Every time I've decided to sit down and write this review, I became distracted. I'd pull out my copy of The Mésalliance, notes, and highlights, and then a strange thing would happen. I'd begin to read a passage I loved and pretty soon the review, and all else to be honest, was forgotten. Three times now, this has happened. One minute I would have a million thoughts waiting to be translated to somewhat coherent sentences, and then poof! I was lured right into reading the entire book. Again. And again. So perhaps distracted is not exactly correct. Ensorcelled? Fascinated? Mesmerized? Bewitched? All of the above? Now, I have battened down my hatches, girded things that need girding, clicked my ruby red slippers three times, and I'm hoping some sort of review will really happen this time. No guarantees, however.
I love/adore Georgian historical romances. It's an era that's so rich, so flamboyant and lusty and liberated. And, oh, those exquisite fashions for both men and women - hoopskirts and panniers, corsets, petticoats, clocked stockings, snuff/patch boxes, red-heeled shoes with diamond buckles, and, of course, longer hair for men. *sigh* Where's my DeLorean? How could I not enjoy The Mésalliance? And I did. At last count, three times. Oh, yes, indeed. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
Like the first meeting between Tracy Giles Wynstanton, fourth Duke of Rockliffe, and Adeline Mary Kendrick. She's just a sixteen year old wild child, and he's a twenty-eight year old seasoned soldier. Tracy has not yet assumed the ducal title and is visiting his "most distant and least favourite estate" in Northumberland, Redesdale. He escaped the heat of London while on furlough from an injury, avoids his garrulous bailiff, Mr. Forne, as much as possible, and is hopeful of returning to his army regiment soon. He's intrigued by the barefoot Adeline as much as he's dismissive of the "untidy child of incredible simplicity" who's "all eyes and mouth and wildly disordered nut-brown hair." Adeline likewise is fascinated by Tracy. Fascinated by his gentleness and kindness and calm reassurance the few times they accidentally meet. Though not experienced with either "gentlemen" or kindness, Adeline recognizes both qualities in Tracy. It's an unusual meeting without any of the banality.
Eight years pass before Tracy and Adeline meet again at a house party, and their second meeting holds an element of disappointment and shock at the changes in both of them. After her grandfather's death, Adeline is shunted off to live with her aunt, Lady Franklin, and identical twin cousins, Diana and Anthea (or "Dianthea, the stomach disorder"), shades of Cinderella. Adeline is not treated as family but as a servant at the beck and call of her aunt, intimidated by her Uncle Richard, and subjected to Diana's whims and tantrums. Her aunt and her brother, Adeline's Uncle Richard, scolded, locked away, and then beat the wild, gypsy child in Adeline into submission, but though she conformed and shored up her defenses for self protection, she also discovered a more subtle way to rebel: by combining "apparent docility with an under-current of clever, hard to combat acidity." Tracy ("Rock") is disillusioned to see the "unspoilt, sensitive, and fragile" creature from eight years ago has been replaced with a sharp-tongued, bitter woman. But Tracy doesn't know why she's changed; he merely sees the effects of seven years of having to hide her true self.
Meeting long-lashed aquamarine eyes filled with detached irony and set beneath narrow, winged brows, his first thought was that she was changed beyond recognition ... and his second, that he would have known her anywhere. The eyes and the voice were the same; it was only the suggestion of frosted bitterness that was new. (26)
All that remained was a cold-eyed woman with a barbed tongue - a fact that left him feeling faintly cheated until he remembered that painful flush, swiftly followed by flight. (27)
Likewise, Adeline's memory of the kind, young gentleman is replaced by a man who lashes out at Adeline in his anger and disappointment, words which Tracy later regrets and are a source of embarrassment for him.
He smiled at her with what at least two persons present recognized as dangerous benevolence and said gently, 'Perhaps you did indeed have just cause for doubting my ability to place you. After all, I'm compelled to acknowledge that I find you considerably changed.' He paused and conducted a leisurely head to foot appraisal. 'You appear, for example, to have discovered the benefits of wearing shoes - an achievement on which I can only congratulate you.' (27)
Adeline recognizes this man, the Duke of Rockliffe, is not Tracy. He is a man of her aunt's social strata, a stranger to her, remote, untouchable. This man with his practiced manner, courtly bows, elaborate mode of dress, snuff box, powdered hair, and subtle sarcasm was foreign to her. Eight years ago, he had demonstrated no artifice. His dark hair, sometimes so black "it glinted blue in the sun", had been natural, without powder. All of the changes are encapsulated in his powdered hair.
She remembered wanting, more than anything to touch it - but, of course, she never had. And now he chose to wear it powdered ... and stupidly, illogically, she had felt disappointed. (38)
And yet, she knows he was ashamed of the way he humiliated her in front of her aunt and her aunt's guests. And he tries to understand "why" she's different. Through all the conflict in these first meetings, the mutual attraction, whether wanted or not, is never in question. They strike sparks off each other and seem to be perfectly matched, in temperament, in wit, and in intelligence. I didn't even wonder why poor Tracy wasn't sure whether he wanted to kiss Adeline or shake her or why Adeline felt she needed to avoid Tracy.
I loved their separate moments of recognition, two moments at different times but that complement the other, moments in which they each see in the other a flash of their familiar selves from eight years ago. The sense of loss is replaced with an affirmation and confirmation of who they were and are separately and what they may become together. It's a reassurance for both that whatever the obstacles between them, they are simply Tracy and Adeline.
This time it was no fleeting brush of the lips. This time, he took what he had been wanting to take for a week; and Adeline, stunned as much by the suddenness of it as by the feel of his body against hers, found herself powerless to resist.
Slowly releasing her, Rockliffe looked into eyes that were no longer coolly composed but startled, confused and a little shy. Eyes that belonged less to the woman she was now than to the girl she had been eight years ago. ‘Ah,’ he thought. ‘Yes. There you are.’ (87-88)
Rockliffe emerged from the breakfast-room. His coat was of plain black cloth and, beneath it, his shirt was open at the neck and worn without cravat or vest. But it wasn’t his clothes that stopped her mid-step and made her forget to breathe. His hair, apparently freshly washed, was unpowdered … and black as a raven’s wing. The air froze in her lungs, something lurched behind her blue dimity bodice and she thought foolishly, ‘Oh. There you are.’ (116)
The Mésalliance is, to me, more Tracy's book than Adeline's. By that I mean, it is his character who undergoes more of a transformation than Adeline. She has to learn to trust, a hard battle and a difficult journey on its own, and it is her sense of unworthiness and lack of trust that allows a blackmail scheme instigated by her Uncle Richard to become the barrier between her and Tracy. It is also at the center of a series of misunderstandings and the impetus for the "Dark Moment", or the "point of ritual death" (Regis, The Natural History of the Romance Novel) and emotional separation between Tracy and Adeline throughout the second half of The Mésalliance.
Tracy's metamorphosis, however, is so very dramatic. A major part of my enjoyment of The Mésalliance was watching Tracy with his vaunted self-control, self-possession, charm, confidence, elegance (with just a touch of ennui, don't you know), a man who defines the word "languid" in both deed and word, a man whose rapier wit and laconic manner of delivery comes completely undone.
He is a kind man, a patient man, meticulous in his manners, tasteful and a trendsetter in his mode of dress. He is a loyal and supportive friend and brother. He is a man who eschews violence but who can deliver a stinging rebuff in a soft dangerous tone of voice with a modicum of words. For example, Tracy admonishes Adeline to be civil when her aunt and her self-absorbed cousin, Diana, come to London for the season. But, he can't resist one of his double-edged barbs to put Lady Franklin and Diana in their place.
And then, as the girls moved away, "Poor Thea is so timid, I sometimes despair of her. I only wish she could acquire just a fraction of dear Diana's confidence."
'I am sure you must do,' agreed Rockliffe sympathetically. 'And vice versa.'
Lady Franklin continued to gaze up at the Duke with faintly baffled suspicion for a moment and then gave it up. (148)
And then there are his snuff-boxes. Ah, me. These little trinkets are not simply accessories to be coordinated with the proper jacket and waistcoat. Be they Sèvres or "silver gilt decorated in the Florentine style", a Wedgwood beauty, a pretty enameled bauble, or a fine old ivory trifle from Paris, these little boxes are his way of deflecting the too personal question, buying time, a relief from boredom, an object of meditation, the opening gambit in a search for information, and a million other uses. In other words, snuff-boxes are to Tracy what the little blue blanket is to Linus van Pelt in Peanuts.
Over the course of the second half of The Mésalliance, his closest friendships with two men are strained to the breaking point for no greater reason than he is a man at his wits end trying to court his wife, knowing something is wrong and realizing she won't or can't share the problem with him but turns instead to his friends. The man who cooly dismissed a tempestuous mistress without lifting an elegant eyebrow is . . .jealous. Of his friends, Jack and Harry.
'I don’t know what the two of you have quarrelled about and I don’t want to know –but the sooner you make it up, the better for all of us.’ He grinned suddenly. ‘You may not have realised it, but you’re not the only sufferer. It’s making him extremely touchy and putting a nasty edge on his tongue.’
‘Dear me,’ drawled a soft, mocking voice, ‘Who can you mean, I wonder?’
'I find I object...rather strongly...to both curiosity and interference. And - much though I may regret it - I am quite willing to press the point, if necessary.' He paused, meeting Jack's gaze with cold amusement. 'I'm sure you understand me.'
'Oh for God's sake, stop being so damned ridiculous,' came the irritable and largely unexpired retort. 'I've told you before - it'll be a cold day in hell before I let you provoke me into crossing swords with you. And particularly over something like this.'
'Still craven, Jack?'
'No. Still sensible.'
'Ah. And do you consider it sensible to closet yourself away with my wife for a full fifteen minutes?'asked his Grace sweetly. 'For, if so, I believe I must acquaint you with your mistake.' (252-253)
‘Well!’ exclaimed Harry with dry humour. ‘Am I allowed to sit down –or had I best take myself off to the other room?'
‘That,’ replied his Grace, ‘rather depends on what you want to talk about.’
‘Oh –I’ll be dumb, never fear. Though it would be a damned sight easier if I knew exactly what’s eating you.’
‘What is all this?’ asked Lord Amberley, laughing. ‘Do you know, Jack?’
‘It looks,’ observed Mr Ingram, ‘rather like a quarrel.’
‘Lord, no! Nothing of the sort,’ said Harry, seating himself. ‘You have to talk to each other for that.’ (244)
At a saner level beneath his involuntary jealousy, Rockliffe was well aware where Harry’s heart lay and, although this did not help him in his dealings with Adeline, it did make it possible for him to tacitly heal the breach with his lordship.
‘But he made damned sure I wouldn’t dare ask any awkward questions,’ confided Harry later to Nell. ‘Gave me the sort of smile you usually see over a yard of steel and advised me –ever so gently, mind –not to meddle. Then he showed me his newest snuff-box.’ (246)
The climax, so to speak, is at a very public venue - the Queensbury House Ball - among a few hundred of the crème de la crème of London Society. Though Tracy gives the appearance of a man in control at the beginning of the evening, dressed in his finest, he's a man who loses every bit of his control in just a few hours.
". . . elegantly saturnine in silver-laced black with the Order of the Garter displayed upon his chest and diamonds winking on his fingers and in his cravat. As always, his hair was confined at the nape in long sable ribbons - to which, tonight, was added a narrow diamond clasp; and as had been his habit again in recent weeks, it was thickly powdered." (263)
By the end of the evening, he has raised his voice, raised a little hell, lured Diana the viper into revealing her true colors to all and sundry, delivered a look so intimidating to poor Adeline she flees the ballroom, separated the villainous Uncle Richard from a few of his teeth, promised a fate worse than death if Richard Horton and his "hell-born niece" ever come near Adeline ever again, and chased Adeline down to his country estate at Wynstanton Priors.
Remember the silver-laced black brocade coat, diamonds, etc.? When he finds Adeline, he's covered in dust from the road, his right sleeve is "partially adrift", the Garter is missing as well as the lace at his wrists. The diamonds are probably scattered like breadcrumbs from London to the Priors. In place of his elegant buckled shoes, he's now wearing top boots, and his hair, still bearing faint traces of powder, is "hopelessly windswept." Tracy, it is fair to say, isn't a happy camper at the moment. He has unraveled in a most spectacular and very public way.
"So far, I've lost my temper, my finesse and a particularly fine snuff-box. I've bruised my knuckles, winded my favorite mare and missed my breakfast. But what I have not done is ride forty miles in a guise I can only describe as lamentable, merely for the pleasure of your conversation. Let's go." (280)
This is my first book by Stella Riley, and I thoroughly enjoyed every word despite a little disappointment that Adeline was so completely cowed and intimidated by her Uncle Richard and his blackmail scheme in the last half of the book as well as her inability to be honest with Tracy and place her trust in him once and for all. Tracy gave her every reason to believe he would not judge her poorly for the skeletons in her closet, and he generously gave her so many opportunities to enlist his assistance. She justifies her actions as protecting the man she loved, ensuring his name was never tainted with her scandal. I understood that in one respect, and that it led to a more disordered, unraveled, slightly messy Tracy made it a little easier to swallow. I'm ecstatic that there are two more books in this series - The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe #1) and The Player (Rockliffe #3) as well as the possibility of a fourth in the series in the future. Life is very good indeed!