Mary Burchell’s A SONG BEGINS: Romance Doesn’t Get Better Than This …

A_Song_BeginsUntil reading Mary Burchell’s A Song Begins, Miss Bates found it hard to believe that anyone could rival her beloved Betty Neels. And yet, here she is, enthralled with Mary Burchell. And 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 stretching from 1965 to 1985. They are set in the opera world and feature harsh, closed-off heroes and heroines who can 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. Their kindness and love for the heroine are hinted at with only very occasional 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 on the stage. A Song Begins opens with Anthea Benton, aspiring singer from Cromerdale, trying to win a TV singing spot to help her 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 it 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 the maestro himself, Oscar Warrender!  

Oscar and Anthea’s relationship is definitely one where the power differential is much greater for her. And yet, what Miss Bates loved about Anthea is: she was never cowed. She stood up for herself and never lost a sense of who she was. Training with Oscar is hard, exacting, confusing, and she receives very little by way of 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 his art and her voice leave him seemingly indifferent to her dislike.

Burchell’s hero, like Neels’, 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 must 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’ll browbeat Anthea and the next, take her hand and show a moment of mercy. But Anthea, while she suffers under his tutelage, also knows she’s learning more than she ever thought possible. She recognizes that his rigor is for the art’s sake, not to be deliberately cruel. And she holds her own. She is his equal in art and temperament.

Because Oscar is impenetrable, Anthea’s growing attraction to and love fo him must come through a physical awareness as much as social interaction. Their rare, innocent touches, innocent at least by our 50 shades world, are as visceral and moving to the romance reader as an explicit love scene. In their lessons’ first weeks, Oscar takes Anthea to the opera to watch 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 feeling that is yet unrealized, unspoken. And this ability to express the inexpressible, when done as well as Burchell does, are what the genre does greatly.

A_Song_BeginsAnthea’s incipient feelings are fully realized in our hero. He know what he feels and he knows what he wants: Anthea as partner on stage, in bed, as wife and companion. But, like the best of Neels’ heroes, Oscar waits, 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 an invisible line of 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.

17 thoughts on “Mary Burchell’s A SONG BEGINS: Romance Doesn’t Get Better Than This …

  1. OH! I have this in my kindle library! It was free a while back and sounded interesting enough for me to 1-click! Can’t wait to read it now! Thanks Miss B.!

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  2. I read this entire series a very very long time ago. Not saying how long ago but I will admit I was a pimply faced teenager sneak reading Harlequins under the covers at the time. Just me and my trusty flashlight. 😉 I remember buying them at this really lovely used bookstore, a hole-in-the-wall place really, which had an entire section of nothing but these old Harlequins. Floor to ceiling! 🙂 I used my babysitting money and bought the entire Warrender series plus a few dozen other assorted HQs including Joyce Dingwell’s This Too I’ll Remember. If I remember correctly I paid $.10 per book! Ahh, those were good ole days indeed. I really wish I’d kept all those old classic Harlequins.

    Wonderful review Miss Bates! It’s been so long since I’ve read a Burchell and high time I reboot right here with this one. Thank you for reminding me of this series and this author.

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    • What a wonderful story of buying your first Harlequins with your baby-sitting money! And that 10cents per book, that brings back a lot of memories. We used to have quite a few used bookstores I loved browsing in (one was called “Cheap Thrills”, always got a kick out of that) used bookstores. Also, more are no more. Lovely as they were, I am grateful digital publishing is resurrecting some of these wonderful “old” roms. I think Burchell may really hit the reading spot for you!

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  3. Oh, Miss B, I’m so glad you’ve discovered Burchell, and what a wonderful review. The Great Betty is terrific comfort reading, but Burchell is by far the superior writer, in my opinion. Her characters are more richly realized, her writing is stronger, and she has a wider range. I do love Neels, don’t get me wrong, but she plows a narrower field and is not quite as insightful about human nature. And Burchell has an amazing wry wit.

    The Warrender series is somewhat uneven, especially toward the end, and it *is* dated in some of its views of disability, gender relations, etc., but if you read it as of its time, I think that book for book the quality standard is really high.

    I am so, so glad that Endeavour acquired the ebook rights. I was afraid that Burchell’s heirs were uninterested or unavailable and we would never get e-versions. There are a couple of non-Warrender books available as well, and I am planning a reread soon; I’m really curious to see how they hold up. One of them is a fondly remembered favorite.

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    • Thank you! I’m glad I discovered Burchell too. I think a Twitter convo between you and LizMcC may have given me the impetus to give Burchell a try. I agree with you regarding Neels: I also think Burchell is the better writer (and Neels is pretty high up there) and her world more complex. No matter their thematic unevennesses, I’m still eager to read the rest, just on the sheer wonder of her prose.

      *perks up with curiosity* Which title is the old favourite?!

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      • Love Is My Reason, which is about displaced persons after WW2. And the sixth Warrender novel, Music of the Heart, is one I’ve reread frequently, and it also has a refugee angle to it, along with sibling rivalry, interfering parents, and misunderstandings. It has it all!

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          • Well, this is weird. Jayne said they were up for sale at Amazon at one point but now they are nowhere to be found. Music of the Heart is available, though, and the books do stand alone. Anthea’s career develops over the course of the books, but that’s the only real continuity (and I think other characters appear in later books, but briefly for the most part).

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            • Hmm, I wish more WERE available. On .ca, the first six books of the Warrender Saga are available and everything else is used and very pricey. I hope they come back!!! I might write to Endeavour to inquire.

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    • Thank you! I’m glad because I think Burchell is great and I hope more people read her. And I also hope Endeavour re-issues more of her books. I’m greatly looking forward to them too.

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  4. Late to the party. However, I am feeling somewhat smug as I just scored A Song Begins and Love is My Reason for $2.00 each off e-bay. I look forward to re-reading them. Like Sunita, I read these back when I was ever so much younger and my original copies vanished long ago.

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