Once A Rebel (Rogues Redeemed), by Mary Jo Putney
This book was greatly disappointing to me. There are at least two ways in which this particular novel was disappointing and it is an instructive thing for writers to ponder this matter, particularly genre writers. First, the book goes on for too long. The essential element of the book, namely the marriage between two old friends whose lives took different paths after an attempted elopement when they were teenagers, is resolved when the book is about 100 pages short of the conclusion. The entire conclusion of the book is there simply for the author to kill off one of the protagonist’s brothers and to add an unnecessary element of wish fulfillment in making him a higher noble than he would otherwise have been and did not in fact want to be. This is an example of what happens when an author goes on for too long to ramp up the fantasy element of a romance novel beyond simply two dishonored children of noble houses who were old friends becoming lovers in their early middle age. The other problem is that these people are simply not very decent and moral people, and the author’s desire to paint their actions, which include theft, forgery, and some justifiable homicides that get swept under the rug a bit too conveniently nevertheless, as good rather than as evil makes the morality of this novel very suspect.
This novel is almost 350 pages and takes place in the period of the British raid on Washington DC and failure to take Baltimore in 1814. At its heart are two long-lost childhood friends. One of them, Lord George Gordon Audley, is an underground agent who has been given the task of rescuing a widow from danger in Washington DC who strangely shares his surname. One of them, coincidentally enough, happens to be the widow, Callie Audley nee Brooke, who eloped with him as children leading to both of their being quickly dispatched from England, Gordon to transportation to Australia, Callie to marriage to a man more than twice her age who already had a mixed-race mistress and children as well as a grown son from his first marriage. Naturally, when the two meet there are rockets of both a literal and figurative kind as Callie seeks to protect her step-children from harm, various acts of fraud are perpetuated under the guise of getting her her just rewards, and the novel proceeds in an intensely convenient way, even dragging the couple back to England where we find out that Lord Audley has inherited his father’s noble office after the death of all of his older siblings, which brings him face to face with his younger brothers and the rivalry over place and position.
Ultimately, what does a historical romance serve the reader? When written well, a historical romance can provide a suitable setting of how human beings work out those essential problems of love and figuring out one’s place in a novel setting that provides a comparison that the reader (and author) can make with the society that the reader and writer share. When done well, the author manages to make essential moral points, including the limitations of morality on the operations of a society, while providing characters that live generally blamelessly and decently within the bounds of the society they inhabit and also within the mind of the reader. When people whose moral compass is obviously defective, like the author, write romances, the wish fulfillment elements of fantasy overwhelm the ability to portray characters as decent and moral in ways that meet the standards of the reader or the time in which the characters reputedly live. And that is a great shame and makes a novel like this far less enjoyable than it could have been in the hands of a morally upright author.