REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s THE BROKEN WING

The_Broken_WingWhen Miss Bates read her first Burchell, A Song Begins, the 13-volume Warrender Saga introductory romance, she waxed adoring and enthusiastic. With the second title, The Broken Wing, as her mama would say, she had to put a little water in her wine. Burchell remains, in Miss Bates’s estimation, one of the finest writers in the genre; her prose is refined, elegant, clear, polished, and yet still tugs at the heartstrings. An appreciation of Burchell’s writing will ensure that Miss Bates reads to the end. She has too much respect for fine prose to DNF, even when narrative elements prove problematic, or personally unappealing.

The Broken Wing is set in the opera world that was so dear to Burchell’s heart and provided one of her most vivid settings. Oscar Warrender and now-wife Anthea Benton, A Song Begins‘s hero and heroine, play a part in Quentin Otway and Tessa Morley’s romance, yet another element Burchell handled well. Oscar and Anthea aren’t in the narrative for a reader’s glimpse of wedded bliss. They play an interesting role in nurturing Tessa’s talent and providing support and friendship, respectively. Tessa, Quentin’s “Mouse” and “Angel”, is the artistic director’s irreplaceable secretary. Quentin and conductor Oscar Warrender are the key figures and driving forces behind the Northern Counties Festival. The novel takes place during the hectic weeks of preparation that precede the festival, throwing the volatile, charming, and rogue-ish Quentin into closer and closer proximity to Tessa, his right-hand women, tea-steeper, and mercurial moods’ soother, “selfless devotion would not have been much good on its own, of course. But fortunately Tessa was remarkably efficient too.”   

A Broken Wing‘s drama centres around sibling rivalry, though more aptly sibling dominance. Tessa is the self-effacing shadow to vibrant twin sister, Tania. Tania is a vivacious at-best operetta singer who makes up in looks and charm what she lacks in talent. She cajoles Tessa into convincing Quentin to give her meager musical talents a chance at performing in the festival. Quentin’s rigidly high musical standards cannot withstand his reliance on, and affection for, his dedicated secretary; he agrees. Little does he, or any one know, that Tessa is the sister with the sublime singing voice. Typical of the era’s put-upon heroine (Wing was published in 1965-66), Tessa’s family, nominally caring, is dismissive of her talents and beauty, as is Tessa herself, because, as she too often apologetically declares, she’s “lame.” Tessa has a limp and this seems to colour everything about her character and everything about the novel too – to its detriment.

One of Miss Bates’s favourite young adult novels is Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved, a coming-of-age novel about two sisters, one of whom is more talented and attractive; the other lives in her shadow, harboring resentment and anger. Unlike the latter, while Tessa has moments of spirited dislike and resentment for Tania, overall she’s supportive and proud. Though Miss Bates dislikes the entire sibling rivalry literary theme almost as much as the Evil Other Woman, Burchell was too talented a writer to do anything less than add nuance to theme and characterization.

Working the Tessa-Tania problematics only as a romance set-up, Burchell moves away from the sisters to focus on the temperamental Quentin and even-tempered Tessa. Again, Burchell was too good to leave her characters at one-dimensionality: Tessa often shows lovely spirit and “chin” towards Quentin, even compelling him to eat humble pie with an apology in one particular scene. But the “lameness” serving to push Tessa away from taking her place in the sun is ever-present. We have all of MissB’s lip-curling dislikes here: a self-effacing heroine, sibling rivalry, an ick factor to the hero referring to the heroine as his “broken angel”, an evil other woman who is also a sister, until there is a real “other woman from the hero’s past” who – turns out not to be so evil. Burchell made MissB. want to DNF and then, she pulled back from the brink of offence and stereotype with subtlety and beautiful prose. 

Undoubtedly, Burchell’s portrayal of Tessa’s disability is distasteful. Yet Miss Bates cannot help but admit the cleverness of her metaphor. Here’s the scene, for example, where Tessa and Quentin discuss a tiny ornament he keeps on his desk:

“You’re the nearest thing I know to this,” he remarked, and indicated the beautiful little carved wooden angel which always stood beside his ink-stand … “I keep her, even though she is flawed. I call her my damaged angel.”

“Wh-why damaged?” There was a sudden constriction at Tessa’s heart.

“Because she is. It spoiled her real value, of course. Some fool dropped her and chipped a bit off one of the wings.”

The whole notion of Tessa as “damaged” is one from which the reader recoils. Miss Bates, on the other hand, cannot help but acknowledge Burchell’s literary quality. There are too many pages before we reach a conclusion that shows us a hero who never makes the connection between the ornament and the heroine, only the heroine does.

Miss Bates liked Quentin. He tended to snap and bark orders, but there was an appealing vulnerability to him too. He was vulnerable to Tess and admitted when he was wrong. Moreover, though Miss Bates has set Tessa up to be a near-doormat, Burchell at times gives her spunk and spirit: “Most people would have been astounded to know the degree of frustration and hurt rebellion which seethed behind Tessa’s quiet exterior. The casual observer saw no more than a rather self-effacing girl … ” To add, Burchell, though her premise in this case may be questionable, ensures that her heroines come to see themselves as more confident and empowered by novel’s end. Must of that comes from their ability to express themselves in art and that is most appealing theme. Even in Tessa’s case, with her insistence on staying in the background because her disability places her there, performing, singing (as the narrative’s tangled web brings her to stage) make her question this stance she’s held for as long as she can remember: “For the whole of her life her lameness had been a matter of anguish to herself and slightly irritated embarrassment to the people around her. The idea that one might, so to speak, deal with it and then ignore it was shattering in its revolutionary simplicity.” Though the lameness-harping grew to tedium and MissB. grew annoyed, The Broken Wing won her over with the beauty of its prose, its hero’s alpha-vulnerability, heroine’s forthrightness and strength, and the theme that art and love, in tandem, are what, to mangle Dostoevsky, are beautiful and what saves the world.

MissB takes a moment to quote her favourite line: ” … there was I so happy and hopeful after you gave me that deliberate come-hither sort of kiss … ” Quentin says this to Tessa near the end and Miss Bates adored the “come-hither kiss.” There should be one in every romance. Along with chin and a betrayal worthy to precede the HEA. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates agrees Burchell’s The Broken Wing offers “real comfort,” Emma.

Mary Burchell’s The Broken Wing was originally published by Mills and Boon in 1966. It has been reissued by Endeavour Press. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Endeavour Press via Netgalley.

6 thoughts on “REVIEW: Mary Burchell’s THE BROKEN WING

  1. Leave it to you to find these obscure older books! Now I’m going to have to put the first book and this one on my wishlist.

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