As always, be warned that here be spoilers!
Although I started last night's home stretch on page 247, the main issue that this section covers has to reference a quote from page 200 that I intentionally did not mention in part 3.
Lord Johnnie was published in 1949. I read it for the first time in 1961 or 1962. Kathleen E. Woodwiss's The Flame and the Flower that sparked the boom in paperback original historical romances was published in 1972. Janice Radway's study of romance novel readers, Reading the Romance, was published in 1984. The collection of essays by romance novelists titled Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women edited by Jayne Ann Krentz was published in 1992. A Natural History of the Romance Novel by Pamela Regis was published in 2003.
The assumption is taken for granted -- and yes, it is -- that the sexy historical romance novels of the 1970s themselves evolved from a tradition of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice through the domestic novels of the late nineteenth century to the early Mills & Boon/Harlequin romances and the paperback gothic romances of the 1960s.
Because, after all, the books read each other themselves and then went on to write themselves; the women writers -- and the writers of romance novels since 1972 have been predominantly women -- were, like, not really there.
But we were! And we wrote the books, pulled the stories and the characters from our own experiences, including our experiences as readers and watchers of movies.
In her book Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, Rachel Brownstein acknowledges a truth that too many of the analysts either consciously ignored or never bothered to learn: The Flame and the Flower was less a direct descendant of Pride and Prejudice and Little Women than it was the child of a woman who had probably watched Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and read Samuel Shellabarger's Lord Vanity. Brownstein writes:
My brother is two years younger than I, and at the time I was doing the complete works of Frank Yerby he was reading everything about Napoleon. You can interpret that in one of several ways: (1) he was marching on Moscow while I was being raped; or (2) he was the scruffy little Corsican while I was a half-breed beauty; or (3) he was the emperor while I was victim and vanquisher in succession, or even both at once.
We read, and then we wrote. And it wasn't as if there weren't other women writers between Bronte and Woodiwiss. Why is it that writers like Margaret Mitchell, Kathleen Winsor, Catherine Gaskin, Daphne du Maurier are just kind of ignored as potential influences? Romance, adventure, excitement, action, and even history were all part and parcel of fiction written by women throughout the years preceding those early paperback blockbusters that followed The Flame and the Flower.
But we also read the books written by, for, and about men. Men like Leslie Turner White and Lord Johnnie.
In the early 1990s I belonged to an informal group of romance writers who congregated on America Online via an email group. The members included a few major names and a lot of unknowns (like me). Among others were Brenda Hiatt, Alexis Harrington, Constance Walker, Rebecca Brandewyne, Kasey Michaels. Brandewyne had exchanged letters with Frank Yerby before his death in 1991; Kasey Michaels and I laughed about the book club editions we had read clandestinely as teenagers, books that we remembered and that had shaped our writing style even from that young age.
Could we have been the only ones? I sincerely doubt it.
But here's the thing that seems most important as a take-away from that reading history:
The romance part was as important to the guys as it was to the girls.
Oh, sure, when we got a little older and we started reading the James Bond books -- and we did read them -- there wasn't as much romance. We read Peyton Place, too, and Candy and all the other juicy forbidden books of the 1960s. But the foundational thread that ran through the book club books like Lord Johnnie was that love and romance mattered for everyone, without embarrassment, without shame, without giggles and snickers and blushes. And if it mattered for the fictional characters, could it matter any less for their real-life writers and readers?
Which brings me back to page 200 of Lord Johnnie.
. . . "And heed this -- I'm not going to give you up!"
"But dear God -- why?"
"Because I love you!" The words astonished him quite as much as they did her, for when she looked up in amazement, he grinned ruefully.
"'Pon my honor, that slipped out, my lady!" he confessed. "Though I've never spoken it before, it's true enough."
She wrung her hands. "Love? What does a knave like you know of love?"
"Very little, Leanna. I had always imagined it to be a pleasing headiness, like rare champagne, rather than the gnawing emptiness that has ruined sleep and haunted my waking hours. Yet unlike normal hunger, no substitute seems to appease it. Rather than starve longer, I risked my neck to follow you to New York. I'm not leaving it without you."
Pretty powerful stuff for a young teenager with dreams of being a writer. Pretty powerful stuff coming from the hero rather than the heroine!
And now, back to the action, keeping in mind that Johnnie has made this confession; Leanna has not.
So Johnnie ends up kidnapping Leanna and taking her aboard the Able Lady. Leanna is not happy, and she lets Johnnie know she's not. Therefore, of course, neither is he. But the arc of Johnnie's transformation from independent, reckless, and careless rogue to whatever he turns out to be is showing how his innate decency now has an opportunity -- before, he was merely trying to survive in a shockingly cruel world -- to develop and even flourish. He has confessed his love, and acted shamefully upon it, but by page 251, he has his regrets.
He spread his hands in resignation. "I regret it now," he confessed. "Yet though the act itself was vicious, the impulse was sincere. Aye. Ridiculous as it may sound now -- I had hoped to win you."
"God in Heaven!" she cried. "Your overweening temerity is insufferable! A filthy felon and a pirate --"
Johnnie stiffened in anger. "My crimes were no obstacle to our marriage, I might remind you -- wife!"
"Must you continually bring that up?"
"I must, since they are so closely allied." He chuckled bitterly. "In the romances I have read, the wooing precedes the wedding. I can understand the advantages now. But look -- let us not bicker. 'Tis agreed we both erred sadly. Do you accept my offer?"
His offer is to give her some cash and ship her, one way or another, back to New York, once again rid of him . . . forever. The course of true love being what it is, such a neat resolution proves impossible. The Able Lady encounters a French warship, the Beausejour, and in the ensuing battle, though Johnnie's crew is victorious, his ship is damaged beyond salvage. He takes possession of the enemy vessel, unaware that amongst its passengers is a royal courier with secret dispatches.
Once again, Johnnie is faced with a dilemma. He can save himself and his crew or he can take risks to deliver the dispatches to the authorities back in New York, thus warning the British forces of an impending attack by the French. The risks are great, and without guarantees of success. The authorities in New York are the very officials he scammed and outwitted in his escape when he kidnapped Leanna. Her fiancee has leveled charges of abduction against him. He's sailing under forged letters of marque. He has lost the Able Lady, which belonged to the Duchess of Tallentyre; the only thing he has with which to repay her is the captured French brigantine. And of course there's Leanna, who is more friendly with his crew members than with him.
Remember back on page 60 when Leanna confessed that wealth was her objective, for the security it could give a woman without other resources? Johnnie had made his own confession to her earlier (p. 46-47). He saw wealth as the means, not the end.
His bitterness overflowed. "All right -- I'll be honest. I'll tell you something I never spoke aloud before, because, until you walked into Newgate, it was nothing but a vain, silly, hopeless wish." He talked rapidly, as if trying to keep ahead of the restraint of reason "I have always wanted to be a gentleman! I've hated sordidness and poverty, hated coarseness and vulgarity. Then, miraculously, you came into that hell-hole and married me. In that I saw the hand of Providence. I would have been a fool to have thrown the opportunity away."
He saw her eyes widen, and then to his surprise she laughed.
"Merciful heaven!" she cried. "Did you expect to move in here with me?"
"May I remind you I have moved in!"
She drew a hand across her eyes, as if to wipe away a vision. She had difficulty keeping her voice steady.
"Johnnie, you are a man of some intelligence. You should realize that marrying me does not of itself make you a gentleman. Good Lord, gentlemen are born!"
His features darkened under a flood of color, as he recalled Moll Coppinger's denunciation: Gent'men don't come out o' Whitefriars an' Newgate, as 'e'll soon fin' out!
"You asked me what I wanted," he said, scowling.
Are the French dispatches his last chance perhaps at achieving his goal? Will turning them over to the military in New York, even if he ends up hanging for all his past crimes, grant him some respect at the end, give him the legacy of a gentleman's honor?
He has little choice. His prize vessel is being tailed by two other French ships, their captains unaware that the Beausejour is no longer under the command of its French captain. Johnnie's only hope is to lead them back into British territory and engage the English fleet. If he survives that, and can turn over the dispatches before the English hang him, and convince them that the French directives are legitimate plans to attack New York, he might stand a chance. Not necessarily to save his own neck, but at least to save Leanna, the stalwart Rodney Yew, and his crew.
Once again, he puts into motion a plan, carefully thought out and even more carefully executed. The French are defeated, but a last second complication lands Johnnie and his crew in prison, destined all to hang for his crimes.
He had left England known only as Johnnie the Rogue, outlaw and thief, the nameless bastard who aped his betters and had impossible dreams. As a mutineer, he adopted the name Bloodsmythe to match the commission of the man he had defeated. In New York, he purchased forged documents under the name Captain John Scarlett. Thinking that he has at least partially redeemed himself, he walks into the last noose under his father's honorable name of Ballantyne. A gentleman's name.
Things couldn't look worse, but of course that's not the way the romances end. And remember, Johnnie has read them, too! Did he read Tom Jones, the tale of a bastard with roguish ways but a good and honest heart? Perhaps he did, and like the foundling Tom, Johnnie wins out in the end. His old misdeeds are forgiven, Sir Clarence drops the charges against him for kidnapping Leanna, the governor grants him a captain's commission, and even the highly respected Rodney Yew has agreed to serve under him.
And he has, at long last, won Leanna's heart.
She went down on her knees before him. "You said some wonderful things in your delirium, Johnnie -- about loving me. Can you say them again in your right mind?"
He touched her cheek tenderly. "I'm not in my right mind now, sweetheart, but I'll try."
Somewhere in the distance the noon gun thundered, but John Ballantyne did not hear it.
Johnnie is redeemed through his own actions, is granted his wish, and they all live happily ever after.
Why wouldn't I love a book like that?
But again, looking specifically at the character of Leanna, through a feminist lens and comparing her to the heroines of those post-Flame and Flower historicals, she never gives up her agency. Happy ending and all, she's not the main character but she's much more than a trophy. She takes the initial action to marry a condemned felon to get out of the debts she admits she incurred. She admits to prior sexual experience without shame. She maintains her determination to marry for financial security rather than hold out for unattainable love and romance. She also attempts to guarantee that Johnnie keep his promise to leave her alone forever, but her attempt backfires and nullifies his end of the bargain. She heads off to New York. After the kidnapping, she makes a life for herself on the ship, a life that leaves out any interaction with Johnnie. And in the end she makes up her own mind about her future. She has the choice to stick with her plan to marry Sir Clarence Laughton; she chooses to stay with Johnnie.
I didn't want to be disappointed by this book, and I wasn't. In this reading, I found details I had forgotten or never took note of, and they only served to increase my respect for the construction of an almost perfect romance.
Only "almost"? Well, since I can't make Lord Johnnie come to life. . . .