Mary Balogh’s Tangled, set in the period of the Crimean War (1853-1856), in many ways is an erotic romance. The sex scenes are not as explicit and lengthy as in many modern erotic romances, but the progress of the main relationship is intimately connected with sex; the main couple would not have achieved a love relationship without learning about each other while also developing their sexual relationship.
The book has three main sections: In the opening, the heroine Rebecca is married to Julian. We briefly see them together before Julian and the novel’s hero, David, leave for the Crimean War. This section ends when Julian is reported killed; the reader knows that David is involved somehow in his death. In the middle, David returns to England and marries the widowed Rebecca. (In the third section, which I’m not going to look at here, Julian reappears, having not died as David thought, and all three characters face ethical dilemmas.)
Point of view is very important in this novel. We, the readers, are able to see Julian’s bad behavior when he’s away from his wife, are able to see events from inside David’s point of view, and are able to apply our modern perspectives on sex and our knowledge of the romance genre to the plot. For those reasons, we often have a clearer view of Rebecca’s life and relationships than Rebecca herself does. We can clearly see that for her, the physical intimacy of sex leads to emotional intimacy with her partner. We root for her to overcome behaviors, forced on her by the historical period in which she lives, that are blocking her happiness.
Here’s a bit from the first time we see Rebecca with her first husband, Julian.
[Rebecca] hurried into [Julian’s] arms and set her forehead against his shoulder, against the hard shield of his scarlet coat . . . she could not feel him, but only the uniform he wore . . .
He laughed and rubbed his cheek against the top of her head. 'I knew you would be like this,' he said. 'Like a marble statue.'
It’s interesting that she can only feel his uniform, his shell. In actuality, that is all she is getting of Julian. He has a whole other life and a whole other set of lovers that Rebecca knows nothing about.
In comparison, David has been in love with Rebecca for years. David loves Rebecca, though they have been emotionally distant for years because Rebecca has a mistaken impression of David. David has taken the blame for many wrongs committed by Julian, to the extent of taking responsibility for Julian’s illegitimate child.
Regardless, David eventually convinces Rebecca to marry him. Their first sexual encounter is a game-changer. While earlier in the book, Rebecca has repeatedly asserted how much she loved Julian, and how wonderful their life was together, it soon becomes clear to the reader that things were not so rosy.
Julian had never been in her bed for longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time . . .
It’s a tremendously effective scene. Throughout, Rebecca is beset by thoughts of Julian. She repeatedly reminds herself she must not compare David to him, but she cannot help the comparison. She is both tense and guilty about feeling tense.
Rebecca’s intellectual thoughts are at direct odds with her physical sensations.
There was a great gush of sensation that had her almost clawing at the bed. She could feel his thumb brushing against the tip of one breast and could feel the nipple growing taut. And there was that rush of sensation again.
Rebecca is embarrassed at her own reactions and uses distancing language about her own feelings. In the end, she can’t stop herself from comparing the two men after all.
She had not enjoyed it. She had only found it—well, not unpleasant. Less unpleasant than she had ever found it before though it had been far more carnal and had lasted a great deal longer.
She’s in conflict: the desires of her body against social pressure to behave as a “lady.” As the story continues, there are more clues to her true feelings.
It was wrong to be attracted to a man's body. The physical did not matter. It was unimportant in life. She had heard that so many times at church and from her parents and her governess when she was growing up . . . Besides, she knew from experience that the physical side of love was not even pleasant for a woman.
From David’s point of view, Rebecca’s passivity in bed indicates she has a disgust for him, and is enduring sex only because they are married.
. . . to be fair, it was only sex without love that was an ordeal to Rebecca. Things must have been vastly different with Julian.
Being a man of his time, it’s very difficult for him to simply ask how she feels; also, sex with her is linked in his mind with her previous marriage to Julian, which for David resulted in a morass of guilt. Finally, in the darkness and intimacy of their marriage bed, he’s able to raise the subject.
'You will please me,' he said, 'by relaxing and not worrying about pleasing me. Is it very abhorrent to you?'
'No,' she said, her voice shocked.
'Would you tell me if it were?' he smiled rather ruefully into the darkness. Of course she would not.
'How could it be?' she said. 'You are my husband, David.'
He began to have a glimmering of an understanding of what life with Rebecca was going to be like . . . Her behavior would be above reproach. But he would never get beyond that. He would never know her.
In desperation, David talks to Rebecca about the physical act, thinking she needs instruction only because she does not love him. He assumes that, because she loved Julian, she found it easy, with Julian, to be lost in passion. He doesn’t realize Rebecca has never been able to set her passion free.
For Rebecca, David’s discussion with her is a revelation.
She felt all over again this morning like a young bride who had just learned the secrets of physical intimacy.
This being a romance novel, however, of course there must then be a setback! But in Tangled, the seeming setbacks often have good results as well as bad ones.
After David suffers a nightmare about the war and Julian’s death, he and Rebecca finally confront some of the related issues. David needs sexual release and Rebecca gives herself to him for what turns out to be their most physically explosive encounter. Unfortunately, because throughout the scene David is emotionally tangled (I had to say it!), he cannot accept the gift she’s giving him, and in fact misinterprets it completely.
He stooped down, scooped her up into his arms, strode across to the bed, and tossed her down onto it . . . Her body began to relax beneath him. She was becoming as always the submissive wife. She would allow him his will, no matter what indignity he had planned for her . . .'Fight me. Respond to me.'
Bound up in his jealousy of Julian, he doesn’t understand that Rebecca is responding to him as strongly as she is capable. He makes the mistake of asking her to behave with him as she did with Julian. In his mind, he begs her to comfort him, but all he’s said out loud is that she is not giving him enough. Later he apologizes, but Rebecca is now angry and afraid.
No gentleman would have treated his wife as she had been treated during the night. Her face burned with the memories of the passion he had unleashed on her . . She was afraid of him. Perhaps most of all because she had been excited by it . . . 'Fight me,' he had ordered her. And she had wanted to fight. She had wanted to strike him for what he was saying to her and to lash out with fists, legs, and body for what he was doing to her. But she had been terrified of where it might all lead. Terrified of the unknown.
After this, David stops having sex with Rebecca. Sex has triggered a change in their relationship. Without sex, they are immediately less intimate.
. . . she was not happy. They worked well together in the daytime and even seemed to share something resembling a friendship . . . But . . . They were more like business partners than a married couple. It should not have mattered, but it did.
The only closeness there had been was the physical union that had happened between them during the first three nights of their marriage . . . in some strange way, she realized now that it was no longer happening, she had welcomed it for the bonding it had begun between them. A bonding was needed. Friendship . . . was not enough . . . She needed it . . . She needed the reassurance that his lovemaking would bring.
The lack of sexual intimacy—for both Rebecca and David—leads to unhappiness and results in their sexual reunion, and the subsequent realization of their love. It really was almost like a wedding night all over again....
The best part of the sexual reunion scene is that it’s not perfect, either. They make the same mistakes all over again. The difference is that this time, both partners want to make it work. After they talk, they try again. At long last, they talk through their issues, and discover what love and marriage are really about.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.