Until reading Mary Burchell’s A Song Begins, Miss Bates found it hard to believe that anyone could rival Betty Neels. Yet, here MissB stands, enthralled with Mary Burchell. All she can say is, MOAR! A Song Begins is the first of Burchell’s Warrender Saga, a series of thirteen romances she wrote for Mills and Boon from 1965 to ’85. They are set in the opera world and feature harsh, closed-off heroes and heroines who hold their own against them. Burchell and Neels share the exclusive heroine POV and the mystery, which Miss Bates loves, of knowing the heroes only by their actions. The heroes’ kindness and love for the heroine are hinted at with rare near-tender gestures. Otherwise, they’re cyphers of raised eyebrows, mysterious smiles, flashing, angry eyes, suppressed frustration, and an exacting work ethic, to which our heroine’s inexperience is subject, in Neels’ case in the surgery and Burchell’s in the rehearsal hall. A Song Begins opens with Anthea Benton, aspiring singer, trying to win a TV singing spot to help pay her way to London and voice training. Anthea’s family is financially humble; while loving and supportive of her aspirations, they cannot afford to help her. This TV spot is her only chance and is foiled by one of the judges, the famous conductor Oscar Warrender. Anthea’s disappointment is short-lived, however, because she receives word, through her voice teacher Miss Sharp, that a mysterious benefactor is funding her move to London to study with none other than maestro himself, Oscar Warrender!
Oscar and Anthea’s relationship is one where the power differential is much greater for her. What Miss Bates loved about Anthea was that she was never cowed. She stood up for herself, never losing a sense of who she was. Training with Oscar is hard, exacting, confusing, and she receives very little praise, or reward. It is, in turn, exhilarating and exciting. Anthea knows he’s the best and that his best can make her great. While Oscar does bring out the best in Anthea’s voice, Anthea nevertheless spends most of their initial acquaintance referring to him as that “odious” man. She insists she doesn’t like him, but his arrogance, sang-froid, and total dedication to music and her voice leave him indifferent to her dislike.
Burchell’s hero, like Neels’s, appears impervious to sentiment. Miss Bates loves how Neels and Burchell create enigmatic heroes, who nevertheless signal incipient tenderness. Because they cannot speak their loving-kindness, their bodies stand in for it. A case in point is Anthea’s first glimpse of Oscar as he judges at the TV singing competition:
Goodlooking in a forceful and rather intimidating way, he seemed bored most of the time, but occasionally roused himself to a glance of sardonic and incredulous amusement … in the strong light she could even see that his lashes were unexpectedly long and cast a deep shadow on his cheeks.
“Forceful.” “Intimidating.” “Sardonic.” Adjectives diverting the heroine from her attraction. Ah, but those lengthy “lashes,” a touch of the soft, the feminine, something that says I’m safe and in me lurk affection and vulnerability.
Oscar’s lashes have to hold Anthea in good stead because Oscar is difficult, even hurtful at times. He’s mercurial: one moment he browbeats Anthea and the next, takes her hand in a moment of mercy. Anthea suffers under his tutelage, but also knows she’s learning more than she ever thought possible. She recognizes that his rigor is for the art’s sake, not deliberate cruelty. She holds her own. She is his equal in art and temperament.
Because Oscar is impenetrable, Anthea’s growing attraction to and love for him come through physical awareness as much as social interaction. Their rare, innocent touches, are as visceral and moving to the romance reader as an explicit love scene. In their lessons’ first weeks, Oscar takes Anthea to a performance of Verdi’s Otello. Oscar takes Anthea’s arm; her response is instinctive and powerful. Her body knows what Oscar means to her before her mind admits it:
… but as she felt those long, strong fingers close round her arm, with only the thin silk of Vicki’s gold stole in between, she was immediately aware of a current of feeling that was electric in its primitive suddenness and violence.
Burchell’s “currents” of swift and heady awareness, on the heroine’s part that is, are indications of unrealized, inarticulate feeling. This ability to express the inexpressible, when done this well, are what the genre at its best.
Anthea’s incipient feelings are fully realized in our hero. He know what he feels and wants: Anthea as partner on stage, in bed, as wife and companion. Like the best of Neels’s heroes, Oscar helps Anthea achieve professional mastery before he declares himself. In the meanwhile, Burchell uses music the way Neels uses the rhythms of the medical workday to draw a connection between hero and heroine. When Oscar has an opportunity to rehearse Anthea for the part of Desdemona, their play-acting stands in for their relationship. Burchell turns Othello and Desdemona’s tragedy on its head by making it the HEA’s counterpoint:
Lie on that sofa, Anthea. You’ve said your prayers and got into bed and then – Otello comes in.” She did exactly what he told her. But she stared up at him with wide, frightened eyes, as he stood over her, instead of feigning sleep. “Close your eyes,” he said softly. “Close your eyes. You’re asleep. And when you open them again, remember that you love the man you see there, even though you fear him.” He was standing looking down at her with heart-searching melancholy as well as indescribable menace, and she suddenly thought of what he had said – “You love the man, even though you fear him – ” The conviction was upon her in that moment that this was absolutely true, and, without her even knowing it, there was tenderness as well as terror in her glance, and in her voice too. And then, when he asked her, in tones heavy with fate, if she had said her prayers that night, the whole thing became so chillingly real that all sense of the theatre dropped away from her.
What a brilliant, important moment for the genre. Desdemona’s feelings, mysterious to her and leading to her death, are commingled with Anthea’s, mysterious to her, and leading to the fulfillment of love and fidelity, companionship and purpose, with Oscar, whom she too both loves and fears.
Whatever you do this year, treat yourself to one of the greatest the genre offers, treat yourself to Oscar, Anthea and see how their song begins. Miss Austen would’ve loved this romance novel; Miss Bates certainly did. In it, we discover “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Mary Burchell’s A Song Begins was originally published by Mills and Boon in 1965. It was reissued by Endeavour Press in November 2016. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Endeavour Press, via Netgalley.