Miss Bates ran a gamut of reactions to Mary Burchell’s Warrender Saga. She adored the first and loathed (DNF-ed) the second and third. And yet, the first, A Song Begins, was so good, she get kept trying to read one after another. Well, fourth time’s a charm because The Curtain Rises is masterful. There is much in it that Miss Bates usually dislikes, but it totally totally swept her away with its emotional intelligence. To set the scene for MissB’s reader: Nicola Denby, possessed of looks, sound judgement and reasoning, and a doting, country-life-middle-class-respectability English family, goes off to London to earn her living as a secretary. Family connections see her become assistant to her prima donna aunt (who must never be referred to as “Aunt”) Gina Torelli (Torelli is a fascinatingly machinating character: a mercurial, temperamental fairy god-mother, vain and sharply intelligent, one of romance’s greatest secondary characters). Nicola was engaged to a brilliant viola player, Brian Coverdale. When Brian was on tour in Canada, he took ill and yet rushed to Toronto from Montreal at the conductor’s, Julian Evett’s. Brian, sadly, died of some consumptive-like illness and Nicola is left with great enmity towards Julian, who soon turns up to direct her aunt’s Covent Garden production.
In a Betty Neels vein, there is a pernicious “other woman” mixed up in the Brian-Julian conflict. Yet, none of the characters are typical: they’re so well-round and interesting that even the deleterious Michele Laraut “Other Woman” is, maybe not sympathetic, compelling. Other than larger-than-life Gina Torelli (some day Miss Bates would like to write a post on Gina’s wit, wisdom, and whims), Nicola’s emotional growth is the heart of this great romance. Nicola’s changing feelings, her emotional honesty, centre around a complex relationship with Julian Evett. Julian himself is a wonderful non-alpha-posturing cypher: charming, hard-working, engaging, and, as eventually revealed, a man of honour and integrity.
Nicola’s quandary is a painful, emotionally believable one. She is attracted to, and fascinated by, Julian, the man she blames for her beloved’s death:
… the most extraordinary conviction came to Nicola that she wanted, almost more than anything else in the world, to have him hotly deny that and give chapter and verse for his complete vindication. Until that moment she had not known that any of the strangling, bewildering pain had anything to do with anyone but Brian.
Burchell perfectly captures Nicola’s constantly and consistently conflicted feelings for Julian. Nicola’s desire for releasing Julian from guilt appears “extraordinary”. Nicola yearns for Julian’s “vindication”. She experiences “strangling, bewildering pain” and she is honest with herself about it: discerning it is not borne of grief, but a re-awakened heart.
While some readers may grow frustrated with Nicola’s insistence on hating, resenting, and blaming Julian, the flip side is that it speaks of Nicola’s loyalty and fidelity, heroine and hero virtues the genre is very much about. Initially, when Nicola senses sympathetic inkling for Julian, she squelches it, ensuring she shows him only rancour and dislike:
Nicola stared stonily at him. Moved and thrilled though she was by Torelli’s performance, nothing could thaw the ice round her heart when she actually looked again on the the man who was to blame for Brian’s death.
He gave her a curt nod and passed on, while she found she had given him no more than a frozen, blank glance which was half embarrassment and half pure hatred.
It is evidence of Burchell’s genius that she describes Nicola’s “freezing out” of Julian and her feelings for him with what MissB calls “hard” imagery, ice and stone featuring frequently. Burchell builds towards Nicola’s softening towards Julian.
In her emotional journeying, Nicola’s lack of empathy and feeling for Julian turns to rage, something not-love but strong nevertheless. Julian elicits strong, uncontrollable feelings. This is the moment when the hero, or heroine is most likely to lash out at the Other, trying to destroy those burgeoning feelings, to return to the stasis of stone, not-feeling:
‘Perhaps Miss Denby was not tuned in to compassion at that moment.’ Something in his tone stung Nicola into fury. And she raised her eyes and looked full at him then. ‘I find it hard,’ she said deliberately, ‘to feel compassion for anyone responsible for another’s death.’ He jerked his head slightly, as though she had struck him across the face, and she was fiercely glad that he lost colour.
Miss Bates loved our heroine’s rage, Nicola’s emotional-scourging of the Julian. Nicola revels in hurting Julian, fighting her genuine liking for a man who, at least in all her dealings with him, behaves with decorum, good manners, and affection. Nicola’s enjoyment in hurting Julian, in that “loss of colour” as he pales under her censure: how true, how truly equal, as the heroine, active in her feelings, striking at the hero’s greatest vulnerability (his guilt over Brian’s death) exacts one small indication of her power over him.
Nicola’s fever-pitch of anger, like a boiling pot, overflows and, inevitably, bursts into uncontrollable emotion, not hate, not love, not sure, but strong and beyond her:
And now, to her dismay, she found she could not hold back the tears. They silently overflowed and trickled down her cheeks. It was some minutes before he glanced at her in the passing lamplight and saw what was happening. And, with a curiously helpless note in his voice, he said, ‘Oh, lord, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have shouted at you.’ ‘And I shouldn’t have spoiled your evening of triumph,’ she replied before she could stop herself. But then she hardened her heart.
The Curtain Rises‘s emotional intensity of love, jealousy, frustration, everything that the heart hides and is ashamed of, experiences temporary relief in this one tiny shared moment of sympathy and apology. The apology, rather than the grovel, where hero and heroine meet as flawed equals is a better indicator of future happiness and a better glimpse into their relationship’s evolution than the baby-filled epilogue (though that has its place too). This is one of the finest moments in romance, simply “I’m sorry” and then the naming of the hurtful act. And then that marvelous turn of phrase, so Biblical and inevitable as the turning away from God, “she hardened her heart.”
Equal to the apology is the recognition. Nicola’s recognition of Julian’s true self is as good as the genre gets:
As she watched that thin, sensitive, intensely lively face in the light from the conductor’s desk it seemed to Nicola that she was seeing him fully for the first time. Here was the artist as well as the man, not only directing a great work, but living it and loving it as though he and it were a part of each other. ‘None of it for his own glory,’ thought Nicola indescribably moved. And then she was almost frightened by the wave of admiration and actual love which swept over her at this realization. One could love him as an artist, she hastily assured herself, while disliking him as a man. But after a minute she recognized that for the piece of hollow nonsense it was. And suddenly she capitulated to something stronger than herself and allowed the complete and simple truth to engulf her. She loved him.
Where does Miss Bates begin with the mastery that is the above paragraph? “Seeing him for the first time”, the recognition of the beloved as he is wholly and fully integrated in her heart as “the artist as well as the man.” Nicola realizes in that moment of Julian’s artistry that key to his goodness as an artist and as a man is in “none of it for his own glory”. There is in Burchell, as Miss Bates has found in Eva Ibbotson, the marriage of a religious sensibility with the romance narrative: the surrender of the heart akin to a surrender to God, “the complete and simple truth.”
With her reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says that Mary Burchell’s The Curtain Rises is evidence “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Mary Burchell’s The Curtain Rises was originally published by Mills and Boon in 1969. It was reissued by Endeavour Press in March of this year. This is the edition Miss Bates read. She received an e-ARC from Endeavour Press, via Netgalley.