Desert Isle Keeper
A Lady Awakened
Ms. Grant’s excellent debut should really be titled A Lady and a Gentleman Awakened. Both the heroine, repressed Martha, and the hero, feckless Theo, are, by this novel’s end, alert to possibilities unimaginable to both prior to their relationship. In A Lady Awakened, opposites don’t merely attract; two strongly disparate people are transformed into a singular pair.
Martha Russell is twenty-one, childless, and recently freed by a riding accident from an unhappy marriage to a drunkard. She is prepared to leave the home in which she’s lived for the past year, her husband’s family seat, Seaton Park, and dutifully move in with one of her married siblings when she discovers her husband’s heir is a selfish lech who, in the past, molested the female staff at Seaton Park. When the family solicitor points out the inheritance isn’t settled until it’s clear Martha’s not pregnant, Martha, a woman so virtuous it’s wearing, begins to think of defrauding her seedy brother-in-law out of the estate.
Martha decides to approach Theophilus (Theo) Mirkwood, a young man recently moved into the estate next door. Theo has been sent to rusticate in the country by his father who is justifiably concerned at Theo’s careless, irresponsible life in London. As Theo explains, the crowning blow was Theo’s “expenditure of two months’ allowance to buy a single snuff box from Sèvres” which, he acknowledges, was “Wasteful, in fact, and foolish in the extreme. Particularly given that I don’t use snuff.” Martha offers to pay Theo to bed her; the two will have sex every afternoon until it’s clear she has or hasn’t conceived.
Theo, after a bit of thought and a peek or two down Martha’s bodice, says yes. He sees the offer as a way to have safe sex with a pretty young widow and, though he’s the heir to a fortune, his funds are currently low. He’s unconcerned about his part in the fraud — this, like most things, Theo sees as not his problem. Martha suggests the two begin immediately — time is of the essence literally here — and their relationship begins.
I’ve rarely read a more uncomfortable encounter than the first between Theo and Martha – or, as Martha insists, Mrs. Russell and Mr. Mirkwood. Martha loathes sex, intimacy, seduction, and at first, Theo. She envisions a month of lying perfectly still, suffering through Theo’s distasteful and, she hopes, hurried thrusts. Theo, on the other hand, is a sensualist. He adores sex, women’s glorious naked bodies, and casual easy intimacy. Thus, once he realizes Martha’s intent to render sex into unpleasant duty, he can barely perform. It’s only by —and this is character development genius on the part of Ms. Grant — imagining Martha as an engaged, passionate participant in bed, can he deliver “the first installment of her purchase.”
The next afternoons are no better. Theo tries to woo Martha by telling her how lovely she is. Martha finds these declarations repugnant. Theo attempts to coax passion out of her body. Martha shrinks away from even a kiss. The sex, for the first week they are together, is awful.
However, the two do more in bed than toil. They talk and, slowly, begin to learn first about, then from one another. What seems in Martha to be dull morality shows itself to Theo — and to the reader — as a powerful, even engaging desire to improve the lives of the poor. Theo’s casual approach to life hides a fine mind and, once he sees the destitution of those who live on his and Martha’s lands, Theo begins to apply himself to improve a world he’d never before noticed. Their conversations turn into collaborations and, within a few weeks of knowing each other, the two are working together to care for their lands and tenants. And, of course, their connection outside the bedroom begins to shape the one within.
I’ve read other books with this same basic plot — heroine needs baby fast, finds jaded hero, hero and heroine discover love in the midst of their passion — and yet A Lady Awakened feels entirely new. Martha and Theo are imaginatively unique and their relationship develops in unexpected ways. Theirs is the best of love affairs, one that enriches every aspect of their lives.
Ms. Grant does so much well in this book. All the secondary characters and the temporal and geographical context are conveyed beautifully. She describes the harsh lives of the poor in early 19th century England, while still giving those lives touches of joy and care. The concerns that motivate first Martha and then Theo are illustrated by example rather than by description. Just as Theo’s wonderful land steward, Mr. Granville, guides Theo to see how pernicious poverty can be, so Ms. Grant, by limning the lives of the servants and tenants in A Lady Awakened, subtly guides the reader.
She’s also a remarkable and able writer. Her prose is capable, strong, and clear. When Theo and Martha finally truly come together in bed, afterwards, lying in Martha’s arms, Theo is “a gimcrack shell of a man, dumb elation rattling about where his lungs and liver ought to be.” When the two are unable to arrive upon a shared vision of their future, Theo sees their state as one in which “He’d cleaved his cares from hers.” An ordinary experience such as this one, where Martha moves from sitting in the first pew at church into a seat at in third row, is acutely rendered:
“One saw things differently from the third row. One could see the spot where sunlight through the east wall’s lancet window struck the tile floor, for example. One could make a study of the backs of people’s heads. She shouldn’t have known, in the first row, which of her neighbors washed behind their ears and which did not.”
I’ve few qualms about this book. The largest is one I find easy to forgive. It takes a leap of faith to believe Martha, a woman so hemmed in by starchy social proprieties, would entertain the idea of sharing her body with a stranger. I leapt – far lesser books require accepting far more ludicrous notions. I was unsure of Martha’s portrayal as a woman who, in the privacy of her solitary bed, pleasured herself. The household staff at Seaton Hall is somewhat unrealistically in perfect sympathy with Martha and, even less likely, with each other. These complaints pale against the vibrant storytelling found in A Lady Awakened.
I look forward to Ms. Grant’s next novel, due this spring, the tale of Martha’s younger brother: A Gentleman Undone. If Will’s story is as superbly presented as his sister’s, I will consider myself again a reviewer well-pleased.