My goodness, Miss Bates loves Burchell. Is there a better writer? A more nuanced, interesting one? Unbidden Melody contained elements that Miss Bates and other romance readers scorn: an ingenue heroine; dense, uncaring hero; nasty Other Woman; a capitulation of the heroine’s will to the hero’s “genius”. And yet. By the end, Miss Bates had that heart-clenching-hold-your-breath response the best romance novels elicit.
Here are the plotty particulars. Introduced by one of those older, machinating, wise, charismatic characters, like the mercurial, adorably-arrogant prima donna, Gina Torelli (who makes a compelling, delightful appearance here), impresario Dermot Deane, the romance focuses on his secretary, Mary Barlow, and tenor, Nicholas Brenner. Like most of Burchell’s heroines, Mary is modest, efficient, competent, and a music-lover. She has barely started working for Deane, but loves every moment of it. Indeed, she’s the one who suggests Deane coax Nicholas Brenner to London for a production of Carmen. Deane is delighted with Mary’s idea and soon thereafter, Brenner is rehearsing Don José. Brenner hasn’t performed since his wife died in an automobile accident and a wistful sadness clings to him. He and Mary are immediately attracted, however, and she brings him out of his shell. As he confesses to her, his wife Monica had driven him mad with her jealousy and mistrust and her death brought grief, but mainly guilt-ridden relief. With Mary, he can finally embrace love and life again. At the novel’s half-point, Nicholas proposes; Mary accepts. What follows could be construed as a Big Mis; except in Burchell’s capable hands, it turns into the story of two people, obviously in love, without the acquaintance and comfort that make for commitment and stolidity. Love, says Burchell, must come with trust, understanding, and communication to build a life together.
One of the romance’s greatest strengths, indeed across all of Burchell’s books, and now sadly missing from so much romance, is her ability to build the heroine and hero unit on courtship. Romance doesn’t do the grace of the shared meal, the coat held, the door opened, and the seeing to the door like it used to. And maybe that’s for the better, cue feminism, and maybe it’s because Miss Bates is quaint and old that she really enjoys this aspect of vintage romance writers like Burchell and Neels. Here is a stunning sampling from Unbidden Melody. What has Burchell wrought? What has she developped and gained?
Over the choice of the meal he consulted her meticulously, but over the wines hardly at all, for which she was glad since her knowledge of wines was sketchy in the extreme. When this was done, he sat back with an air of genuine relaxation and asked, as though it really interested him to know her opinion, “How did you enjoy the rehearsal?”
… “Tell me something about yourself.”
“About me? There’s really nothing much to tell” …
… “And in your out-of-office hours?” he wanted to know.
“I’m primarily an opera and concert fan” …
“But you don’t go to these performances all on your own, surely?”
“Oh, no! There are quite a crowd of us. Friends, acquaintances, even a few enemies when it comes to fighting about rival favourites,” she conceded with a laugh.
“But no one special person?” he pursued, apparently with genuine curiosity.
“You mean — am I engaged or anything?”
“I suppose I did. But perhaps that’s inexcusably inquisitive?”
“Tell me, all the same.”
After the initial introductions, obvious attraction, Nicholas, as evident above, takes Mary to dinner. What is there not to love here, thought Miss Bates? Who needs a love scene, when you have a hero who is “meticulous” about the heroine’s likes and dislikes, but takes the wine-selection in hand. And what about the conversation that follows: his interest, curiosity, and boyfriend-sussing? “Tell me,” Nicholas says and begins the cementing of their relationship. In turn, he confides in Mary, about his marriage, his dead wife, his love of music. The dance of courtship has to stand in for what today are one too many love scenes. The shorthand of meal and conversation are layered over the subtle interplay of desire and curiosity that are the bases of any nascent romance.
The meal’s culmination is in vintage, kisses-only romance, The Kiss. Nicholas and Mary’s is magnificent:
And he tipped her chin up and kissed her firmly on her lips.
“How about that?”
“A splendid stage exit,” she retorted.
The gentle humour on Mary’s part is an indication of her growing confidence in being with Nicholas. Though the previous scene could be misconstrued as an unequal relationship, worldly man to ingenue young woman, Mary’s clever riposte elevates her in wit and knowingness and makes her Nicholas’s equal.
What the romance writer has wrought, it must come to follow, the betrayal scene puts asunder. Burchell brings Nicholas and Mary so lovingly and beautifully together: the kiss, the ring, the exchange of “I-love-you’s”, the sheer rightness of these two. It is obvious to Deane and Torelli, and with some help from Anthea Warrender, these two belong together. They complete each other and truly make each other happy, BUT they also make assumptions and fail to communicate. Burchell’s acute understanding of these ruptures is beautifully expressed in this passage:
They were like people talking different languages. Or like people walking along parallel paths which could never meet. “It doesn’t matter,” she said hopelessly at last. “There’s nothing either of us could say that would reach the other, in this mood. I’m so tired — and stupid. And you look all in too. We’d be talking in circles.”
It is as perfect a phrase to describe the emotional betrayal and chasm that results as any Miss Bates has read. The source, you will inquire, dear reader? The usual: a writer at the height of her craft, with a deep understanding of her characters’ flaws, using her knowledge to show where understanding, commitment, communication, and self-examination are as important to a couple’s harmony as desire and affection. Nicholas and Mary’s HEA is, at the last, having been to hell and back, so much more convincing. Which is why, your romance will only be as good as is your courtship, betrayal, and reconciliation, not in the number of your love scenes, unless they too are endemic to these truths.
With her reading companion, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Mary Burchell’s Unbidden Melody, “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Mary Burchell’s Unbidden Melody was originally published in 1973 by Mills and Boon. It was reissued by Endeavour Press on May 5th, 2017. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Endeavour Press, via Netgalley.