The Fall of a Saint
I should alert anyone thinking of reading this book that it opens onto a situation which many may find off-putting, unpleasant or just plain unacceptable. The story of The Fall of a Saint hinges around the fact that the heroine, a respectable governess, is pregnant as the result of a sexual encounter that took place at an inn, when the inebriated Duke of St. Aldric mistook her room for that of another woman, got into her bed and had sex with her while she was half asleep.
As with the companion book, The Greatest of Sins, Ms Merrill has chosen to tackle a difficult subject, and on the whole I think she handles it well. Was what St. Aldric did rape? Or does the fact that the heroine didn’t refuse him mean otherwise? I understand it’s a contentious issue and that there will be people who don’t agree with my take on it.
The events of The Fall of a Saint begin a few months after the close of the previous book. In it, the physician hero returned from life at sea to discover that he was half-brother to a duke, the powerful and respected Michael Poole, Duke of St. Aldric, a man of such impeccable reputation, generosity and honour that he is known throughout society as the “Saint”. Near the end of that book, St. Aldric is laid low by a severe case of the mumps which his brother tells him may possibly leave him infertile, although there is no way of being sure.
In the intervening months, it appears that St. Aldric has been on a massive bender, drinking and whoring in some sort of desperate impulse to prove his virility, until one night, while stupendously drunk, he mistakenly enters Madeleine Cranston’s room and has sex with her. Somehow, romantic heroes never seem to suffer from brewer’s droop as it seems no amount of alcohol can get between them and their hard-ons – although this is clearly not such a fortunate thing in St. Aldric’s case, because Madeleine’s screams bring people running and they are discovered. She bolts before St. Aldric sobers up enough to offer restitution, but some weeks later, confronts him in the street to tell him that she is pregnant with his child.
Right off the bat, we’re into tricky territory. At first, the reader is privy only to St. Aldric’s sense of self-loathing for his lack of self-control and his disgust at having (as he sees it) forced himself upon a woman; but despite his overwhelming shame, he cannot help but being glad at the news that he has fathered a child. But when we get to see Madeleine’s side of the story, the events of that night are presented in a different light, as she confesses to herself that she had not been unwilling, remembering how she had been dreaming of her former lover and believed she had been welcoming him to her bed, only realising her mistake when it was too late. Yet, had she really not known the man for whom she’d reached out was flesh-and-blood and not just a figment of her imagination?
The real meat of the book is found in the way St. Aldric and Maddie interact once she has informed him of her condition. She had hoped to obtain a financial settlement which would enable her to bring up her child in comfort, but St. Aldric is not willing to allow his offspring – possibly his heir – to be brought up out of wedlock. He tells Maddie that he will make no demands upon her and that she can have whatever she wants, and proposes a marriage of convenience.
Maddie is surprised – but in her anger and bitterness at the way her life has suddenly been turned upside down, accepts, with the intention of making her future husband’s life a misery.
She makes an estimable beginning, insisting on a lavish wedding, a massive new wardrobe, and generally trying to force him out of his habitual sang-froid by acting in as contrary a manner as possible. Unfortunately, all that happens is that she looks increasingly childish and her attempts backfire as St. Aldric proves himself the perfect gentleman at every turn.
When, more because she knows it will provoke him than because she believes it to be true, Maddie refuses to accept her husband’s word that he will not touch her or enter her rooms without permission, he coldly suggests they remove to his country estate. The duke and duchess’ apartments are at opposite ends of the house and they will therefore be able to avoid each other without too much effort.
Arriving at the palatial residence, Maddie is both impressed and intimidated, feeling ill-equipped to be the lady of such a manor. But it’s clear that St. Aldric’s staff and the people from the estate and surrounding villages all adore him, and Maddie begins to wonder if perhaps she has erred in judging his character simply from the event which bound them together. She has seen nothing since that night to suggest he is anything but a considerate and conscientious man, or that leads her to believe he will attempt to foist unwelcome attentions upon her. It’s also obvious to her that St. Aldric is not at all comfortable at Aldric House, gradually coming to the understanding that the house has never been a true home to him, and glimpsing an unexpected vulnerability lying behind her husband’s polished exterior.
Although the initial premise of the story is a distasteful one, I think the book does have things to recommend it, not least of which is the way that both St. Aldric and Maddie grow as characters. She is determined to make him regret his drunken actions for the rest of their lives, but there is a part of her that feels guilty for the fact that she didn’t refuse him her bed, which only serves to add fuel to the heat of her anger. But Maddie gradually comes to realise that anger like that can only prove destructive in the end, and to see that she has to let go of it lest it embitter her forever. St. Aldric has not only to come to terms with the fact that a wife is a person and not just another accoutrement he can order about at will, but also to become a man who can accept his own failings and those of others. In The Greatest of Sins he’s the man who has everything; a near-perfect life and an unblemished reputation – in fact, he’s almost too perfect. He has to hit rock-bottom and start to climb his way out of the mire in order to become more of a balanced human being, one with flaws just like everyone else. My main criticism of the story is to do with something that happens around three-quarters of the way through when Ms Merrill throws a spoke in the works of Maddie and St. Aldric’s burgeoning reconciliation. St. Aldric’s passive-aggressive reaction to events, while perhaps in keeping with his vow that Maddie can have and do whatever she wants, nonetheless feels more like a brattish tantrum than a grown man’s response to a perceived threat. Given the way their relationship begins and all the obstacles they have to overcome in order to reach the point at which they’re ready to move forward together, this particular bump in the road seemed completely unnecessary.
In spite of that, however, The Fall of a Saint kept me interested and entertained. It isn’t always comfortable to read, the situation is messy and the emotions are often unpleasant, but that only serves to add a degree of realism to the story. While related to The Greatest of Sins, it’s not necessary to have read it in order to understand this story – which I think is the better book of the two.