At Love’s Bidding, by Regina Jennings
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Bethany House in exchange for an honest review.]
This is a book, and an author, who knows her audience well. With a novel set in Boston and in rural Missouri in the early 1870’s, this is a novel that is designed to appeal to its audience–women who enjoy a chaste but passionate romance novel between a spunky heroine who needs to get out of her shell and a kind but rough-around-the-edges hero with a mysterious background. Readers of this book are likely to find extra pleasure if they recognize and appreciate the author’s body of work as a whole, as the heroine from one of the author’s previous award-winning romances, one Abigail Calhoun, serves as an important secondary character in this novel, or appreciate the book’s clever reference to the debate over the picturesque towards the beginning of Jane Austen’s incomparable Pride & Prejudice. This is a book that is well-written, with easy to read prose, like the best of its genre, but is clearly a piece of genre fiction that is written more as comfort reading than as particularly challenging to the conventions of historical romance .
In terms of its contents, this book has a satisfying plot, even if it is somewhat convoluted. A somewhat timid young woman being pressured to marry a somewhat condescending phrenologist ends up on an adventure in Missouri to retrieve a painting sent to a mysterious recipient in a rural Missouri county, where the elegant middle-class young auctioneer named Miranda Wimplegate finds herself around rubes trying to take care of her elderly grandfather in the grips of what appears to be dementia, with effects that are deeply unfortunate for them both. Of course, she meets a handsome and charming Mr. Wrong and his younger foster brother, a rough but kindly Mr. Right, who has a dark and mysterious past and grew up as a foundling. Of course, despite complications and legal problems and some mild peril, everything ends up well, and that is not a spoiler, because at no point in reading this novel does the reader get any idea that things will end poorly. Rather, this is the sort of novel that seeks to reward a reader’s belief in the benign providence of the author, and in the ultimately good end of divine providence despite the difficulties of this life. This concern with divine providence is made explicit when the romantic hero, Wyatt Ballantine, is said to have reflected as follows: “Frankly, God’s plan scared Wyatt something fierce. Thinking back through the Bible, those people God loved, well, He put them through the wringer. They didn’t have life easy. And there might be a great reward at the end, but in the meantime, you’d best get your slingshot ready, because likely there was a giant or two coming after you.”
Yet although this novel is well-written, with a smooth prose style, and a thoughtful examination of practical Christianity in terms of taking care of others and seeking to live courageously but also generously, there is a fundamental problem I find with this novel and so many others, indeed, with many of the tropes of romantic fiction that this novel lives up to. So many romance novels, like this one, seek to find the hidden goodness beneath a rough exterior, and seek to explore the more gentle side of an obviously manly man. It is my admittedly biased belief that this sort of trope sets women up for difficulty, if not failure, in their romantic quests by leading them to look for men with a rough and gruff exterior as being the most likely balanced romantic heroes, with a velvet glove underneath the steel gauntlets. That said, this sort of consistent bias in terms of romance literature towards portraying romantic heroes as good-hearted rogues or people who appear to be proud and arrogant but are really gentle and kindly once you get to know them tends to lead women in a particular direction, so that they forget that those who are gentle and polite and kindly on the outside can be people of considerable moral and even physical strength and courage on the inside, steel gauntlets beneath a velvet glove. Yet that sort of man, mild-mannered yet possessed of strong moral fiber and surprising strength, is seldom the sort of romantic hero that is written about, and seldom the sort of romantic hero that women seek in life. This is a great evil, and while the book itself means no harm, it is part of a context that often causes great harm.
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