Through The Smoke by Brenda Novak

18108739Trying to link this to Jane Eyre was very pretentious and made me dislike the book that much more.
Maybe I am hypercritical. I have to admit this is a really unusual historical romance. And some people might like it exactly because of its imperfect characters, the uncommon romance and the historically realistic description of the mining conditions during the industrial revolution era. It just wasn’t for me.

The premise of the supposed mystery:
Two years after his first wife, pregnant with the child of another, died in a mysterious fire that the Earl escaped only barely, Truman Stanhope, Earl of Druridge, still has to account for murder???? And if he doesn’t find proof of his innocence he is forced to marry the daughter of an influential Duke????????? Are you shitting me? I found this side plot to be completely unnecessary. It doesn’t add anything to the mystery of Lady Katherine’s murder; it only confuses me as a reader. A peer is almost above the law and has the right to be tried by other peers of the realm instead of juries of commoners. At the end of the trial, peers in the House of Lords voted on the question before them declaring their verdict, starting with the most junior baron and proceeding in order of precedence ending with the Lord High Steward. For a guilty verdict, a majority of twelve was necessary. The entire House also determined the punishment to be imposed, which had to accord with the law. For capital crimes the punishment was death; the last peer to be executed was Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, who was hanged for murder in 1760.

According to this, Truman Stanhope, Earl of Druridge shouldn’t have worried so much about hanging, or should have felt compelled to marry a Duke’s daughter in order to escape this punishment. There wasn’t much danger in him being ever arrested or condemned. 

I would have found it much more believable if this whole being forced to marry to escape jail two years after the initial incident would have been left out. It was enough (for me) that he couldn’t remember anything of this night, that he simply wanted to clear his conscience and find out for himself if he was the murderer or if his cousin paid the miners to do the job for him, or who else was behind the murder, the fire and the maybe stolen Brueghel paintings.

Precisely in the moment when Rachel and Truman seem to get closer Miss Penelope, the soon-to-be-second-wife, and her father the Duke make an unexpected appearance and force the star-crossed lovers apart. Just because this kind of interruption happened in Jane Eyre (where it completely fit the story and made sense), doesn’t mean you have to incorporate into your own storyline a plot device something akin to a reverse deus ex machina whereby a ‘good’ situation is suddenly and abruptly made into a seemingly unsolvable one by the contrived and unexpected intervention of a new event / character, in this case the arrival of the Duke and his daughter.

Gothik Jane Eyre atmosphere vs. industrial Revolution and coal mining
I am sorry to say but those two shoes didn’t fit together well. I love Jane Eyre; I love the bildungsroman aspects as well as the elements of social criticism and spiritual sensibility, its gothic feel, the dark corners, the eerie mystery, the almost supernatural of voices in the wind and ghostly laughter in the night. But trying to make the mystery of the fire and the murder of Lady Katherine fit in with coal mining, the industrial revolution, the coal mining union, the living and working conditions of the labor class and child work seemed almost forced to me. I would have been happy with either an eerie mystery or the industrial realism, but both together didn’t merge well in my book.

For example: it is hard to believe that a young, educated woman wouldn’t find another employment than work in a coal mine. I especially dislike the coal miner manner in this book, how viperish Cuthbert is how all her former miner friends from the union instantly turn against Rachel and the attempted rape in the pit although most of these men were friends with her father and brother, who also worked there. Where is the collegiality and solidarity I ask. The mean, simplistic and drab miners in this novel undermine what miners had to go through 200 years ago during the industrial revolution to achieve reforms to better living and working conditions.

Dark Romantics emphasized human fallibility and proneness to sin and self-destruction, as well as the difficulties inherent in attempts at social reform. This is not done here in this book: There is no self-destruction, no proneness to sin. Contrary to Mr. Rochester Truman leads no sinful life, he has no mistresses, no bastard children and doesn’t try to seduce Rachel. Rachel isn’t seduced into sin, she is forced and then walks free into the arms of the Byronic hero: a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection. But I will come to the characters later.

This book is not gothic but tries to be, sometimes too hard. We have the typical castle, gloomy forest but without the hidden passages or dark dungeons. There is the forbidding Blackmoor Hall at the Northeastern Coast of England, five hilly miles from the next small village. It is of course a cold winter with plenty of dark nights, full of wet snow and daunting moonlight etcetera etcetera. Rachel is rather fond as it seems of walking these 5 hilly miles several times in the dark or at night amid the growling of the sky and the howling of the wind.

Blackmoor Hall was a daunting edifice. Built in the Strawberry Hill Gothic style, with a little Palladian thrown in, its gray stone walls rose several stories high, extending along cliffs that fronted the ocean. Although most of the structure had been rebuilt after the fire, nothing looked new. Large, diamond-cut windows spaced symmetrically on two long wings collected snow in the cradle of their panes. At least half a dozen chimneys rose from the roof. And an elaborate portico sheltered the entrance. Ancient and overwhelming, the manse resembled something out of a history book, with tall columns, expansive gardens, fountains and Greek statues. Now, late as it was, the estate was dark and rather forbidding.

Even though our story takes place in the (pseudo)-gothic castle I missed the paranormal aspects, inherent to gothic fiction as well as the horror as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Rachel is not caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape; she is born in this village. There is no supernatural to be terrified of; no dark and bloody dungeons or lingering ghosts, there are no voices in the wind, or crazy laughter in the attic. Rachel doesn’t possess the romantic temperament that perceives strangeness where others see none like Jane Eyre. And there is the culprit of my dislike for this novel because the author states in her forward: “Jane Eyre was one of my favorite books when I was a girl. I love the gothic feel of it, the air of mystery and, most of all, the heart-pounding romance.”

But this book for me feels like a parody on Jane Eyre. I am sorry. 

The parody of a heart-pounding romance 
There is absolutely no heart-pounding romance. I didn’t feel it. Apart from Truman’s character, who I have to admit was very appealing in my imagination, the romance fell completely flat. There is this one night stand at the beginning under the influence of a drug and then for almost 60% of the story there is not even a kiss. The next carnal insinuation involves horse salve, which he brings her in the middle of the night for her chapped hands.

She wanted him to slide his hands up her arms, to pull off her nightgown and smooth that ointment all over her body. 

Horse salve … Yuck Rachel, you naughty little ewe! And a little bit later after a few games of chess she almost confesses her undying love.

What if she were to tell him shed fallen in love with him? That she thought of him constantly 

Now where did this come from? They haven’t even kissed since that one night. I found it extremely creepy that he is several times in the night in her room watching her sleep. And when she wakes up in the middle of the night, they have a perfectly neutral conversation as if being in her room is perfectly normal. And finally the night comes to be finally together:

Rachel: “The last time we were together, I wasn’t as aware of what was happening as I wish I would’ve been.”
The Lord: “If only I had the strength to make myself tell you to leave. This isn’t fair to you.” (wtf happened to Mr. Rochester).
Rachel: “I’m not sure it does (she is talking about preserving her honor), not if I’m spreading my legs for you every night in my dreams,” she said and her nightdress hit the floor with a soft poof.”

That is no heart-pounding romance that is hammering headaches that I get. WTF. 

Chuck Norris meets Rachel
If Jericho Barrons and Mr. Rochester / Michael Fassbender could somehow melt together to impersonate the Beast in a gothic-like romance then Truman Stanhope, Earl of Druridge, would be at first the outcome. He has all this Byron hero going on. But my Byronic hero wears a ninny name, reminding me of Truman Capote and the Truman Show. Meh.
Truman in fact is an old English first name referring to loyal and true. And Truman really is loyal: He saves Rachel from rape, gives her work, is there for her and helps her whenever he can. He even wants to launch a profit-sharing program with the miners. Difficulties with social reforms, you ask? He can handle them in less than half a page. Goodbye Byron, farewell Barrons and hello Chuck Norris. We all dream about Perfection…. Perfection dreams about Chuck Norris and Chuck Norris dreams of Rachel (and horse salve). LOL

The earl had turned up the collar of his coat to keep his neck warm, but he wore no scarf, and Rachel could see tiny, frozen crystals clinging to the shadow of a day’s beard growth. 

Rachel, I dislike you so much. You’re a well-red, beautiful young women, a bookseller’s daughter but absolutely misguided in your morals. She has no qualms of keeping the money her father was given to set Blackmoor Hall on fire, she has no problems of denying the Earl the truth, although he is suspected of murder, she has no problems in associating with the whores in town BUT she has problems if people think she spent the night with the Earl, even though she really did it??? Because it is MUCH better to lie for people who are mean to you, casting you out, threatening you, as to be honest with the one person who has thus far been nice and fair-minded, true to his name. Another point that irks me is Rachel’s outsider status. I dislike the suggested correlation in this novel: bookworm equals remote recluse. She is a persona non grata after spending a night with the Earl. The villagers hate her, the coal miners want to rape her; the servants at Blackmoore (Mrs. Paulson) resent her, all because she had a one night stand with an Earl. Even the local brothel whores don’t want anything to do with her, because her nose is always in a book and she therefore is so naïve and escapist. But even though she is so literate she has no clue how to manage a bookshop, doesn’t know shit about Greek mythology and Brueghel is a complete unknown to her. Well, I can almost understand the whores. I didn’t like Rachel one bit. And while she is being treated like a lady at Blackmoor Hall with invitations to dinner and a dressmaker waiting on her, I was wondering where is her little brother? Ah right, still in the stables and working. She really has to brave so much for the sake of him! *Snort*

So in the end the characters were unlikable, the romance hilarious, the mystery not mysterious at all, the world-building was faulty and the plot felt a lot constructed to me. 

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