Sunday, October 08, 2006

Jessica Hart - Mistletoe Marriage

Jessica Hart's Contracted: Corporate Wife won the Romantic Novelists' Association Romance Award 2006 and her Christmas Eve Marriage won a RITA in 2005, in the Best Traditional Romance category.

Mistletoe Marriage has not, as far as I know, won any awards; the one reader review at is lukewarm, describing it as 'pretty standard fare for a Harlequin romance', while at the Romantic Times the reviewer's final comment that the novel 'triumphs over its oft-used premise, finding some lovely, genuine emotional levels' may be read either as damning with faint praise or as an accurate summary of the novel's main strengths. In my opinion Hart's novel makes use of traditional plot and character contrasts in ways which query some of those traditions, much as Austen uses contrasts in Sense and Sensibility to critique aspects of Romanticism, or, in Emma, contrasts the furtive romance between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, with the long-standing friendship, which changes to romantic love, between Emma and Mr Knightley. Among the fairytales I know, Mistletoe Marriage reminds me of the story of Snow White and Rose Red. In the version told by the Brothers Grimm there are two sisters:
one was called Snow-white and the other Rose-red. They were as good and happy, as busy and cheerful, as ever two children in the world were, only Snow-white was more quiet and gentle than Rose-red. Rose-red liked better to run about in the meadows and fields seeking flowers and catching butterflies [...] The two children were so fond of each other that they always held each other by the hand when they went out together, and when Snow-white said, “We will not leave each other,” Rose-red answered, “Never so long as we live,” and their mother would add, “What one has she must share with the other.”
Sophie, the heroine of Mistletoe Marriage reminds me of Rose-red:
Sophie's hair [...] was a bit like her personality - wildly curling and unruly [...] At first glance her hair was a dull brown, but if you looked closely you could see that there were other colours in there too: gold and copper and bronze where it caught the light.
The quirkiness of Sophie's personality was reflected in her face. Vivid, rather than strictly pretty (2005: 7)
Like Rose-red, Sophie loves the countryside, whereas her sister Melissa, 'In spite of growing up on a farm [...] had never been a great one for getting her hands dirty' (2005: 26) . Melissa is more like Snow-white: 'She was sweet and fragile and helpless, and few men were immune to her appeal' (2005: 14) with 'her hair like spun gold and her violet eyes and that smile that made the sun come out' (2005: 26). These sisters are also devoted to each other: Sophie makes a 'sacrifice' that 'few sisters would have made' (2005: 16), breaking off her engagement to Nick when she realises that Nick and Melissa have fallen in love, and Melissa truly appreciates this and 'was [...] bound up in guilt about what she called 'stealing' Nick' (2005: 53).

In the fairytale the sisters have a playmate, who also calls himself their lover, and who is a bear:
They tugged his hair with their hands, put their feet upon his back and rolled him about, or they took a hazel-switch and beat him, and when he growled they laughed. But the bear took it all in good part, only, when they were too rough, he called out,

“Leave me alive, children,
“Snowy-white, Rosy-red,
Will you beat your lover dead?”
The bear first makes his appearance in the winter, the season in which Mistletoe Marriage is set. Bram, the hero of Mistletoe Marriage gives hugs which are
incredibly comforting [...] when he held you enclosed in those powerful arms you felt safe and secure, and insensibly steadied. He didn't need to say a thing. You could just cling to his strong, solid body and feel the slow, calm beat of his heart and somehow let yourself believe that everything would be all right (2005: 5-6)
Bram, like the bear, is not an exotic creature: 'He had never lain on a tropical beach under a leaning coconut palm and he didn't want to. Give him a hillside and a gorse bush in bloom any day' (2005: 19). His name, 'Bram', is, therefore extemely appropriate since according to one baby-naming website the name is 'of Scottish, Irish and Gaelic origin, and its meaning is "bramble; a thicket of wild gorse'.

In the fairytale the two sisters encounter a very grumpy dwarf, who expects them to rescue him, but who gives them no thanks for their efforts. Finally the bear kills the dwarf:
“I am a King’s son,” he said, “and I was bewitched by that wicked dwarf, who had stolen my treasures; I have had to run about the forest as a savage bear until I was freed by his death. Now he has got his well-deserved punishment.” Snow-white was married to him, and Rose-red to his brother
Bram was once engaged to Melissa, but the engagement was broken off. What Sophie and Bram come to realise is that a bear is really much, much better off with a woman who loves the countryside, and what Sophie needs to learn is that beneath the surface of her beloved friend the bear is an extremely attractive man. I'm afraid that Melissa, in Jessica Hart's story, falls in love with someone who is more like the dwarf, but disguised as a prince, and while both of the sisters fall in love with him, Sophie (whose name means 'wisdom') is the one who recognises Nick for what he is: a grumpy, self-centered man who selfishly puts others to great trouble (at one point in the story he needs to be rescued, rather like the dwarf in the fairytale). Bram metaphorically 'kills' the dwarf when Sophie's love for Nick dies.

Jennifer Crusie has said that romance is 'a genre that relies heavily on the tradition of the tales even while requiring their revision for reader satisfaction' (This Is Not Your Mother's Cinderella: The Romance Novel As Feminist Fairy Tale) and on this blog Sandra has examined the way in which 'romance fiction employs various elements of fairy tales'. It seems to me that even if Jessica Hart was not deliberately re-writing the story of Snow-white and Rose-red, her novel can be read as a reworking of various elements that are common in fairytales (two sisters, prince in disguise, grumpy dwarf, marriage). Sophie's friend Ella says 'So what if it's not a fairy tale? Make your own fairy tale' (2005: 101), and that is what Jessica Hart does for Sophie, by reworking the fairytale and questioning many conventional ideas about what's romantic. Bram, for example, chooses a ruby engagement ring for Sophie, rather than a conventional diamond one. This reinforces the colour difference between Sophie (redish hair) and Melissa (blonde) in a way which changes the fairytale to suit Sophie:
It was perfect. Cinderella must have felt the same uncanny sense of rightness as the glass slipper had been slipped onto her foot. The ring sat on Sophie's hand as if it had been made for her finger. [...] 'It's different, isn't it? But that's what makes it special.'
'Like you.' (2005:116)
It is Melissa who has a beauty that in most fairytales would make her the heroine and, like fairytale heroines, 'it was hard to get past her beauty to the person underneath' (2005: 106): 'Melissa was someone to be adored, so fragile, so lovely, that you feared she might dissolve into a dream if you reached out for her' (2005: 112).* Nick is the epitome of tall, dark and handsome: 'Nick was a dream come true [...] with his good looks and his glamour and his smile that made her go weak at the knees' (2005: 97), he has 'dark good looks [...] daredevil arrogance' (2005: 126) and is 'Alpha man incarnate' (2005: 126). Nick and Melissa fall in love in the most romantic of ways: 'He saw Melissa. He took one look at her and fell [...] in love with her' (2005: 14) and 'Melissa fell in love for the first time when she saw Nick [...]. She looked completely bowled over. She couldn't take her eyes off him' (2005: 15). But, despite all this perfection and the way they seem to be the most romantic of couples, they are not the hero and heroine of this particular fairytale romance, and in fact there are shown to be problems in their marriage. Slowly, the illusion of perfection that surrounds them, and unquestioning acceptance of the conventional trappings of romance, are peeled away. Sophie compares Bram's common-sense proposal, made for practical reasons, across the kitchen table, with Nick's (prior to him meeting Melissa): 'Nick had arranged a romantic restaurant, candlelight, soft violins playing, even a rose... Didn't that indicate a lack of imagination on his part?' (2005: 97). Nick's choice of ring was equally conventional: Bram asks, 'disparagingly', 'I suppose Nick bought you a diamond?' and Sophie replies 'He did, as a matter of fact' (2005: 120). Nick later insists that diamonds are 'what a real engagement ring should be' (2005: 132), while Melissa realises how well the ruby ring suits Sophie. The point isn't that diamond rings, or proposals made over candle-lit dinners, are intrinsically unromantic, but rather that all of Nick's choices show a lack of thought about Sophie's personality. Instead of choosing what will appeal to her and showing his love and understanding of her through his choices, he simply follows convention.

Bram observes that 'You can make anyone believe anything if the trappings are right [...] It's all about appearances' (2005: 120), but Sophie isn't interested in appearances. She says that 'Surely the important thing is that Bram and I are marrying each other [...] The rest of the wedding stuff doesn't really matter, does it?' (2005: 103). Even though she says this before she falls in love with Bram, her feelings about the details of the wedding don't change. When she adds that 'I'm sure no one will care what our wedding is like' (2005: 103) her mother sighs at her 'naivety' and replies 'You've always been such a romantic' (2005: 103). Sophie, then, is a true romantic because her interest is not in the usual outward signs of love such as the white wedding dress or the diamond ring, which, because of their conventional nature, may not best suit the particular bride or her circumstances. Sophie would rather have a
dress so stunning that it had been given the window to itself. Cut low over the shoulders and close around the waist, it fell in a flurry of chiffon layers in gold and copper and bronze and red. It glowed like a flame, so warm and so vibrant you could almost hold out your hands and warm yourself on its richness and its colour.
Sophie took one look at the dress and fell in love with it. Now, there was a dress to be married in - a dress that would make you feel joyous and sexy and vibrant. Surely the way you should feel when you were getting married. (2005: 107)
The dress matches the colour of her hair, and again made me think of Sophie as Rose-red, the imagery used to describe it matches that used to describe Sophie's love for Bram, as well shall see. This dress suits Sophie's vibrant personality, and Bram recognises that and buys the dress for her. Sophie's mother, on the other hand, insists that Sophie 'look the perfect conventional bride' (2005: 109), so on her wedding day Sophie wears the dress her mother's chosen for her, but on that occasion she barely cares what she's wearing: she turns up wearing 'black rubber boots, liberally splattered with dried mud, that peeked out from beneath the ivory silk' (2005: 185). When her mother complains, Sophie declares 'I'll get married in my socks' (2005: 186), which is what she does. For Sophie, then, the conventional trappings of romance are hardly important at all: 'Bram was everything that she needed. Her best friend. Her lover. Her husband.' (2005: 186).

Sophie's feelings about Nick remind me of the discussions we've been having here about mystery, power imbalances, risk and the erotic:
Being with Nick had never felt safe [...] There had always been an element of risk in their relationship. [...] She had never been able to relax completely with Nick for fear that she would lose him. Even when she had been at her happiest it had felt as if she were on [the] point of exploding with the sheer intensity of it all. It had been a dangerous feeling, but a wonderful one too. Loving Nick had made her feel electric, alive. (2005: 25)
With Bram, however
This wasn't the desperate, dramatic love she had felt for Nick. In the very fibre of her being Sophie knew that her love for Bram was deeper, truer, stronger than that. Loving Nick had been a firework that had exploded in her world in dazzling colours, only to fizzle out without trace. [...] Loving Bram was a flame that had glowed steadily deep inside her, growing so slowly that she hadn't even noticed until it burned in every part of her (2005:161-162)
  • Hart, Jessica, 2005. Mistletoe Marriage (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon Limited).
* As Crusie notes, fairytale heroines tend to lack personality, though they are always beautiful:
Well, I had Sleeping Beauty, who got everything she'd ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Snow White, who got everything she'd ever wanted because she looked really good unconscious. Or there was Cinderella, who should be given some credit for staying awake through her whole story, but who got everything she'd ever wanted because she had really small feet.

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