Devourer of books with a preference for fiction. Quite good at competitive reading. Happily hoards books of all kinds. Gets stabby going too long without reading.
This is considered one of the great examples of romance literature, and it's been in the top 10 of the top 100 romance novels polls on All About Romance since 2000 (in 1998, it was rated 15th). When romance reviewers are asked to name their favourite books, it keeps being mentioned, and raved about, and I just never seemed to find the time to read it. Written in 1992, it's considered one of the works that really changed the genre (away from the frequently No means Yes rapey/forced consent romances into closer to what it is today). It's also a wonderful book to give to someone who claims romance is just trashy escapism for frustrated, sex-starved housewives. This is about as far from Fifty Shades of Grey as you can get.
So what is it about then, you ask? Christian Langland, the Duke of Jervaulx is a dissolute rake if ever there was one, but he's also a mathematical genius, which is why Quaker spinster Archemedea Timms comes into contact with him. Her father, another mathematician, is blind, and Maddy (a necessary nickname if ever I heard one) writes out all his notes and takes them to the duke, and in turn reads all the duke's notes to her father. Then they hear that the duke's been killed in a duel, after an aggrieved husband called Jervaulx out. Maddy discovers this isn't true when she arrives at her cousin's posh mental asylum in the countryside, and finds Jervaulx locked up, senseless and in chains. She quickly realises what no one else has been willing to consider, that he's not mad but maddened, and that he's clearly in his right mind, just furious at being unable to communicate with those around him. A modern reader can see that Jervaulx has suffered a stroke, but it's not at all surprising that the duke's relatives would want him locked up and declared insane, so they could take over the running of his estates.
Maddy, despite being deeply uncomfortable with the Jervaulx's position and his dissolute lifestyle, believes herself to have received a calling from God, to help him. She stubbornly convinces her cousin (who for all the horrors of the asylum really is quite progressive, for the time) to let her tend him, and surprisingly rapidly, the duke is calm and compliant and even able to leave his cell on occasion. They grow increasingly closer the more time they spend together, with Jervaulx coming to depend on Maddy entirely. He has no way of communicating the amount of abuse he suffers from the other minders at the asylum, and realises that he can't risk them feeling threatened. He finally recovers enough that they deem him ready for his competency hearing, and take him to London, where most of his family still believe him completely addled. Only his battleaxe of an aunt believes him to be on the way to recovery, but she's worried about the reputation of the family, and wants Jervaulx to marry to secure the title. If he won't agree to matrimony, she'll have him shipped back to the asylum. Jervaulx has no intention of marrying anyone save Maddy, his rescuing angel, but her religious beliefs make such a union completely impossible.
Laura Kinsale is considered a master of her craft, and I can see why in this book. At nearly 600 pages, it's quite a bit longer than a standard romance nowadays, and the relationship between Jervaulx and Maddy is slowly established, as their romance seems impossible. Jervaulx is all that is dissolute, sinful and decadent, and Maddy is a devout Quaker, who spurns creaturely comforts and worldly titles, calling everyone 'Friend' and even refusing to curtsy to the King of England himself. She fights her attraction to Jervaulx from the start, yet deeply respects his intelligence and kindness to her father, and is the only one who fights for him in the asylum. Yet this isn't the story of a selfless woman who through love and self sacrifice heals a broken man. While Jervaulx is initially terrified when Maddy is away from him, and seems incapable of managing without her, he gradually, with the additional help of loyal friends and servants, manages to rehabilitate himself. It doesn't hurt that most people regard him with so much awe and deference because of his title that they don't notice that he leaves out a few words here and there.
I love that Kinsale shows us both protagonists' POVs, and even the broken snippets of dialogue that are the only thing Jervaulx is capable of understanding as he recovers from his stroke. His rate of recovery is clearly shown in the amount of conversation he's able to follow. We also see firsthand Maddy's inner turmoil, and at no point are her devout religious beliefs judged by the author. There are no quick fixes in this book, there are no easy solutions. The harrowing conditions in even a very progressive and forward thinking asylum for the wealthy are terrifying, and I shared Jervaux's terror that he be sent back there, understanding why he might resort to less than honourable methods to win Maddy's hand in order to get his normal life back. While there is a lot of angst and anguish over the course of this book, it was also a deeply satisfying read, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who thinks romance can't be real literature. I now understand why it's prized so highly among romance readers, and will absolutely be seeking out more Kinsale to read.