Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson

Bodice rippers.  Beach reads.  Housewife escapism.  All with Fabio on the cover.  That's right: I'm talking about romance novels.  I am pretty sure that I have made it this far in life without ever reading a romance novel.  I am a considerable literary snob, (to the point where I have trouble reading anything Oprah espouses even when it is a classic), and romances seem the epitome of low-brow.  They are formulaic, sexist, and unrealistic.  In fact, they should be recognized as fantasy and unhealthy fantasy at that.  As a matter of curiosity, I meandered over to the Wikipedia entry on the subject and was disturbed to find the genre extends into such areas as Paranormal Romance, Time-Travel Romance, and Multicultural Romance (which, disturbingly, just means the hero or heroine is usually black.  That this genre is even a necessity speaks volume on the state of race in our society).  I'm sure that Twilight and its sequels would fall into some separate category of Vampire Romance.  Click here to see how I felt about that gem of a series.  Besides Twilight, though, I've remained safely detached from the romance novel world.  So, why would I willingly pick up a book called Love's Shadow (with a bubblegum pink cover, no less)?

Insert pause to build breathtaking suspense here . . . .

Love's Shadow by Ada Leverson is no mass-marketed romance, thankfully.  It is one of The Bloomsbury Group published by Bloomsbury Press, and it is delightful.  Called the first in the "Little Ottley" trilogy, Love's Shadow (originally published in 1908) is purportedly the story of Bruce and Edith Ottley, who live in a "very new, very small, very white flat in Knightsbridge" (3).  Their fast-paced dialogue had me laughing out loud from the very first page.  Of course, it is easy for me to laugh because Edith so thoroughly has the upper hand over the utterly imbecilic Bruce.  My husband did not find the passage I read aloud funny at all.  Bruce really is an unbelievable cad, and together, he and Edith show the reader a most insufferable picture of marriage.  Amidst Bruce's imagined maladies and play rehearsals, Edith is sustained as a rather remarkable hero, her cheerful endurance somehow becoming something to celebrate.  Though the Ottleys are interspersed almost as comic vignettes, the story is not really about them but about Edith's friend Hyacinth.  Hyacinth is a great beauty and actually occupies more of the reader's time and attention in the novel as she navigates her own trials and joys of love.  It is Hyacinth's story (and her relationship and subsequent marriage to Cecil Reeve) that make up the backbone of the narrative and provide the most food for thought.

Throughout the novel, Leverson provides examples of people falling in love with unsuitable persons and having to deal with the falling out caused by such a situation. Sir Charles Cannon loves his ward, Hyacinth; Hyacinth loves the fashionable Cecil Reeve; Cecil loves the older, fascinating Mrs. Raymond, who secretly loves Sir Charles Cannon but chooses to marry Cecil's uncle, Lord Selsey.  Perhaps the most serious examination of this phenomenon comes in the handling of Anne Yeo, Hyacinth's friend and live-in companion until the time of her marriage to Cecil.  Yeo is a most amazing character in her eternal mackinaw and golf-cap.  She is so believable and sympathetic, and she provides a most impressive reflection on a society that would not allow her to do anything about her feelings except emigrate (as she chooses to do at the close of the story).  I suppose it would be possible to read Yeo as an asexual being who has merely a sisterly love and protection of Hyacinth, but I believe such a reading would be seriously flawed.  Yeo recognizes the strength of her feelings and the untenable position she is in.  She cannot have Hyacinth, she cannot even properly love Hyacinth, so she must simply go away.  Her absence is noticeable in the last chapter, which is decidedly the least satisfactory of the book.  In fact, it is in this last chapter that Love's Shadow most closely approximates a traditional romance novel: it provides a happy reconciliation at the end.  But even in the reconciling, Leverson leaves open the door for future reflections on the complication of love as Hyacinth asks Cecil,
     'And, oh, Cecil, if I'm never so horrid and bad-tempered again, will you forgive me?'
     'Well, I'll try,' said Cecil.
What more can we hope for, really, but this willingness to try?

I do take issue with one element of this book, and again it comes from the back cover.  There we are told that the Ottleys "are like every other respectable couple in Edwardian London, and that is precisely why Edith is beginning to feel a little bored."  I disagree so thoroughly as to be almost angry about it.  I don't want to believe Edith and Bruce are like every other couple, and I do not believe Edith when she says she is bored.  Bruce is anything but a bore.  I believe Edith spends a great deal of her day laughing at her husband (albeit internally), and though I don't recommend this scenario as a foundation for a solid marriage, it does not usually equal boredom.  She might be infuriated, confused, or depressed about the state of her household, but I do not think she is bored by it.  If you spend too much time thinking about their marriage (rather than just laughing at it), you might be faced with another difficult question: why would Edith marry Bruce to begin with?  No matter the reason, I would love to read more of them, so I will now have to look into the rest of the "Little Ottleys" trilogy.

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