A Woman of Passion
In A Woman of Passion, Virginia Henley introduces us to the life and loves of Elizabeth “Bess” Hardwick. Born into a life of poverty and kicked out of her home, Bess vows that she will do all it takes to gain security and success and rise to the top of English society. We follow Bess through four marriages, six children, and a friendship with the temperamental Queen Elizabeth I. The political turmoil of Elizabeth’s ascendance to the throne, the fantastic settings, and the endless parade of gorgeous gowns and masquerade balls, make for a potentially thrilling story and Henley conveys the beauty and the decadence of the time with great skill. But Henley’s flare for glamour cannot save the reader from a totally unlikable heroine and prose that repeatedly crosses the line between purple and just plain goofy.
Henley’s prose has always leaned towards the dramatic, but there was a time when she used her purple powers for good rather than evil. The old Henley (who wrote the fabulous The Falcon and the Flower, for instance) could imbue the most traditional romance with charm and sensuality. But that Henley has absented herself from A Woman of Passion leaving us with lazy, silly writing. The worst offense comes when William “Rogue” Cavendish’s hand strays between Bess’ legs for a little foreplay and he whispers: “I feel it pouting like a sulky child demanding more.” You’d think this is the unsexiest image possible. But Henley follows this gem up with an equally unpleasant line during a love scene between Bess and Hubby #3: “I swear I’m so hard, I could break off inside you.” Henley’s characters run around shouting “Vixen!,” “Rogue!” and “Black devil!” at each other at an exhausting pace. They banter with what may be intended as earthy bawdiness, but simply comes across as oversexed aggression. There’s also the unnerving similarity between Bess’ first and third husbands who could practically be twins from the way that Henley describes them.
Bess, based on a real historical figure, also suffers from a lack of character development. When we first meet Bess, she is a small child throwing a tantrum as creditors empty her family’s home. Years later, we find the barely teen-aged Bess as she joins a titled relative’s household determined to improve her status and find herself a wealthy, influential husband. No doubt Bess’ practicality and naked ambition are supposed to be refreshing. Indeed, Bess is a nice change from the saintly heroines favored by some authors. But instead of coming across as spirited and independent, Bess seems like a materialistic opportunist. Of course, Henley isn’t willing to really take a risk with this character and make her a fun-loving gold-digger. It might have been a pleasure to see Bess mature from a money-hungry nymphet into a worldly woman who knows there’s more to the world than titles and treasure. But, in a transparent attempt to make Bess more nurturing, Henley saddles her with an invalid first husband. Bess patiently attends to her fragile hubby till he obediently croaks a chapter or two later, leaving Bess free to find herself a wealthier mate.
In later chapters, Henley tries to justify Bess’ persistent ambition by telling us that she is doing it all for her children. But after she succeeds, she proceeds to arrange marriages for every single one of her children without ever considering their desires. Certainly, arranged marriages were the norm, but Bess’ actions seem less selfless than controlling. It’s unsurprising, but still unappealing that Bess wants her children to marry for social gain rather than love, despite the fact that their wealth and power could give them the freedom to do otherwise.
Other than her ambition, Bess seems to have only two other defining traits (or three depending on how you count): her beauty and her breasts. Bess is fantastically beautiful and a natural flirt so she has little to struggle against in her quest to gain attention from rich men. While we’re told that she’s not just gorgeous, but also smart and savvy, Bess has little chance to prove herself as a heroine. She just seems to endure whatever is going on around her until one powerful man or another comes to her rescue. And as for Bess’ breasts, every single character who encounters her comments on them – including the future Queen of England.
Strangely, the book’s only relationship with any degree of depth develops between Bess and William Cavendish after his death. There are moments when Henley ceases her frantic bawdiness and the couple’s lost love truly seems to resonate with passion and humor. During these moments, it’s possible to remember when Henley’s talents were apparent in more than just her descriptions of the heroine’s wardrobe, when love didn’t get lost in a lackluster mess of hollow characters having even more hollow sex.