The Artist’s Daughter may not have been the first romance novel I ever read, but it’s the first one I remember reading. Published when I was a wide-eyed fifth grader in 1979, this engrossing tale of a plucky Victorian-era writer whose flight from an abusive marriage plunges her into a world of danger, intrigue, and passion launched Leslie O’Grady’s career, which stretched through the '80s and '90s. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, O’Grady’s spirited heroine and brooding yet kindly hero would be characters against whom I would measure all such others, however unconsciously, over the next several decades. Many romantic heroes and heroines would fall short over the years. Many still do.
But how does the book itself hold up, some 35 years after its publication?
Our story begins in 1863 when Nora Woburn, author of scandalous novels and titular artist’s daughter, discovers that her estranged husband, Oliver, has been helping himself to the contents of her bank account and has every intention of continuing to do so. Nora’s condescending solicitor informs her that Oliver’s actions are entirely legal, and that her choices by way of response include returning to her husband or becoming a “fancy lady” on the London streets. Requesting aid from her father, a painter of some repute who mingles with the likes of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, is out of the question; the two have not spoken since Nora defied him to marry Oliver five or six years back.
Salvation arrives in the person of Mark Gerrick, Lord Raven, who is seeking a companion for his beautiful, headstrong younger sister, Amabel, at his isolated estate in Devon. Amabel has not been received in polite society since giving birth to an illegitimate son, but Mark won’t cast Amabel out. He is, as he tells Nora, a pragmatist, and more to the point he’s feeling a bit guilty these days. You see, he recently consigned their brother (and Amabel’s confidant) Damon to a “rest home” for the mentally ill, as Damon harbors a number of delusions (or are they?) regarding his late fiancée, Lucy.
As a result, Amabel hates Mark. Mark’s sometime mistress, Jane Standish, hates Nora on sight, as does Mark’s best friend, Dr. Sam Price. The housekeeper, implacable Mrs. Meadows, hates pretty much everyone. And, of course, Oliver is still out there, willing to go to any lengths to force Nora back into his arms. Throw in thick fog, a conveniently-placed bog, another dead Lucy, mysterious ruins, a tight-lipped shepherd who seems to be everywhere at once, an ambiguously-inscribed family Bible, a celebrated portrait that shows up in a most surprising location, and at least one character who dabbles in baby farming, and it’s no wonder that 11-year-old Me couldn’t get enough. My head probably didn’t stop spinning until I was in high school.
The heart of the novel, naturally, lies in its main pairing. Mark is a hero in the celebrated tradition of Edward Rochester—dark and inscrutable, yet compassionate beneath a certain amount of swagger. He also walks with a limp as a result of certain unfortunate events best not described here. The image of Lord Mark in his flowing black cape, hurtling to Nora’s rescue across the Devon moor on the back of his midnight-black mare, haunted me (in the best way possible) for a very long time.
And Nora—oh, Nora. How much do I love this woman? Intelligent, persistent, forthright, honest – the list goes on. When she suspects a member of the household of some malfeasance, she actually tells Mark about it. When she contravenes Mark’s direct orders and takes Amabel to visit Damon, she immediately confesses and stands ready to take her lumps. When she receives a mysterious note instructing her to meet an unnamed party at the ruins at midnight, she basically says “What, seriously?” and ignores it. (This engenders a whole new set of complications, but still, it’s a lot smarter than the alternative.)
Best of all, though, she is fiercely independent, even when Mark is finally in a position to offer her honorable marriage:
“Men like you think that just because you love a woman and marry her, she is supposed to accommodate her life to yours. She is supposed to entertain your guests and bear your children with no thought to a life of her own…Marriage shackles women. I’ve made up my mind to be a spinster for the rest of my life.”
…[H]e looked down at me. “Do you love me at all?”
I was silent at first. I had to choose my words carefully. “I think I do love you. But not enough to give up my freedom. So let us part friends, shall we, Mark?”
Events, of course, compel Nora to reconsider her position, and thank goodness for that. I’m not sure my preteen heart could have taken it, otherwise.
If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that there isn’t very much heat. Mark and Nora exchange a few chaste kisses, but that’s really the extent of things. On the other hand, romance novels from the 1970s and '80s have a not entirely undeserved reputation as promoters of the vile “forcible seduction” trope, but I’m happy to report that there’s none of that sort of thing here. Oliver does attempt to have his way with Nora on a couple of occasions, but he’s thwarted each time, and his actions are presented as acts of violence on the part of a very bad man. Which is as it should be.
The Artist’s Daughter is unfortunately out of print, but you can easily find used copies on line…
…and do you know what else you can find? Something that I didn’t even know existed until this week: The sequel. Squeee – there’s a sequel! The bad news? That novel is rather ominously entitled Lord Raven’s Widow.
OH NO SHE DIDN’T. Leslie O’Grady did NOT kill off Lord Mark. It is not, was not, shall not have been. You’d better believe I’ll be investigating this further, but in the meantime, there’s a whole new generation of dreamy-eyed 11-year-olds who need a little Nora in their lives. It’s time for this hidden gem to be rediscovered!
Kate Nagy blogs at KateHoldsCourt.