’s the bringing-to-life of time and place; it’s secondary characters who breathe. It’s turn of phrase the reader recalls long after the last page is turned. It’s banter and confession and the fulfilled promises of desire and being understood.
Emily and the Dark Angel contains one of Miss Bates’s favourite romance pairings, opposites-attract: Emily is sensible to Ver’s imprudence, countryside respectability to Ver’s citified worldliness, propriety to his flouting of social conventions, innocent to his debauchery, staid to his temperament, plain to his gorgeousness, and Miss Bates’s absolute favourite, her diminutive stature to his gargantuan. When this yin-yang romance combination is handled as cleverly and sensitively as Beverley’s, the HEA is about the couple’s integrating the best of each other in themselves. Core identity is preserved for tension and interest, but tempered to show us how they will live in harmony.
“On-the-shelf” spinster Emily lives quietly on her father’s estate, managing property, people, and animals since a feud left Sir Henry disabled and Marcus, her brother, absent, MIA spying for British forces against Napoleon. Piers Verderan rides into town on Beelzebub, his horse named apropos of Ver’s reputation, when he inherits Hume House. He and Emily meet when his mistress tosses violet-scented talcum powder over him and the passing Emily, in revenge over his sundering of their relationship. Ver and Emily are throw together again when Emily’s purchase of a local herd of sheep may be jeopardized by the fox covert on Ver’s adjacent new property. Ver and Emily’s duality is apparent to both on the bases of reputation and temperament … and yet, they both leave their encounters with thoughts of the other, with fascination and burgeoning attraction.
Past family offenses and feuds colour Ver and Emily’s courtship. Brilliantly portrayed secondary characters, locals and the bucks who come to Melton Mowbray to enjoy the foxhunt, machinate to bring Emily and Ver together or keep them apart. When Miss Bates first started reading Emily and the Dark Angel, she assumed echoes of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. She was displeased. 😐 Soon enough, however, Emily and the Dark Angel turned more to Heyeresque farce and, as Rave Reviews wrote when Emily was first published, “comedy of manners.” Miss Bates assures you, dear reader, that Emily and her “dark angel” are, above all, a moving, glorious romance, with Beverley’s signature themes of choosing freedom and love over convention and provinciality.
Beverley often builds her romance with a fine sense of gentle irony. Witness Emily’s thoughts post-Ver-&-violet-talcum encounter, pondering the possibility of marrying the staid, stuffy local vicar: “If the Reverend Hector Marshalswick lived up to everyone’s expectations and proposed marriage, she should surely accept. It was likely the only opportunity ever offered. Emily was a practical young woman; she had lived twenty-six years without any man conceiving a violent passion for her, so it was unlikely to happen now.” Miss Bates loves Austenesque authorial interjection in the romance narrative. The well-versed romance reader knows that these are always “famous last words”!
One of the reasons Emily and the Angel will remain in Miss Bates’s memory is Beverley’s penning of one of the best spinster figures Miss Bates has read. Emily’s Aunt Junia is a feral spinster par excellence, independent-spirited and -minded:
Sir Henry’s older sister, Junia, had lived in the Hall all her life and had no intention of moving no matter what might happen. She also had no intention, short of the direst emergency, of becoming involved in the running of the establishment. She had occupied two rooms overlooking the gardens since leaving the schoolroom. From there she attended to a vast correspondence and painted beautiful flower pictures which she either gave away or sold, as the mood took her.
She organized her life to suit herself as arrogantly as if she were a man and was as likely to wear trousers as skirts, but when the occasional stranger would congratulate or berate her for being a “modern” woman, perhaps even a Wollstonecraftian woman, she would look at him with a blank stare.
Junia Grantwich was an original and Emily thought her delightful.
Aunt Junia’s life of creativity, eccentricity, independence, and “blank stare” destruction of social convention, is enviable. Indeed, Emily stands between two choices: she loves running her father’s estate (and therein has she found the spirit of adventure and daring which will help her choose Ver) and could easily become Aunt Junia, may be half-way there. It takes a character as original and eccentric, and one as able to withstand the stodginess of a rigid society’s judgements, to attract and hold Emily. When Aunt Junia decides to play fairy-godmother to her niece and Ver (she takes a liking to him), the die is cast in Ver’s favour. Spinsters make formidable allies and advocates. You should always try to have one in your corner. 😉
Beverley’s skill for repartee is a sheer delight. It’s light, it’s witty, and it’s memorable. So many times Miss Bates paused and chuckled. A few examples with which to tantalize you, dear reader. Here is Margaret, Emily’s dear friend and neighbour, asking Emily about Ver: ” ‘Not, I gather, flea-bitten and on his last legs.’ ‘Definitely not.’ ‘Seedy? Debauched? Sallow and blood-shot from constant dissipation?’ Emily shook her head. Margaret’s silence demanded an answer. ‘He’s very good-looking,’ Emily said feebly. ‘Details,’ demanded her friend. ‘Tall, dark, and handsome,’ retorted Emily crisply. ‘The man’s a walking cliché.’ ” Beverley realistically recreates a natural, believable conversation between two friends and pokes a little fun at gothic romance’s hero-stereotypes. The stodgy, judgemental vicar isn’t left free of wit’s barbs; hands down, Miss Bates guffawed when Emily reprimanded Hector, the vicar, by exclaiming, “Hector, stop – stop hectoring! You have no right to order me around … ” XD
Equally reader-delectable are the many references to Ver’s darkness, his bad-boy reputation; witness his repartee to Emily’s doubts about him, ” ‘ … I’m certain your spotless reputation can withstand a brief brush with my sooty one. Well, Miss Grantwich?’ ” Add to these figurative bon-bons a running reference to the delights of the marriage-bed as “pudding,” with Ver’s daydreams taking forms like, “Visions filled his mind of setting Emily free and showing her the world, and adventures, and the many varieties of pudding … … And a gentleman couldn’t expect a woman to do all the chasing, after all. The least he could do was woo her a little and put the question. Hope that in her eyes he was something better than sago on the dessert menu of life … ” Ver is trifle, dear readers, delicious, rich trifle, Miss Bates’s favourite dessert.
And remember when Miss Bates said that Emily and the Angel is gloriously romantic, sans love scenes too, no mean feat and so refreshing in these days of pages-full of slot-insertion. Once Ver puts his mind to wooing Emily (and with Aunt Junia’s sly spinster’s championing), there are many wondrous moments of tenderness and love and wit. Miss Bates won’t quote them all, but she offers a soupçon. Ver has recklessly followed Emily on horseback at a brisk gallop and the jumping of hedges and fences over land he doesn’t know as well as she. He takes a tumble and Emily scolds him, ” ‘You crazy man! You could have killed yourself!’ ‘Then I’d have died for love of you,’ he said.” Ver’s proposal: ” ‘I can show you delights of mind and body, and learn them from you, too. I will set you free to explore the world, and yourself, and me. And I’ll be a secure haven when you need one. Marry me, Emily.’ ” Le sigh. Oh, and if that isn’t enough, Ver writes Emily a letter to rival Persuasion‘s Capt. Wentworth’s.
Like Emily, don’t leave Beverley’s Emily and the Dark Angel to languish on your shelf. Dust it off and let yourself be immersed in its wit and wonder. With her reading spinster-friend, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says Jo Beverley’s Emily and the Dark Angel proves “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Miss Bates purchased a paper copy of Emily and the Dark Angel with her meager spinster savings. Beverley’s Emily is published by Signet/Penguin and available in e and paper at your preferred vendors. It’s pricey, but worth every penny.
(Not too long ago, the romance community lost Jo Beverley. May her memory be eternal. If Emily were her only romance, she’d have a place in the genre’s canon. Miss Bates looks forward to reading the entire oeuvre.)