Angel in a Red Dress
Angel in a Red Dress was first published in 1988 as Starlit Surrender, Judy Cuevas’s first novel. The good news is that much of Judith Ivory’s signature style is already apparent here. The bad news is that the book does have a number of flaws, including a premise that hinges on a gross historical inaccuracy.
Christina Bower first meets Adrien Hunt, the Earl of Kewischester, at a party during a flirtatious moment. She, a lawyer’s daughter, is so far beneath him socially that she feels free to stretch her boundaries a bit and tweak his curiosity without any real repercussions. The second time she meets him her situation is a bit different and she is even more socially precarious – she’s being divorced by her husband for her inability to give him a son. The situation is so humiliating that Christina flees to an empty estate in the countryside that her cousin assures her will be a wonderful place to try and come to grips with her situation. Christina doesn’t realize until Adrien arrives there that it is, in fact, his estate, and he is just as personally charismatic as he ever was.
Adrien Hunt has lived a rather charmed life. It has not been without difficulties, but he has looks, charm, intelligence, education, and wealth, as well as good health and personal stamina. For a number of years he squandered his attributes on dissolute living, but now that the French Revolution is going full steam and putting his French aristocratic relatives in deep jeopardy, he finds himself embroiled in rescue attempts and heroic efforts to save them. Christina is a distraction he believes he can handle, a divorced summer diversion, but when she stumbles onto pieces of his double life, things get more intimate and complicated than he expected.
As mentioned before, the writing here is quite good. The prose is smooth and quite descriptive, lovely in places and full of period details. While this is certainly no history text, Ivory does include quite a bit of historic detail about France and the conditions which led to the Terror there. As always, Ivory is adept at creating sexual tension between her protagonists. There is quite a bit of steam here, yet none of it seems gratuitous. For the first two-thirds of the book, the conflict involves the differences in station between Christina and Adrien and how a love affair between them can work based on their differing expectations. Adrian, for all his charm, is arrogant and quite used to getting his way in everything, so he assumes that Christina will comply and that to have her will cost him nothing personally – certainly not marriage. Christina has already hit rock bottom socially and doesn’t want to lose anything more, most especially what little she has left of her reputation. They are at an impasse, with no resolution in sight.
Christina, for her part, has a great deal of inner strength and more than a little stubbornness. She refuses to be railroaded by Adrien, which he finds confounding and perversely attractive. However, while both Christina and Adrien are well drawn characters full of believable flaws, it’s a little less believable that they would be happy together in the long run. Adrien is admirable in his own way, and frequently heroic, but he has a tendency to behave only in ways that benefit Adrien. He has no personal history of fidelity to women, and while he does come to love and cherish Christina, it’s less certain how he will behave when the bloom is off the rose, considering that he is so far above her in every aspect except personal attractiveness. And Christina bucks his every attempt to control her, even when it is in her own best interest to do as he says. It’s not hard to imagine that their future together will be a bit stormy.
Additionally their relationship, and Christina’s availability (and, for that matter, Adrien’s as well) hinges on a very large piece of historical inaccuracy, the ready ability to divorce a spouse. Both Christina and Adrien are divorced. It’s possible with time and an Act of Parliament that a man of Adrien’s status and influence could have gotten a divorce, but a divorce for a woman would have marked her irrevocably. And the way their divorces figure in this book would have been impossible in real life.
I probably could have lived with this, brushed it off, made mental allowances, because Adrien’s and Christina’s developing relationship is so interesting and complex that it’s really worth it to give some leeway. But, doubly unfortunately, the book’s central conflict – the relationship impasse they reach – morphs into an external spy plot late in the book and never does get resolved satisfactorily. Which is why it’s difficult in the end to believe that these two will remain happy together in years to come.
Still Angel in a Red Dress is definitely worth the read, if just for the unique time period and Ivory’s ability to make her characters hum with tension, sexual and intellectual. Even the spy bits manage to be somewhat interesting and original. Just don’t expect this to be up to the standard of her later masterpieces like Bliss and Untie My Heart. It’s good, but it’s not nearly as good as those wonderful books.