I read Cecilia Grant's A Lady Awakened not so much over Christmas as on Christmas, ignoring my partner’s family, the Queen’s speech, and even Toy Story 3 to finish reading it. Because it’s honestly that good. I think it’s unavoidable to make more of the things you read at the end of the year compared to the beginning, but A Lady Awakened simply has to stand has one of the most original, intriguing and tiny-mind-blowing books I read in 2013.
The book opens with the heroine, Martha Russell, childless, newly widowed and about to return to her brother’s home to live out the rest of her days as a quiet burden upon his family, a fate she has no choice but to resign herself to enduring. Her solicitor, however, encourages her to remain at her late husband’s estate until it is absolutely certain that no heir has been conceived. Martha knows that she isn’t pregnant, but she has her own commitments to Seaton Hall: specifically the servants and tenants, who rely on the family for their livelihood, and the building of a local school, to which she has given her support. She also learns that the man who stands to inherit is a dissolute character, who previously forced himself upon some of the women of the household. Realising that all these problems would be solved if she was pregnant, Martha strikes a deal with her new neighbour Theo Mirkwood, temporarily exiled from London for extravagance and general debauchery. They’ll have sex every day for a month, and Martha will pay him, “regardless of issue” to quote the lady directly.
What follows, I suppose, is a lovers-to-friends story, except they’re not really lovers because while their daily sexual engagements are...something. What they’re really aren’t is lover-like, much to Theo’s dismay. Martha is determined that the arrangement remain strictly business, and while the first half of the novel is this excrutiating awkward-off of unsexy sex it’s also completely fascinating to watch two people with completely irreconcilable worldviews, motivations and value systems clash, fail to understand each other, and then gradually, and subtly, begin to move through acceptance, and understanding to friendship and love. And to situate the most visible expression of all this emotional and intellectual development in the bedroom is unbelievably bold, clever and impressive. Ms. Grant, I totally take off all my hats.
I think the thing that makes it borderline bearable to read, since it falls—with full awareness—into some incredibly grey areas of consent and exploitation – is that it’s...funny, horribly horribly funny. Particularly Theo’s attempts to play the seductive rake in the face of Martha’s complete sexual disinterest:
His forefinger touched down on her breastbone and traced a leisurely path between the ribs, into the hollow of her navel, and on down, just to the patch of light-colored curls. “Turn over,” he said, his voice already gone thick. Her eyes flew open.
“I did not authorize anything out of the ordinary,” she said, the words shrill with alarm.
“I only want to look. I promise we’ll fornicate face-to-face like Christians.” He couldn’t quite mask his laughter. “But let me finish looking.”
And given that Theo enters the text as an unabashed sensualist, flush with all the unquestioned power of being a man desired by women in a world that equates sexual promiscuity with masculine value, it’s darkly satisfying to watch him flail and fail and fall apart:
Her words hung in the air like a chill mist, and a sudden awful slackening came in the flow of blood to his pertinent regions. Could he really put himself somewhere so inhospitable?
I confess I did feel sorry for Theo, and I cringed for him, and—in his way—he’s as much a victim of the gendered expectations and power dynamics of his world as Martha, but I’ve read so many romances in which awesomely prowessful rakes drag reluctant virgins into the light of sexual pleasure that it was nothing short of delicious to me to see this trope so thoroughly and remorselessly deconstructed. For the record, I completely get it as fantasy, from either direction, actually as it’s equally pleasurable to imagine being the hallowed invoker of someone else’s sexual awakening and to have one’s own sexuality awoken by someone sufficiently competent and interested to do it, but—in my admittedly limited experience—it tends to be quite a gendered dynamic within the genre, since men are usually doing the awakening and women are the ones being awoken. Obviously it’s complicated because, to a degree, it’s experiential and that’s especially relevant for historicals as women were supposed to be virgins, but it does kind of feed into this notion that a woman’s sexuality is, essentially, in the gift of a man.
The novel’s engagement in—and, to be honest, it’s rejection of—hese sort of ideas is, well, obvious from the title. But although there’s journey from sex-as-necessity to sex-for-pleasure within A Lady Awakened, Martha is actually entirely in control of her sexuality, and her sexual pleasure. Theo certainly entertains power fantasies of awakening a frigid widow, and that was what my previous experiences with the genre had led me to expect, but Martha isn’t frigid, she’s just principled:
“You’re not a bad man, Mirkwood. I do think you have promise. But while I find I can be cordial with a man who lives for pleasure, and even come to feel a certain regard for him, I cannot, in the end, truly admire such a man. And I don’t care to give myself up to a man I don’t admire. Pardon my frankness.”
She is perfectly capable of managing her own pleasure; she masturbates, and she knows what she prefers (clitoral stimulation, over or with penetration), but the point at which she chooses to share it with Theo is the point at which he has not overcome her principles, but proven himself worthy of her. For the most part, awakening—for both of them—is largely emotional and intellectual. Theo, for example, gradually moves beyond the easy, meaningless life of sensuality and selfishness his upbringing has fit him for, and learns that he’s far more caring, and far more capable, than he had ever previously had opportunity to demonstrate.
I liked Theo a lot. His flaws are all small-scale and unglamorous—he’s ignorant, and careless, and self-serving—but I also found him deeply likeable, and he can join Sebastian from To Have & To Hold as a charming-type character who really does come across as charming. He’s sufficiently clueless early on that his halting progress from wastrel to a suitable partner for Martha, partially in response to Martha’s own care for a side of his nature previously neglected, felt both plausible and satisfying.
She felt his pleasure as surely as though his skin was shuddering against hers. He was all but a virgin in this, the experience of being taken seriously. Perhaps no woman—no one at all—had ever gazed at him with quiet faith and encouraged him to believe in his own abilities.
But, for me, while I very much enjoyed the contrasts and correspondences between Martha and Theo, the expectations placed on them, and the lives they’ve led, this was very much Martha’s book. She’s strong-willed, proud, principled and almost unbearably stubborn at times. Also cold, sharp unpleasant and self-righteous. She reminded me a lot of one of Laura Kinsale’s heroines, actually, in that many of her traits are neither particularly endearing, nor conventionally feminine, but I simply loved that she was like that: driven by duty, courage and honour, and careless of things that might make her – in short – nicer. Honestly, she’s a little bit like a female Mr Darcy. Which is awesome, and I adored her.
(Also – and I can barely write this without bursting into flames on the internet - she’s incredibly sexy, in her stern, clever, wicked governess way. Good grief.)
Theo, by contrast, is terribly “nice” – good at giving the impression of caring, when he doesn’t, in fact, give a damn. There’s a moment early on where he briefly wins Martha’s good opinion by actually having a conversation with her, and then blows it completely by being a shallow prick:
“I don’t believe you’re listening.” Her voice dropped a good dozen degrees in warmth.
“Not to the words.” He bent his head to brush his lips over the thin, blue-veined skin. “But you’re rather lovely when you speak so. All ardent and crusading.”
I found this scene starkly heartbreaking in a novel that, like its heroine, tends to shy away from sentiment and drama. It’s the first hint of a possible connection between these two apparently very different people, and there’s something rather vulnerable in this sadly misplaced hope of Martha’s that here might be a man who will see her quality and take her seriously. And then, of course, Theo goofs it up completely. I wanted to kick him. Martha’s moments of vulnerability are quite rare, and most of her desires are wrapped up in her sense of duty, so there’s something particularly tragic in this idea that the one thing she wants so desperately for herself, and finds almost impossible to obtain, is something that should be absolutely the right of all humans: respect, and equal footing.
Gradually, however, they begin to edge towards common ground. It’s fascinating to watch the collision of Martha’s worthy, will-intentioned unpleasantness and Theo’s worthless, slapdash charm, and the way they each learn from each other how to be better, stronger people. Martha’s sense of duty gradually becomes more personal – focused on individuals, rather than an abstract sense of moral rectitude – and Theo’s careless caring becomes careful, a way to genuinely help others, rather than manipulate them into helping him.
Another thing that struck me about their oppositional attitudes to the world was the way, on the surface, it almost seemed like a gender reversal thing. Emotion, after all, is usually associated with women, and consequently heroines, in general, tend to be warmer, softer, more emotionally expressive than heroes. But in A Lady Awakened, Martha is cold, calm, thoughtful, rational and dutiful. She hates talking about herself, her experiences, or her feelings:
“Also, I suppose I was afraid of appearing ridiculous.” A few at a time, she got the words out, her voice awkward even to her own ears. “I have not been in the habit of doing such things. I feared this would be obvious to you, and you would find me ridiculous as a result.”
By contrast, Theo is warm, kind, outgoing, expressive and nurturing. I think it’s fairly evident that he’s always possessed these qualities, however little he has chosen to use them to the benefit of others, but what Martha teaches him to do is focus them and ground them, just as he teaches her that tenderness is not necessarily weakness. But I didn’t actually read this as gender reversal (there’s nothing in the text to even raise the question that Theo’s kindness makes him “girly” any more than Martha’s rigidity of principle makes her “ungirly”) I read it as an exploration of the impact of uneven social power. Because while Theo, as Martha observes in a kind moment of her own, is a virgin to being taken seriously, there’s an extent to which he is never in any danger of not being taken seriously. He can afford to be frivolous and shallow and as sentimental as he likes. Martha, by contrast, is assumed to be these things anyway, simply because she’s a woman, so for her they really do represent vulnerability in a way they never could for him.
And, just in case I’ve made poor Martha sound like an unforgivably dreary companion, she’s brutally entertaining sometimes:
One couldn’t think much of whatever planning process had resulted in human reproductive design. Men with their parts dangling like stockings on a washday line. Women with their pleasure put away from the main event.
It might sound a little strange to be writing so admiringly of the strength and integrity of a woman who essentially spends most of the book committed to an act she knows is both illegal and immoral, and I’ve seen this cited in some reviews as a troubling aspect to Martha’s character, but I guess I’m a bad human because I didn’t give a toss. Or rather, I feel that people of strong principles trapped in powerless positions are often driven to desperate acts, and I don’t really have much ethical stake in the legality of land investiture in nineteenth century England. So, yeah, you go girl. Since you have no legal status of your own, and no way of acquiring any, and you’ve just got out of ten months of legally sanctioned rape at the hands of a spineless alcoholic, defraud away. Would you like me to hold your coat while you do it? Also, while I might not have cared, Martha really does. She never really becomes comfortable with what she’s doing and, at the point at which it is no longer a victimless crime, she abandons her commitment to it.
A Lady Awakenedis slow and subtle and also quite a lot about agriculture, but I honestly found it remarkable. Its revelations are mostly private and its dramas internal, and it rejects as many genre tropes as it deconstructs. Martha’s previous husband, for example, while he is abusive is banally, cluelessly abusive. As she herself reflects the cruelty lies in the fact she has no right to refuse him. And much of the book is spent preparing for the arrival of the new owner of Seaton, but when he arrives, he is no demonic manifestation, he’s simply a weak-willed and weasely nobody, who is promptly ousted. While I’m not sure about the plausibility of the social conquest of the petty rapist, I found it a very satisfying outcome for a book so preoccupied with sex and power, self and society, and how to navigate them with integrity, and find freedom in the mutuality of love.
Everything I learned life and love from reading A Lady Awakened: it is actually possible to find a man named Theophilis attractive, under no circumstances agree to have sex with a woman who only wants your sperm even if she offers to pay you five hundred pounds for it, sex is terribly unsexy sometimes, Martha Russell is the best person ever.
Alexis Hall is a romance novel neophyte who likes hats, tea and sword fighting. He occasionally writes queer fiction. If you enjoy his ramblings, you can find more of them on Twitter @quicunquevult or on his website.