The Harem Bride
I’ve always liked any kind of story about people who marry without knowing each other well, for whatever reason, and who must then find a way to make their marriage work. The Harem Bride is a charming example of the species.
We meet Penelope Blayne as she rides through a storm towards the estate of Jason Lisbourne, Earl of Rocksley. Although Penny is an heiress, she is currently penniless: When her guardian died, Penelope’s fortune was left in trust for her until her 30th birthday – and that’s four years from now. Jason is her trustee, a fact which inspires in Penny unaccountable horror. Only when she reaches Jason’s house do we learn why: Penelope and Jason are married, although they have not seen each other for ten years.
Penelope spent her young life traveling the world with her eccentric Aunt Cass. At sixteen, Penny was kidnapped from the bazaar in Istanbul and found herself in the harem of the sultan Selim, learning (in theory) how to please a man, and despairing of ever regaining her freedom. But she is freed, for Cass called upon the help of another English tourist, 21-year-old Jason Lisbourne. Jason begs the sultan for Penny, and his request is granted – provided that Jason himself marry Penny. The two share a fraught wedding night, both assuming that they are being watched by the sultan’s spies. Jason manages to preserve Penny’s virginity, but the experience leaves him shaken to the core. And although Penny adores him, he leaves her.
Ten years later, they attempt to make their marriage work. They don’t know one another at all, but they share a past, and a thick curtain of hurt feelings and thwarted expectations hangs between them. Penny once thought of Jason as her rescuing hero, and is wounded and mortified that he attempted to forget her. Jason’s memories of his wedding night to Penny fill him with shame and self-doubt. Can they ever get beyond these feelings, get to really know one another for who they are, and fall in love?
Although I like arranged-marriage stories, I’m much less fond of harem fantasies, in which women are forced – forced! – to endure hot baths, pampering, and multiple orgasms with their masters. I’m relieved that this book didn’t go there (well, it is a traditional Regency, after all). And yet, Penelope’s experiences in the harem did shape her character in interesting ways. Because she has a strong backbone, she rejects the harem’s teaching that her own thoughts and desires must be sublimated to those of her man. Because she was cast off by Jason, she rejects the sensual teachings as well. And those, of course, are what Jason most remembers about her. Her self-confidence is shot, and she has no idea how to be the woman Jason wants. How they get around this conflict, which is entirely internal, is very fun to read.
Jason is a less well-drawn character. Although he is older than Penny, he seems less mature (indeed, depictions of his years of rakish partying sometimes make him seem downright childish). Partly because of the dictates of the Regency sub-genre, which preclude detailed sex talk, it’s not always easy to understand why the wedding night affected him the way it did.
He’s a very self-aware character. When Jason makes a mistake that hurts his marriage, he is fully conscious of it. He even castigates himself for his mistakes, more than once – but I was a little disappointed that he never really apologized to Penelope for them. While interior groveling is all well and good, it’s nice to see the hero express his remorse aloud.
Nevertheless, this is an unusual and charming Regency, which I recommend. Fellow fans of the arranged marriage plotline should find it enjoyable as well.