At the end of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) is shocked that Eliza (Audrey Hepburn) is such an ungrateful guttersnipe as to leave him after all he’s done for her. He wonders “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” before looking for her at his mother’s house. The delightful Cathleen Nesbitt as Mrs. Higgins gives him a set-down, to which he responds, “Do you mean to say that I’m to put on my Sunday manners for this thing that I created out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden?” He doesn’t like her answer in the affirmative, but the visit unnerves him enough that on his way home he performs “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” which is by turns loving and defiant. Not long thereafter, as he listens to an audio recording of himself, Colonel Pickering, and Eliza, she returns to him, resplendent in a pink confection. He asks in a hopeful, wondering tone, “Eliza?” True to himself in the end, though he’s clearly relieved and happy, he delivers the film’s last line: “Where the devil are my slippers?”
Here’s why I love, love, love what happens once he returns home: It’s short and it’s dead-on as far as the lead characters are concerned. Movie-goers don’t know whether Eliza fetches Henry’s slippers or even stays, but given that she’s already made her point and sent him haring off all over town in an attempt to find her and bring her home to him, I’m guessing she does both. By leaving and then standing her ground, she forced Henry to realize he loved and hurt her by his taking all the credit for creating a princess out of squashed cabbage leaves. By coming back and settling once again into his household, though, she’s accepted him at face value. In other words, they’ve realized each other’s limits—and limitations—and realize that in the future they’ll need to accommodate each other.
I’m reminded of Henry Higgins and Eliza Dolittle at the end of My Fair Lady just about every time I finish a book by the awesome Anne Stuart. Her lead characters, heroes in particular, remain true to themselves throughout their stories. In a Fresh Meat on The Fallen:Demon, a new release written by Anne Stuart’s alter ego, Kristina Douglas I wrote that taking a dark character and “reforming” him too much would essentially neuter him. It would change the essence of who and what he is, begging the question: If you fell in love with this man while reading this book, even though he acted quite horribly to his heroine, why should he change now? To readers wondering why Stuart’s heroes don’t grovel on hand on knee to make up for what they’ve done, I imagine the author responding, “Do you really want these men to turn into lapdogs?” I say, “hell, no!”
Though I’m not quite comparing apples to apples, I want to share a point Jo Beverley made about groveling and alpha heroes in a column more than a dozen years ago. She wondered “Why this urge to bring a man to his knees?,” adding, “if you want an alpha, enjoy his alphaness...you don’t take Genghis Khan, Wellington, or a top race car driver and start trying to make them into more tender, caring men. They are what they are, and that’s what makes them interesting.” She further argued, “Same thing with rakes. When I wrote Emily & the Dark Angel, I was so tired of all these rakes who’d been collared and brought to the hearthside by ’good women’ that I stated that Verderan was taking Emily away for a life of monogamous raking. They were going to have fun, naughty or nice.”
Getting back to Anne Stuart and the ending to My Fair Lady, though...I mentioned remaining true to character and brevity. The best example of this occurs in Ice Storm, in which Isobel Lambert, head of the secretive Committee, confronts her past when forced to rescue Serefin, considered one of the deadliest men in the world. She discovers the international troublemaker is none other than Killian, the man she loved—and believed she killed—nearly 20 years earlier. Throughout the Ice series readers came to despise Isobel for her utter ruthlessness, but as a result of reading her story, we learn what transformed an innocent into an Ice Queen. She’s still ruthless, but now we know why. Context matters.
Given that the book is nearly four years old at this point, I’m going to share the ending; after all, you already know it has an HEA. It’s just six paragraphs long, but in that space Stuart delineates her characters and their behavior in an almost cinematic fashion. To me it’s the romance novel version of those final moments on My Fair Lady and I’ve often played it back in my mind as a film, although I’ve never been able to cast the parts.
But let me first set the scene. Isobel returns to her apartment and climbs into her bathtub, wet, cold, and wearing bloody clothes. After her bath, she takes off her wet clothes and climbs into bed, realizing it’s time to retire from the Committee. While trying to decide where to settle, Killian appears in her doorway. She reasons she could easily grab her gun—silencer on—shoot him, and call it an accident. Throughout the book he’s deceived her; she didn’t know until near the end that he was acting as a double agent in trying to limit the mayhem of druglords and murderous heads of state. He tells her he needed to officially resign before he could be honest with her and suggests they walk away from their pasts, together...
He was edging closer. If she pulled the gun out she could get a clean shot. Fast and clean.
“Why?” she said again.
“Because you love me. For eighteen years you’ve haunted me and I don’t want to let you go again. So either shoot me with that gun you have or ask me to come to bed.”
It was raining again, another cold, icy rain. But it was warm inside. The gas fire behind the grate finally had clicked on, and a soft glow filled the room. The cold had vanished, and she could feel the heat building inside her.
“Come to bed,” she said in her coolest voice. “I can always shoot you in the morning.”
“Of course you can, princess,” he said. And he got into bed.
Stuart penned another to-the-point, pitch-perfect ending in Breathless, the third in her House of Rohan series. It’s too new a book to share verbatim, and I’ve worked around that to some extent, but what I recount may indeed be considered SPOILER material for some of you, so whether or not you continue reading on, you’ve been forewarned.
With the House of Rohan series, the author returned to the top of her form as an author of historical romance. A Rose at Midnight (1993) and To Love a Dark Lord (1994) are amazing, dark reads, but this time around her heroes are even darker, and the heroines even more tough. In Ruthless and Reckless (the first two books in the House of Rohan series), the heroines’ pregnancies become part of the narrative, but none of the Rohan books conclude with a passel of brats, which is how To Love a Dark Lord ends (and it’s a favorite for me in spite of or because of that). Stuart assumes, particularly in Breathless, that her modern readers can handle her dark characters as is, without turning them into the historical equivalents of the suburbanites next door.
A spider and fly scenario plays out in its entirety in Breathless. What makes the book so effective is the even match between leads. Though it often appears that the force of Lucien De Malheur will be irresistible throughout, he’s met his immoveable object, and she is Lady Miranda Rohan. Yes, he does trick her into marriage so that he can carry out a vengeful plot against her family, but she keeps turning the tables on him...and he knows it. When she endures the awesomely humiliating honeymoon he arranges for her, he realizes, in a totally Anne Stuart kind of way, that she’s a keeper. Unfortunately, she then learns that he was responsible for her being ruined years earlier, and goes after him physically, leading him to exclaim while bleeding in the middle of a lake, “Jesus, woman...when did we have to become Romeo and Juliet?”
Not long after, her brothers arrive on the scene to rescue her from the malevolent Lucien, but she has no need of rescue. While she’s tending to him, she relays to her brothers that Lucien is bleeding because she hit her him with an oar. Next she “rinsed out the rag, then dabbed it a little too enthusiastically at the wound. Lucien looked at her sideways, cursing beneath his breath, but had the good sense not to say anything out loud,” and when asked why she hit him, she calmly says, “I was trying to kill him.” When one of her brothers offers to “take care of that,” she responds, “It’s tempting, but first let me stop the bleeding.”
Being the stubborn, stubborn man that he is, he will not give up his “I am incapable of love” refrain. But she’s no pushover, and they talk while she tends to his injury in the not-at-all gentle manner he deserves. When he tells he wouldn’t blame her for leaving, she reams him out; she “didn’t put up with all this for nothing.” And then she calls him on his bullshit and asks if he loves her. It requires multiple efforts, and after she is satisfied, his perversity is duly noted—“You can get an erection less than an hour after I’ve tried to kill you?”—they embark on their fun future. No groveling required on his end...no being a doormat on hers...and no epilogue six years later in which she’s pregnant with their fourth adorable baby.
What other author can pull off this type of story, with these difficult characters, and this sort of ending? My reaction to the book, while not uncommon, varies wildly from most of my friends who also read it, so I realize my love affair is controversial. When I wrote about Breathless on my blog, I mentioned talking to a customer at the bookstore and saying that had I read it a decade ago, I would not have liked, let alone loved, this book. Is it a function of chronological age, the number of romance I’ve got under my belt, or something else that has me craving such unrepentant darkness? I haven’t a clue, but wonder about your changing tastes, what you make about these type of characters, and if you find Anne Stuart as awesome as I do.
Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Be one of the few who visits her at Toe in the Water or follow her may-be-too-political-for-you tweets at @laurie_gold.