Tag Archives: cecilia grant

A Woman Entangled Giveaway

Cecilia Grant’s third book, A Woman Entangled, is out in the world. Huzzah!

I’ve spoken quite a bit about Cecilia on this blog, because her writing is an inspiration. She also wrote one of my favourite posts from my guest series last year – the one that called romance fiction “a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair”.

I’d read quite a few mixed reactions to A Woman Entangled, so I wasn’t certain whether it would grab me the way A Gentleman Undone did. In the end it was a completely different reading experience – and I loved every minute of it.

The first thing I love is how Grant evokes a sense of time and place. I’ve said before that my favourite kind of historical fiction creates a character moving into their own projection of the future that is based in what they know of the world, not what we know of the world.

The first time we meet the barrister hero, Nick, he is standing in the Inns of Court, and–

Actually, let me interrupt myself and say that the first time we see Nick is thusly: Round the landing, down the stairs, and through the heavy oak front door, Nicholas Blackshear spilled out into the cold sunlight of Brick Court, black robes billowing in his wake.

Then he stands out on the street and thinks:

Blackstone and Oliver Goldsmith had each surely stood here – he had only to glance up at Number Two Brick Court to see where the jurist and the writer had slept and studied a few generations ago.

But so it was throughout the Inns of Court. Just as he always had to stop at the sundial, so must he quietly marvel, every time he took a meal in the Middle Temple Hall, at the serving table whose wood came from the hull of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. So must he always attempt, mid-meal, to picture all the details of the evening, some two hundred years ago, when the benchers and students had been privileged to witness the very first performance of Twelfth Night in that same room.

To be a London barrister was to live surrounded by the best of everything England had to offer, all from men who’d charted their own courses to greatness. A fellow might end up anywhere, who began here.

Gah, the loveliness and depth of that passage! The historical writer in me despairs. The reader in me rejoices.

The next thing I love about A Woman Entangled is that when we meet Nick we’ve just come from meeting our heroine, Kate, who also aspires to greatness – she intends to marry into the aristocracy and lift her family back to their rightful place in society. And it is so heartbreaking to see the difference in what she is allowed to aspire to, compared to this grand dream of Nick’s that stretches back through time and all the great men that came before him.

Grant has done an extraordinary thing in this book: she has embedded it deeply, and without overt commentary, in the sensibilities of the time. Kate isn’t a feminist heroine placed anachronistically back in time to fight against all the constraints placed on women; she is an intelligent, warm-hearted woman living unselfconsciously within the world she knows. Nick respects and admires her – and treats her accordingly. But he also hands down judgement (and advice) on her actions in a very Knightly-ish fashion, because as a man he naturally knows more of the wider world and how it works.

What an incredibly fine line this is to walk! To fully evoke the sensibilities of a time that was more constraining and unequal than ours, and to believably write a man and a woman meeting as equals.

As far as I’m concerned, Grant succeeded.

There are many, many more things I loved about this book, but I’ll just discuss one more before proceeding to the giveaway.

I utterly adored Grant’s previous book, A Gentleman Undone. It grabbed me in some visceral, emotional place and left me feeling scrubbed clean and quiet. When the heroine of that book, Lydia, says to Nick in this book, “The first thing I want you to know, Mr. Blackshear, is that I love your brother. My attachment to him is fiercer than my attachment to life.” I believed her without hesitation.

But A Woman Entangled shows Nick suffering because of his brother’s decision to marry a courtesan. Almost no briefs come his way anymore, and he doesn’t feel welcome in the society he needs to impress, in order to become a politician.

The unequal marriage is a romantic notion – the duke and the serving girl, the countess and the steward. But in romance we never see the cost of these marriages, because then we would have to ask ourselves the uncomfortable question: is love worth this? It’s a question that runs counter to the whole premise of romance.

Grant didn’t back away from that question. She forced me to wonder whether Lydia and Will – who I believed in so thoroughly – should have put family before love. Not a comfortable feeling. But one that feels closer to the real choices we make around love – and the real triumph love can be – than I usually find in romance.

Fortunately, she attacks the same question from the other side in the romance between Nick and Kate, and comes to – no surprises here – a happy conclusion. Not easy, but happy.

Neither Nick’s aspirations nor Kate’s are served by them marrying; each has connections that will cast a shadow over the other. But as they fall in love, each comes to feel how genuine, fulfilling human relationships make up the real stuff of life. They are still driven by what drives them, but they come to understand that aspirations are dreams that don’t take into account the daily living of life.

It’s a joy to read about the difference real human connection makes – and Grant answers her own question about love by suggesting that fulfilling relationships not only make life bearable, they give us strength to see ourselves clearly and pursue, in the long-term, what we really want from life.

I’m giving away a print copy of this wonderful book to one commenter! (All countries welcome.) Leave any comment you like, from “Gimme” to a thesis on literary analysis. I’ll be drawing the winner’s name on Monday morning, Australian time.

ETA: I have just done my usual, highly scientific names-from-a-hat, and the winner is Londonmabel! Congratulations! I hope you enjoy this wonderful novel. Thanks to everyone else for entering your names. I encourage you all to get your hands on the book without delay :-).

yes, but do you *like* me?

Like exists in a sort of sub-category of romantic love. When you are in love with someone, it’s assumed that you also like them. It’s assumed so unconsciously that we almost never think of it, much less question it.

I decided to question it last week. I can’t remember why, exactly. I suspect I was having one of those hopeless personal moments of thinking, Why on earth is special k so sure he wants to be with me forever? I could imagine that it’s mostly easy, that it’s habit to spend a lot of time with me. But I was suddenly curious whether there was more than habit and ease and – yes, and more than love and the kind of loyalty that love breeds. Whether there was an active desire to spend time with me.

So I asked him, “What do you like about me?”

It’s an exposing question. Surprisingly exposing. And of course it’s a difficult thing to quantify. The things you can say – the words you can put to your feelings – are more like roadsigns or clues to feelings than feelings themselves. I tried to answer the question back, and could feel a whole world of feelings that were frustratingly unexpressed. I could see special k’s answers were the same, like suddenly looking at each other across a wide space of things unsayable, but trusting and loving and smiling all the same.

Liking, I discovered, is sometimes more romantic than loving.

Love has a kind of “no matter what you do, no matter who you are” quality about it. It’s what makes families to fraught and so wonderful. But like is specific. It means, “only you, in all the world”. 

In romance, we don’t see people liking each other nearly often enough. There’s quite a lot of admiring or being confronted by qualities in each other. There’s more than a lot of loving no matter how painful love becomes. But hardly any sitting and watching the other person make tea because the particular way they make tea makes you happy inside; hardly any conversations that wind the other person out, then an admission of how very much you like talking to them.

After sketching out the ideas for this post I started reading Cecilia Grant’s A Gentleman Undone. It shouldn’t have surprised me that her characters really like each other – and not only that, but we see them come to like each other. It’s not surprising because Grant’s interested in the personal qualities that make sex important. That is, the physical, animal urge for sex has a short-lived kind of meaning and most mature adults can resist it; when you come to know someone and admire and respect and like them – well, then sex becomes a much more complex thing.

Will and Lydia become friends over a scheme to earn money at the card tables of London. Lydia is a mathematical genius and a card shark – and she tries to teach Will to calculate probabilities.

He surprises her by being quick and intelligent in conversation; she doesn’t have to explain herself to him. He is also respectful and trustworthy despite, by his own admission, being quite desperate to sleep with her.

She dazzles him by being ruthless – by being able to calculate the odds of five hands at a time while cleverly incorporating signals for him into general conversation and flirting ineptly – on purpose – with the gentleman on her other side.

It is such a joy to watch them open more to each other with each conversation. To watch Lydia unfold herself under Will’s attention, because here is a man who actively likes who she is. When they are coming to know each other better, Lydia says:

“Why should you care at all what I think of you?” She all but squirmed in her skin at the notion, and one more fact about her became clear: I want you didn’t discompose her nearly so much as I like you and I want to you to think well of me.

choice makes you human, human makes you interesting

I’ve seen two examples recently of a character exercising their human autonomy through the act of choice. Both of these characters were in complex circumstances that they could have used to explain away their actions. In both cases, doing so would have weakened their position.

The first was from Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened. When Martha first proposes to Theo that she’ll pay him to get her pregnant, he questions what her options are.

“Then why do this?” He sat down again and reached for what was left of his tea. “Why not go to your brother at once?” Her hands folded one over the other in her lap and she went perfectly still, all light shuttered behind her dark eyes. “Because that is not what I choose to do.”

The effect of her autonomy is strengthened by the fact that we’ve been in her head, and know that going back to her brother is a desperate, claustrophobic thought to her. So often in fiction characters give their exact thoughts in argument – or they purposely misdirect, or simply avoid answering. She doesn’t feel the need to either confess or lie. It is enough for her that she knows her reasons, and she trusts herself to choose her own path.

Particularly for a female character, I found this to be a powerful declaration of independence.

The second was in the final Matrix movie. Neo is having his arse handed to him by Mr Smith, but he will not stay down. This enrages Mr Smith, because it’s a lack of logic particular to living things, and he cannot understand it.

MR SMITH: Why do you do it, Mr Anderson? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? I believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom, or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only the human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr Anderson, you must know it by now, you can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr Anderson? Why, why do you persist?

NEO: Because I choose to.

This is such a great line. I admit that in the rather dated trilogy it took me wholly by surprise. It’s especially excellent because Mr Smith has already torn down every single reason Neo might be expected to give. He harps on about love, and as we’ve just seen Neo sacrifice love for the good of mankind, you could forgive him for taking love as a reason to keep on fighting.

But Mr Smith is…kinda right. All those noble human emotions and ideals for which humans go to war and broker peace and push themselves beyond their abilities – depend on perception. They’re not true across all contexts, and for all people. Choice was the only irrefutable reply Neo could have made.

Choice doesn’t depend on morality, or truth, it just is. It is a personal action, a declaration of human autonomy.

Of itself, choice is incredibly simple. It’s always the context that makes it interesting. I think that’s probably why I’ll always root for the character who sees a situation clearly and makes the difficult, unpopular decision with far-reaching consequences. You have to be a particularly powerful sort of a human, to do so.

sexual attraction doth not our enmity unmake

There is a notion about female sexuality, that sex is (or should be) about intimacy. Before I go into whether it’s true or not, I first want to add that this ambiguous little gem applies equally to men, they’re simply less quick to claim it. Most of the time. We watched 50/50 the other night, and the two friends have a conversation that I think perfectly sums up what my post today is about:

ADAM: The relationship I have with Rachel is – it’s about more than sex.

KYLE *facetious*: What is it about, Adam?

ADAM: It’s about – each other, you know, we care about each other, we talk to each other. It’s great.

KYLE: Uh-huh. Yeah. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could do that and then bang the hell out of each other afterwards?

ADAM: Ideally, yes, but it’s not a perfect world, okay?

Cecilia Grant’s debut, A Lady Awakened, has been causing a lot of buzz in the romance world since it was published last year – and I finally got around to reading it. Because I’m going to be drawing heavily on the themes explored in it, here’s a quick rundown:

Martha’s husband dies, and she has to get herself pregnant within the month if she wants to keep the estate out of the hands of the Evil Heir. She pays a young man, Theo, who’s been exiled to the country for bad behaviour, to have sex with her once a day. He assumes he will be as a sex god to her. She refuses to take any pleasure from the task. He discovers that her mind is much more susceptible to seduction than her body, and that she loves to talk Improvements. Much talk of agriculture ensues, as do love and orgasms, eventually.

Part of what has made this book so talked-about is the novel approach to sex. Martha isn’t frigid, and unlike most historical heroines she isn’t unaware of her own body’s pleasure. So she doesn’t refuse to respond out of naivety or ignorance. She sees her decision as the best of two bad choices, and doesn’t want to lose the last of her principles by taking pleasure in a necessary act.

But more interesting to me is the simple fact that she feels she can’t be intimate with someone who is a stranger to her. She can only give herself over to pleasure when she likes and admires him.

If she had been naive of pleasure, this would have seemed old-fashioned to me, or like a backward step in a contemporary discussion about sex. She makes her decision fully understanding what it means, however, which complicates things.

Conservative female sexuality, out of which the romance tradition grew, certainly holds that intimacy is more important than sex. The romance is consummated with a declaration of love, not with sex, which will likely be had well before the end of the book.

It’s interesting that in the period when this view of sexuality prevailed, so did the quasi-rape variety of sex, which the heroine only realised she was enjoying once it had been forced on her. I tend to agree with the theory that this was a way for women to express the desire for sex without owning up to desire. A woman couldn’t initiate, but once it was forced on her – once she’d made every feminine objection – she could enjoy it.

This, to me, is not sex that depends on intimacy. It is sex for its own sake.

Then on the other end of the scale there’s Erica Jong’s ideal fantasy: the zipless fuck. She imagines seeing a man across from her on the train, and their desire is immediate, and fulfilled so perfectly that the fantasy isn’t broken for even the space of time it would take to unzip your trousers, and be brought back into reality.

She writes:

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.

Once romance began to admit to the kind of female fantasy Jong describes – or at least to the idea that women are sexual beings, and can enjoy pleasure for its own sake – heroines no longer needed to justify their desires to themselves.

This creates a kind of sexuality where sex is what gives rise to intimacy, and leads to love, rather than the other way round.

In which context, you can understand why A Lady Awakened felt like something new. Not a lady denying her own pleasure, but also not a lady willing to find intimacy through the act of sex.

I’ll admit, I found her uncomfortable to read. It made me realise how rarely people voice this need, now, without any irony or shame attached: to know and admire someone before they can feel pleasure with them.

Martha is a particularly upright, reserved character, so I don’t think her needs reflect a common female need in its entirety. But talking about it with some friends the other night, I was reminded that there is a kind of loneliness in unattached pleasure – an eventual desire for some emotional fulfilment.

And of course, that emotional fulfilment is what romance is all about. It’s just difficult to find out exactly what relationship it has to sex.

I find this interesting on a personal level, but also as a writer. In romance, sex – and sexual attraction even more so – becomes a short-hand for intimacy. And that’s just lazy writing. Theo had to work for Martha’s admiration, and a writer should have to do the same.

I was struck by similar thoughts reading a Harry Potter fic called Bond. (This is Harry/Draco – you may read ahead if that’s not your thing.) Harry and Draco have been bonded to each other against their will. The bond forces them into close proximity and after a while creates sexual attraction. They need to consummate, but Harry can’t bear being so intimate with a boy he distrusts and dislikes.

It made me realise that normally, in that kind of fic – and in romance in general – once a character feels sexual attraction any objections to the person they feel it for begin to erode at that moment.

I liked that Harry’s attraction only made him less inclined to go near Draco, because it made him that much more vulnerable to him. Draco, like Theo, had to win him over before he would come near.

All that being said, though, sex has a power like few other things to force intimacy. I also think a person is completely different when they’re so physically close, and they’re less words than skin and sound and smell. So for me admiration, fully dressed, doesn’t necessarily equate to intimacy in the bedroom.

But it’s a fair reminder not to use sex, where conversation is needed. (That’s a truism for fiction, but it probably washes in real life, too.)