What Would Martha Do?
That’s the question that came to mind when I started exploring the Domestic Side of romance novels. Who and what does the name Martha bring to mind? Naturally, topping the list is Martha Stewart, the creative entrepreneurial diva of home and hearth. Biblical Martha was the sister of Lazarus and Mary and she is renowned for making sure that Jesus was appropriately welcomed into her family’s home. Martha is thought of as a domestic saint whose name became a byword for serenity and domestic virtues. According to Wikipedia, “images of maturity, strength, common sense, and concern for others” became the hallmarks of “the cult of Martha.” She epitomized service.
Throughout history a woman’s home, her castle, has been the place where she can make her mark and express her personality. Within romance novels, this domesticity can also be representative of the dynamic between the hero and the heroine. We see heroines who woo a sometimes downright hostile spouse through the aegis of domesticity. Especially when stories begin with a marriage of convenience, domestic life plays an integral part in the development of the characters and the plot.
Here is a terse description of Jo Beverley’s Lord of My Heart (on my keeper shelf, as are all the books I reference).
Madeleine de la Haute Vironge must wed one of a trio of lords. But a shocking twist of fate impels this beauty into the arms of the most dangerous one—a magnificent, exciting stranger whom Madeleine desires as much as she fears.
Convent-raised Madeleine never expected to be a bride but her dowry—the barony of Baddersley in Mercia—brings her to the attention of William the Conqueror. William compels Madeleine to choose a noble husband. She selects William’s godson, Aimery de Gaillard, who proves to be a reluctant and angry groom. He rather savagely says to her after their wedding that they better get on with it, “before the king comes in and holds us together like a couple of recalcitrant farm animals.” Rest assured that the personal difficulties between Madeleine and Aimery are gradually addressed and resolved. The third party in their marriage, the barony and castle of Baddersley, is the canvas and backdrop of their journey to marital harmony.
In medieval times, a romance heroine’s home was her castle. Her expertise impacted the health and happiness of all the castle’s inhabitants. She was often the dispenser of herbs and folk remedies. Beautiful surroundings came a distant second to securing the safety of the keep, ensuring that the strongholds were full of food that could feed everyone through a long winter or even a protracted siege. Privacy and comfort were at a premium but one aspect of medieval hospitality served as a bridge between distant spouses—the ritual bath, where weary warriors were bathed by the castle’s chatelaine.
Through the centuries, as castles became less fortified strongholds and more a rich man’s dwelling, there was more room for self-expression and for the lady, literally, of the house, to put her stamp on her domestic environment. She trained, extolled, cajoled, taught, and worked alongside the household servants. Gayle Callen’s His Bride is described by Callen as an Elizabethan “beauty and the beast” book at heart.
Sir Edmund Blackwell is forced to marry Gwyneth Hall. He brings his bride to a filthy castle full of snarling canines and rotting rushes. Gwyneth’s transformation of her castle is a metaphor for the impact her patient love has on her wounded, mistrustful husband.
Pity the wife in a time like the English Regency, when romance and love were the purview of some married couples but not all, and domesticity could easily devolve into drudgery, estrangement, or isolation. The oft-lobbed threat of the young buck faced with an arranged marriage is that he’ll simply beget an heir—at his convenience—and in the meantime send his wife off to the countryside and never think of her again. This was the case for the couple in Mary Balogh’s The First Snowdrop. The Goodreads description spotlights the troubling beginning to their marriage:
The handsome, elegant Alexander Stewart, Viscount Merrick, wed young and innocent Miss Anne Parish in haste—his hand forced by circumstance and honor. But now his duty was done—and it was Anne who had to repent at leisure. Merrick declared he would return to London to resume the pursuit of pleasure that Anne had so rudely interrupted. Anne for her part was free to enjoy the privileges of her new position—but enjoy them alone as only a proper wife without a proper husband could be.
Anne’s loneliness was assuaged by the Herculean task she set herself—to transform a neglected estate into an exquisite paradise. During the long months of her estrangement from Alexander, Anne’s only communication with her husband was when she sought his permission to make costly changes to the grounds. She even summoned “… a well-known landscape artist from London to come and draw up plans. The fountain had been his idea, but she had chosen the design, and that cherub that looked so much like the child she would like to have had.” The omniscient reader realizes that Anne is heaping coals of fire upon her absent husband’s head and that he will eventually come to treasure—and seek for himself—the love she lavishes on his home.
Many marriages had to do with the algebra of need and want—an aristocrat with a title but no money could parlay his rank to entice the overflowing coffers of a non-aristocrat into repairing his lands and homes. This pithy description of A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer, sketches the anguish and self-sacrifice behind the marriage contract:
Adam Deveril, a hero of Salamanca, returns from the Peninsula War to find his family on the brink of ruin and the broad acres of his ancestral home mortgaged to the hilt.
If a marriage is forced upon a couple, as was the union of Adam and sturdy, wealthy Jenny, could a woman’s home serve as a bastion of self-expression? I would say yes. Jude Deveraux’s The Velvet Promise is a good example. Wealthy heiress Judith’s husband, impoverished knight Gavin Montgomery, basically abandons her to his castle home, thinking she’ll wither and die from missing his wonderful self, only to return a month or so later to find her whipping everything and everyone into shape. She’s advising the falconer, improving the food storage methods, and implementing new agricultural ideas. Almost Martha*esque one might say. So too Jenny, in A Civil Contract, lavishes love and attention and money on an inanimate object, Adam’s estate, but that becomes the instrument of appreciation and ultimately love, as Adam realizes how much he treasures his wife. It’s a bittersweet love because Adam will always cherish the memory of his first-love, Julia, in a corner of his heart, but I was warmed and satisfied by the conclusion. As Jenny puts it,
She thought that they would have many years of quiet content: never reaching the heights, but living together in comfort and deepening friendship. Well, you can’t have it both ways, she thought, and I couldn’t live in alt all the time, so I dare say I’m better off as things are.
There you have it, couples over time, married for perhaps not the most romantic of reasons but each with lives transformed by the domestic backdrop of their stately homes. And each couple ultimately finds their own unique happily ever after.