Sunday, October 07, 2007

Loretta Chase - Miss Wonderful

Loretta Chase's Miss Wonderful has been reviewed here, here, and here and there's an excerpt here. As usual what I'm going to say is not a review and will include plentiful spoilers.

Alistair, the hero of Miss Wonderful, is someone who had
always been particular about his clothes. Perhaps, of late, he devoted more time and thought to his appearance than previously. Perhaps it kept his mind off other things. The fifteenth of June, for instance, the day and night he couldn't remember. Waterloo remained a blur in his mind. He pretended he did remember. (6)
and "He was sure Gordy [his best friend] knew or at least suspected that something had gone awry with Alistair's brain box" (9). As is the case for Lydia Joyce's heroine, Victoria, clothing is a defense and a mechanism by which the character can exert control over his or her life. In Alistair's case the protection he seeks is not against a perception that he might have loose morals, but a defence against the possibility that others might realise that he has a screw loose. Precise and controlled though he may be in his dress, the excessiveness of his interest in it is apparent in his expenditure on such items. As his father observes, "For what he spends on his tailor, bootmaker, hatter, glovemaker, and assorted haberdashers [...] I might furnish a naval fleet" (2).

This excess invites comparison with Mr Oldridge, Mirabel's father. Mr Oldridge's extreme devotion to the study of plants is diagnosed by Alastair as "monomania [...] Alistair was familiar with the malady. He had an evangelical sister-in-law and a cousin obsessed with deciphering the Rosetta stone" (29). Monomania was a condition identified by the French psychiatrist Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol "in the first decade of the nineteenth century. [...] Monomaniacs were sick persons whose mental behaviour appeared perfectly healthy in all outward respects but one, a single flaw neatly localised" (Boime 80).1 Alistair's own monomania ensures that he is almost as easily distracted by Mirabel's bad fashion sense as Mr Oldridge is by botanical thoughts. In his turn, Mr Oldridge quickly becomes aware of Alistair's mental health problem, though of course he frames his description in terms related to his own monomania: "he put me in mind of a cactus" (37) and
"I knew something was wrong. It is like the cactus spines. [...] I strongly suspect Mr Carsington also suffered a head injury without realizing. I have heard of such cases. That would explain, you see."
"Explain what?"
"The cactus spines." (40)
Later, Mr Oldridge clarifies that "My botanist's instinct told me your attire was armor of some kind. [...] Cactus spines" (317) and he reveals that it was as a result of trying to understand Alistair that he recognised his own ailment:
"I have not attended much to business," the old man said sadly. "It was remiss of me. The great Dr. Johnson suffered from melancholia, you know. A strange ailment, indeed. How ironic that one should read about it in order to understand a young man, only to discover it in oneself." (301)
Perhaps I recognized your difficulty because it was something like my own [...] I did not retreat from the world on purpose after my wife's death. The thing came upon me, like a sickness or a pernicious habit, and I could not break its hold upon me. I found myself wondering if your grievous experience at Waterloo had a similar effect upon you. I retreated into botany, and you [...] into the arcane science of dress. (317-18)
However, although both have mental health problems, Mr Oldridge's is depression, whereas Alistair is suffering from what we would nowadays term post-traumatic stress disorder. At first the "cactus spines" are the main indication that something is amiss. One of the criteria for diagnosing PTSD is "Persistent efforts at avoidance of the memories and numbing of general responsiveness by adjustments in behavioural and cognitive patterns with emotional blunting" (Gabriel and Neal). The progress of his disorder resembles that of Case number 4 described by Gabriel and Neal, who was able to appear relatively unaffected until an incident occurred which triggered the memories and "forced him to re-experience the initiating trauma. His nightmares, insomnia, poor memory, fatigue, and irascibility became worse, and he developed headaches, musculoskeletal aches". It is during a walk with Mirabel that Alistair falls into Briar Brook and "got your brain knocked about your skull" (108) and this forces him to relive the horror of battle. Dr. Woodfrey diagnoses "symptoms of a fatigue of the nerves" (111).

In the cases of both Alistair and Mr Oldridge the mental health problem and its symptoms are related to love, a fact which may recall the ways in which other romance novelists afflict their characters which diseases caused by, or metaphors for, love.2 Mr Oldridge's monomania came on after the death of his beloved wife; Alistair's romantic tendencies have been stifled by the onset of PTSD: "He'd avoided women until his leg was healed and working, more or less. Since then ... Well, he wasn't sure what had held him back. He'd been numb or not fully awake in some way" (132-23). One of the symptoms of PTSD is that "You may not have positive or loving feelings toward other people and may stay away from relationships" (National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) and Alistair's return to mental health is caused, at least in part, by his deepening love for Mirabel.3

Rosario, in her review of the novel, writes that
Miss Wonderful was a keeper until the last part, where a suspense subplot kicked in, out of the blue, and took over much of the story. Not only wasn't this needed to provide conflict, because there was more than enough tension between Alistair and Mirabel due to the canal, it didn't fit in well with the tone of the rest of the story.
It seems to me that the suspense subplot enables both Alistair and Mirabel's father to overcome their mental health problems. The climax of this subplot takes place down an air shaft which formed part of an old mine. The airshaft, a dark "hole, a ragged shape, only a shade darker than the surrounding darkness" (307) down which Mr Oldridge falls, can, I think can be read as symbolising the mental health problems of both Alistair and Mr Oldridge, much like the Slough of Despond in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress). In Bunyan's book the Pilgrim is not alone in his fall into the Despond, and his companion escapes first. The Slough in Bunyan's work represents the despair created by the sense of shame and guilt the Pilgrim feels about his sins but in other, less religious contexts, it has been used to allude to depression.

Mr Oldridge falls in first, which is fitting as he's been depressed for many more years than Alistair: "after her [Mirabel's] mother's death fifteen years ago, he had grown increasingly preoccupied with plant rather than human life" (26). The result is that Mirabel manages the large "estate and all her father's business interests" (42) and she says that "I have considered engraving [...] as his epitaph: 'Sylvester Oldridge, Beloved Father, Detained Elsewhere.'" (17). The literal "detention" caused by his abduction parallels the emotional "detention" he has been in for fifteen years, and it jars him out of his depression, as he explains to Mirabel:
"A great deal passed through my mind between that time [immediately after Caleb Finch's death, when Mr Oldridge found himself alone in the hole] and your arrival. Nothing on earth is so dear to me as you. I am heartily sorry that I've been like a stranger to you, and that it wanted the recent series of shocks to bring me to my senses." (314)
Not only this, the abduction gives Mr Oldridge the opportunity to put right one of the key problems he failed to resolve for Mirabel: "At the time of Finch's dismissal, Mr Oldridge had been sunk in the lowest depths of the melancholia from which he'd only recently begun to emerge" (255). Due to Mr Oldridge's deteriorating mental health, Finch, his "incompetent - and possibly dishonest - estate manager had made chaos of estate affairs and in a few years nearly destroyed what it had taken generations to build" (82). Finch now believes that "Eleven years ago, Miss Oldridge had committed the hateful crime of making him stop righting matters for himself with her father's wealth. She had dismissed him without a reference, saying he was incompetent" (126-27) and the suspense sub-plot involves Caleb Finch's attempt to get revenge on Mirabel, who had sacked him. Caleb abducts Mr Oldridge and attempts to murder him: "Caleb Finch was holding a knife when we fell," he said. "On impact, it might easily have entered my body instead of his" (314). Having thus disposed of Caleb, whom he should have dealt with himself many years before, Mr Oldridge can literally and metaphorically emerge from the dark hole of depression into which he had sunk.

In the course of the novel Mr Oldridge also makes reparation to Mirabel for the other major problem he caused her: for his sake "She'd given up [...] her one chance at love, because the man she loved was not ready to relinquish his hopes and dreams to make a life with her here" (82). Alistair "had a growing suspicion that some sort of communication had passed between Oldridge Hall and Hargate House prior to his arrival in Derbyshire last month" (331), "'I was lured there,' Alistair said. 'On purpose. They set a trap, the two of them. My father saw the opportunity, and he took advantage. [...]' " (332). Mr Oldridge, by playing a crucial role in bringing Alistair and Mirabel together, provides Mirabel with a new fiancé to replace the one she lost when she had to devote herself to caring for Oldridge Hall.

Alistair's experience in the hole is different. Alistair's mental health problem began after Waterloo. Although he cannot remember how he behaved during the battle, others consider him to be a hero. Alistair, however, cannot accept this description of himself:
"you are the famous hero."
His mouth twisted. "I merely contrived not to disgrace myself during the short time in which I fought."
"You are far too modest. You risked your own life several times, to save others."
He gave a short laugh. "That's what men who don't think do. We plunge in without considering the consequences. It hardly seems right to call sheer recklessness 'heroic.' [...]" (83)
His fall into Briar Brook while out walking reactivated his memories. Now he does not fall, but instead makes a deliberate choice to descend into the hole. This choice, and his actions there, give him the opportunity to prove to himself and Mirabel that he truly is a hero not simply a survivor. This time, he does consider the consequences and still chooses to "plunge in", risking his life to save another's.

The experience of being down the hole also makes Alistair confront the horror of battle:
"We'll fetch a rope and have you out in a trice."
"I fear it is more complicated than that. [...] Caleb Finch fell on top of me. He is ... dead."
Nausea welled up. Alistair took a deep breath, let it out. He remembered. The mud. The cold, stiffening body keeping him down. The stench. He thrust the memory away.
"In that case, I'll come down to you, sir," he said. (307)4
and "As he went lower, he became aware of the smell that wasn't wet earth. It was all too familiar. Blood. And excrement. The smell of sudden, violent death. [...] He wanted to retch , but he wouldn't let himself" (309).

Having ensured Mr Oldridge's safety, it is then Alistair himself who is in mortal danger: "The hole was caving in, and he was going to be buried alive" (311). Mr Oldridge, as in the matter of Alistair and Mirabel's love life, offers indirect help, "We've run the rope through the stirrup leather. The horse will pull him out. I'll guide the animal" (311), while Mirabel, "At the top of the hole [where] the blackness lightened to dark gray" (310) and with her hand outstretched, is to "assist Mr. Carsington" (311) .

Reliving the trauma of seeing the aftermath of violent death, and once more being in mortal danger himself, enables Alistair to emerge from the hole emotionally healed, able to live without his protective clothing. He's been helped by Mirabel who, literally and metaphorically, brings him out of his darkness into the daylight (or, when they make love, takes him into a darkness of pleasure rather than pain: "they fell together into a sweet, cool darkness" (340).

This is prefigured in their first meeting when Alistair sees Mirabel
racing up the terrace stairs, skirts bunched up to her knees, bonnet askew, and a wild mass of hair the color of sunrise dancing about her face.
Even while he was taking in the hair--a whirling fireball when a gust of wind caught it--she darted across the terrace. [...] He opened the door, and she irrupted into the drawing room in a whirl of rain and mud, taking no more heed of her bedraggled state than a dog would.
She smiled.
Her mouth was wide, and so the smile seemed to go on forever, and round and round, encircling him. Her eyes were blue, twilight blue, and for a moment she seemed to be the beginning and end of everything, from the sunrise halo of hair to the dusky blue of her eyes.
For that moment, Alistair didn’t know anything else, even his name, until she spoke it.
“Mr. Carsington,” she said, and her voice was clear and cool with a trace of a whisper in it.
Hair: sunrise. Eyes: dusk. Voice: night.
“I am Mirabel Oldridge,” the night-voice went on.
Mirabel. It meant wonderful. And she was truly--
Alistair caught himself in the nick of time, before his brain disintegrated. No poetry, he told himself. (17, emphasis added)
If Alistair's being poetic, his poetry is not totally dissimilar to Byron's She walks in beauty, like the night -
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.
It is Mirabel who brings Alistair forth from darkness into an emotional daytime, a glorious sunshine from the north who turns his mind from horrible recollections of war to thoughts of love. In Shakespeare's Richard III
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang'd to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag'd war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now,--instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,--
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber (Act 1 Sc 1)
At their very first meeting, Mirabel turns Alistair's thoughts away from the winter of his discontent:
Derbyshire was not where Alistair wanted to be at present. [...] In mid-February [...] The landscape was bleak shades of brown and grey, the weather bitterly cold and wet.
But Gordmor's - and thus Alistair's - problem lay here, and could not wait until summer to be solved. (15)
to her own beauty: "He could not allow his thoughts to linger, even for an instant, upon any matter how lovely her skin or how warm her smile, like the first warmth of spring after a long, dark winter..." (17, emphasis added), "She smiled then, and his heart warmed as though it basked in summer sunshine" (90, emphasis added). She may be from Darbyshire, rather than York, and her beauty speaks to him of spring rather than winter, but she too turns Alistair's thoughts from war to love and capering "nimbly in a lady's chamber".
  • Boime, Albert. "Portraying Monomaniacs to Service the Alienist's Monomania: Géricault and Georget." Oxford Art Journal 14.1 (1991): 79-91.
  • Chase, Loretta. Miss Wonderful. 2004. London: Piatkus, 2006.
  • Gabriel, Roger and Leigh A. Neal. "Post-traumatic stress disorder following military combat or peace keeping." British Medical Journal 324 (2002): 340-341.
  • Meyer, Stephen. "Marschner’s Villains, Monomania, and the Fantasy of Deviance." Cambridge Opera Journal 12.2 (2000): 109–134.

1 According to the Stanford School of Medicine website,
Time changes all concepts. "Obsessive-compulsive disorder" is no exception. [...] In his 1838 psychiatric textbook, Esquirol (1772-1840) described OCD as a form of monomania, or partial insanity. He fluctuated between attributing OCD to disordered intellect and disordered will. After French psychiatrists abandoned the concept of monomania in the 1850s, they attempted to understand obsessions and compulsions within various broad nosological categories.
Stephen Meyer similarly notes the ways in which terminology has changed while the symptoms described remain broadly the same:
The symptoms that Esquirol describes in his case histories of monomaniacs: increasing delusion centred around a fixed idea, lack of fever or other physical signs of disease; the ability to reason on topics unrelated to the delusion, etc. are hardly new. Earlier writers, however, saw these symptoms as indications of another disease, the disease of melancholia. [...] the idea that too great a concentration on a single idea could lead to insanity stretches back at least to Roman times, and was particularly associated in the works of many authors with melancholia. In his Anatomy of Melancholy (first edition, 1621), for instance, Robert Burton develops the idea of ‘love-melancholy’, a kind of mental disease growing out of an erotic fascination. The association between obsession and melancholia was widespread and consistent: in his Dictionary (1755) Samuel Johnson defined ‘Melancholy’ as ‘a kind of madness, in which the mind is always fixed on one object’. Esquirol’s ideas were thus not completely original; nevertheless, by singling out the idea of ‘fixed delusion’ as the primary cause of a separate disorder he refocused the discourse surrounding insanity. (114-115)
It is perhaps worth noting that Miss Wonderful is set in 1817 and so in making his diagnosis Alistair is at the cutting edge of psychiatry. According to Boime "the term 'monomania' soon filtered down to the non-medical French intelligentsia and entered the literary mainstream by the late 1820s" (80). Meyer notes that "In her book Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century Jan Goldstein cites numerous examples to show the broader dissemination of the idea of ‘monomania’ in early nineteenth-century public life. By the late 1820s, she writes, ‘the term had already percolated down to the nonmedical . . . intelligentsia and been incorporated into their language’. " (113).

Alistair's malaise is also described as "melancholy": "He'd hardly noticed his state of mind, it was so familiar, this melancholy. Then she'd burst into the room and he'd thought his heart, in pure joy, would burst from his chest" (156). Lord Gordmor's sister diagnoses Alistair's condition as "a pernicious melancholia at the very least" (209).

2 Mirabel also describes love as a form of mental illness: "You make me deranged" (242).

3 Alistair thinks that it was "typical that after nearly three years of apathy toward the fair sex, he should choose now" (133), but the reader knows that this is not a matter of choice, or the mere result of the passing of a suitable length of time, but a direct consequence of Mirabel's effect on Alistair. From the very first moment they met "the sight of her had lightened his heart" (221). Up until that moment, however, his "emotional blunting", the result of his PTSD meant that although in the past he was someone who "fell in love quickly, deeply, and disastrously" (3) more than two years had passed since both the last love affair and his return from Waterloo. His father observes that he has "stayed out of [love] trouble only because you were incapacitated for most of that time [...] Meanwhile, the tradesmen's bills arrive by the cartload. I cannot decide which is worse. For what you spend on waistcoats you might keep a harem of French whores" (6). What his father does not know is that Alistair's "incapacitation" is mental as well as physical.

4 Once again, one can see clearly that Alistair's experiences parallel those of Mr Oldridge. During the Battle of Waterloo, Alistair was trapped under dead bodies (147) and had to be rescued: now it is Mr Oldridge who is in that position. The two may also be alike in the intensity of their romantic love:
"Your father loved her very much," he said.
She nodded. [...]
"If she was at all like you, I can understand your father's shutting himself off from the world for all these years," he said. "It is only a few days since last I saw you, yet to me it has seemed a dark and wearisome eternity." (224)
"Researchers have long noted that women tend to be drawn to men who are a lot like their fathers, for better or worse. [...] Now a new study from Europe suggests that the attraction doesn't stop at personality" (Allday, San Francisco Chronicle June 2007). It is not mentioned whether Alistair and Mr Oldridge also resemble each other physically, but recent research has found that women "who had close relationships with their fathers as children tend to be attracted to men who look like them when they grow up" (Henderson, Times Online June 2007).


  1. What a wonderful analysis, Laura, and a new look at a book I tried to read again recently and just couldn't get in to (that's probably more me and my state of mind than the book, though).

    I adore Laura Kinsale's depiction of PTSD in Seize the Fire, which she dedicated to Vietnam Vets and is so apropos today, as well, of course. It was the first of her books that I read and still holds me in the deepest thrall, I think, although it's a very difficult read. The ending is almost perfect, but so abrupt and I wish she'd indulged in an epilogue.

  2. I'm so glad you've written about "Miss Wonderful"! I wouldn't be lying if I said it was my favorite Romance. I love how well drawn Alistair and Mirabel are, and how, at the same time they're warming to each other, they're at conflict in a way that is obviously important to them and completely believable (no ridiculous Big Misunderstandings necessary!), and how their conflict never turns them mean. They pull tricks and maneuver for their goals, but they don't try to really hurt each other, nor does one have to submit to the other completely in the end, I don't think. They stay true to themselves throughout.

    Anyway. I'm always intrigued by your posts, but this one was particularly great to read because it was really interesting intellectually, but also gave me a delightful feeling because it reminded me of a story I love to pieces and gave me some insight into why the story is so emotionally satisfying to me. I think the way the romance is bound up with the journey of healing in Alistair and Mirabel's father's lives (how they paralell each other) is what makes it feel so positive and genuine.

    I think that another part of the book's awesomeness might be found in the way that Mirabel's story is one that hits on a really resonate theme. She experiences great loss and then lives to see the things she lost (her father, a fiance) come back to her, better than they might ever have been, since the relationship she forges with her father is arguably stronger and deeper than the one they might have had otherwise, and Alistair is a better life partner than her first fiance. Almost Job-like, really.

  3. I'm delighted you liked my post so much, Angel. It was a difficult one for me to write. I'm not sure why, but it was as though, having read the novel once, my mind was feeling some reluctance about heading down into that dark hole again, even though I knew what the ending would be.

    It's really interesting to see, yet again, how different people focus in on different aspects of the same story. Sarah's reaction, for example, is so different to yours, and you seem to really feel Mirabel's loss of those she loves and the way they're then restored to her. And then there's me, focussed on the mental health side of the story.

    When I was looking at the reviews, I noticed that quite a few reviewers compared Miss Wonderful to Lord of Scoundrels and said that they preferred the latter. I'm wondering if it has something to do with Alistair. None of the reviewers disliked him, far from it, but they do give descriptions of him which wouldn't apply to Dain. For example, from the The Romance Reader review we have "he’s not a rake, he’s a softie". The reviewer at All About Romance points out that Alistair isn't "indulging in typical tortured-hero melodrama" but rather that "Alistair is absolutely adorable". Mrs Giggles says that "Alistair Carrington is a charming hero that is not your usual rake with typical baggages."

    I wonder if some readers prefer a hero who is a rake (like Dain in Lord of Scoundrels). In other words, might the alpha hero vs. beta hero split affect how people would rank Miss Wonderful as compared to Lord of Scoundrels?