The Painted Lady
Fleur Brooks is the painted lady. Her husband, Frederick Brooks, was a painter of some renown. At one point their life together was picture book perfect, and they were considered the happiest couple in Paris. They were expecting a baby. But one evening everything goes wrong, and the two of them begin a downward spiral that will end in poverty, substance abuse, despair, and death.
Before Frederick died he sold several paintings of Fleur that were never meant for outside display. The subject matter is quite sexual, and if the paintings were discovered, Fleur’s reputation would be completely sullied. Fleur is only just beginning to recover from the sad events of her life when the paintings’ owner comes forth and begins to blackmail her. Fleur doesn’t know what to do. She has little money, and that won’t last long. She fears very much that she will be forced to become the wanton she is portrayed in the paintings in order to never be publicly called one. That is when Sir Anthony Camwell offers her marriage.
Anthony has been in love with Fleur since the first time he saw her – the night before her life went to pieces. Her beauty, radiance, happiness, and affectionate nature beckoned to him then. After her husband’s death, he is quick to make her acquaintance, and they begin a friendship that is healing for Fleur. She begins to come to life again. But she never expects that Anthony will propose. Their stations in life are too disparate, and her feelings for him are too fledgling to be love. That is when the blackmailer strikes, and Fleur is forced to make a practical marriage and pretend it’s love.
In some ways Grahame’s novel reads rather like a Mary Balogh romance. The power situation between Anthony and Fleur – with him having all of it and her none of it – is very similar to several Balogh books I’ve read. Also, like many Balogh couples, Fleur and Anthony have to be forced to the pinnacle of misery before they will communicate at all freely with each other about their feelings. What’s different here is that, as characters, Fleur and Anthony are more psychologically complex and self-aware than many of Balogh’s. They are also significantly flawed. Fleur feels very badly about the way her first marriage turned out and blames herself for Frederick’s death, but the damage she does in her new marriage she does out of fear and a sense of self-preservation.
Fleur’s refusal to confide her problems and past to Anthony make her a frequently aggravating heroine. In the beginning of their marriage, Anthony is so tender, so kind, so considerate of her feelings, that her fears about what he will do to her if he finds out about the paintings seem irrational and exaggerated. Throughout the book, in fact, people give her excellent advise about how to handle the situation that she routinely ignores out of fear or a sense of misplaced nobility [read: martyrdom]. When her ugly secret is revealed, and Anthony does react angrily and vengefully, it’s hard to feel terribly sorry for Fleur.
The book is told using the first-person point of view, so all of Anthony’s reactions are filtered through the lens of Fleur’s perception, but it’s clear to the reader that his harsh reaction to Fleur’s dishonesty has more to do with his feeling duped about her supposed love for him rather than feeling duped about her character. Wanting to visit those same feelings of humiliation and vulnerability on his wife, Anthony proposes a bargain. Fleur can be released from this unhappy marriage if she will give him five nights of obedience to his every whim. One night for each painting – and she better show him the sensual side of her those paintings depict. If she will do that, he will let her go with enough money to live on for the rest of her life. Fleur reluctantly agrees, not knowing what a master of domination Anthony can be…and how much it will turn her on.
The book’s sensuality rating is hot because of the dominant/submissive nature of those nights of “love.” What’s most interesting about them is what Fleur discovers about her own psychological needs and, furthermore, the conclusions she makes about her husband’s character as they interact. This is not erotica or even romantica, it’s straight romance, but if there’s another heroine in romance who comes to the awareness that her personal and sexual happiness is rather dependent on being lovingly dominated by her husband, I’m not aware of it.
The Painted Lady is as well written as it is thought provoking. Grahame’s prose is good, as is her dialogue, and Anthony comes alive as a character despite his lack of interior monologue. What keeps me from raving about this book is how uncomfortable I was with both characters’ actions and reactions to each other. Both of them lack that critical moral center that keeps people from acting entirely in self interest when under stress. Anthony isn’t just nasty to Fleur after he learns her secret, he forsakes his vows and rakes his way through the bed of every Fleur look-alike in London. Fleur knows she is doing Anthony a disservice when she lies to him repeatedly and refuses to confide in him despite his repeated urgings. She knows their marriage is predicated on his assumption of her love. But she needs his money, and so she does it anyway. It’s been said that the definition of integrity is doing what you know is right even when it costs you personally. Both of them fail the integrity test. Their actions are understandable, yes. But they are not admirable. The reader is left to wonder if, by book’s end, they’ve made enough progress to make their marriage stress-proof enough for any more of life’s challenges.
Still, The Painted Lady was a most intriguing book, one that kept me up late reading, and the relationship at its center was different enough from most of romance to stand out. This book is long out of print, but worth looking up either at your local library or at the used bookstore.