Charlotte Lamb's Temptation and the "madwoman in the attic"

Temptation (Harlequin Presents #310) - Charlotte Lamb

"The tempter, or the tempted, who sins most?" Temptation has a dual nature. It can present itself in the form of a luscious chocolate dessert in a bakery window or a candy apple red convertible sports car. Or maybe a pair of Louboutin 'So Pretty' pointy toe pumps with glittery inlays. Hmmmm. Excuse me while I clean up my drool. Whatever form it takes, there's an element of forbidden pleasure that entices, lures, excites, seduces, and, at times, overwhelms us. Even the way we refer to the "tempter" who holds the power to ruthlessly overwhelm self-restraint of the "tempted", the "victim" who may succumb or resist, is entangled in a test of one's self-control, will power, and restraint as well as being a catalyst for change, a proving ground, with the reward of greater self knowledge and understanding. The fascination and power of temptation lie in the areas not so well-defined, those shadowy gray areas.


I believe Charlotte Lamb had all these ideas in mind when she wrote Temptation in 1979 and more. She was constantly pushing against the boundaries of category romance, boldly exploring the faults, flaws, and weaknesses of both hero and heroine, finding the breaking point in her characters' personalities, then allowing all hell to break loose for them instead of reining it in. She "led the charge toward more explicit" sex scenes in the lowly category romance. She clearly, precisely and dramatically wrote what happens during and after the trial by fire she forces her characters to endure. As a reader, Charlotte Lamb's books are not always comfortable or comforting, but neither are they boring, wallpaper-ish, recycled, or tired. Her heroes are all alpha male types in varying degrees, and her heroines are more self aware, independent, feisty but generally not shrill or foolish. Temptation has all these elements as well as being one of her most compelling, riveting, evocative, and, yes, at times, chilling category romances. Plus there's an alpha grovel, a truly vengeful heroine, and more than a mere tip of the HP hat to Jane Eyre. Reading Temptation felt like I was just a few cars behind a terrible head-on collision, not wanting to see the terrifying destruction but unable to look away.


It's hard not to see the many commonalities between Charlotte Lamb's Temptation and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. In fact, Temptation takes Jane Eyre's "mad woman in the attic" and plunks her down squarely in the middle of HP Land. Bertha Mason "the mad woman" in Jane Eyre and Lorna Wyatt, Sir Joshua's wife in Temptation have too many similarities to be merely coincidence, but it's Linden Howard's descent into a kind of madness, a bloodthirsty unrelenting desire for revenge, in the second half of the book which was so startlingly unique.


Lorna is Joss's first wife (as Bertha is Rochester's), she married Joss as a young woman (ditto Bertha and Rochester) for reasons having nothing to do with either love or passion (the same for Rochester and Bertha). The kick in the pants is that both Bertha and Lorna have been out of their husbands' lives — Bertha hidden away because of her insanity, locked in the attic at Thornfield while Lorna has been in a permanent vegetative state in a nursing facility — for ten years.


Angel or monster. Rational heroine or madwoman in the attic. Is Lorna á la Bertha Linden's foil or a kind of weird dopplegänger? Or is the truth of her character somewhere in a shadowy valley between one absolute and the other? Lorna Wyatt and Linden Howard in Temptation share more than a passing similarity with Jane and Bertha, and both echo and call forth both Bertha Mason and Jane Eyre in a profound way not usually found in homages to other romance literature, especially within the constraints imposed on category romance.


Linden never comes face-to-face with Lorna (unlike Jane who meets Bertha up close and personl); however, she examines a portrait of Lorna hanging in the dining room at Wildmere, the Wyatt estate. Linden observes "a lovely creature" with blue eyes, a softly curved mouth, a "gleam to her white neck." But she's troubled by the "emptiness in the blue eyes", surprised not only by a lack of "vitality" but also the dearth of "intelligence" in Lorna's beautiful baby blues. Linden further intuits that though the portrait captured Lorna's pleasing features in a "mint-sharp" manner, there was "no real personality" apparent in her likeness. Lorna, like Bertha in Jane Eyre, has no voice in Temptation, and everything learned about Lorna is supplied by other characters — her son, Daniel; her mother, Dolly; and her husband, Sir Joshua Wyatt.


Daniel reinforces Linden's impression of Lorna's beauty but also adds his mother's lack of "maternal" feelings. Contact between Daniel and his mother was minimal before the accident leaving Lorna a genuine stranger to her son, Joss, and Dolly. Daniel recalls only Lorna's love of excitement for life in London. Dolly tells Linden that Lorna was "never a bargain, poor girl", was not a "real wife" to Joss, was "empty", "lacked something vital", and was "so beautiful no one ever suspected how little lay beneath the surface."


Joss and Lorna were childhood acquaintances and married at 18 only to please his father and her mother, Dolly. Joss confesses he never loved Lorna though he found her "very lovely","breathtaking to look at." Lorna, according to Joss, was nothing but a "beautiful façade", possessing "no soul in the blue eyes", a woman who was "not cold or hard or cruel" but who was "just empty" drifting through life "without caring for anything or anyone." Lorna never read a book or saw a play, was incapable of loving anybody, "not even herself", "felt nothing but boredom" merely "sat around looking exquisite, as if she were a butterfly." He was married to a woman who "bored him and whom he bored."


Lorna "acquiesced" to sex with Joss long enough to produce Daniel, but they soon became estranged. She was unfaithful during their marriage, and Joss shares a disgust and contempt for Lorna's infidelity very much like Rochester's characterization of Bertha's promiscuity as "intemperate and unchaste." Lorna's sexual liaisons "meant nothing to her", her conquests were "merely tolerated" though she attracted men like bees to honey.


Lorna's vacuity and promiscuity is the antithesis of Dolly's vivacious, loving, faithful, maternal personality. I'm still trying to work out what Lamb attempted to say about sex and power and control or, more accurately, loss of control. In any case Lorna is as isolated from the "society defined" in Temptation as Bertha Mason's "madness" and imprisonment isolate her in the attic at Thornfield.


Lorna is also evocative of tge he first wife (Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre)  as the obstacle preventing Joshua's "happy ever after" with Linden in Temptation's 1st half, but it's Linden and her determination to extract her pound of flesh from Joss's hide that serves as the main barrier to "happy ever after" for both Linden and Joss and relentlessly drives the second half of Temptation.


Two events occur which alter Linden Howard from innocent and naive, a "simple, unsophisticated", sheltered girl of 17, running around the Yorkshire countryside in jeans, T-shirt, and bare feet to an avenging fury: her initial meeting with and subsequent seduction by Sir Joshua Wyatt and her unstinting, unquenchable, uncontrollable need for revenge, reminding me of Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) saying "She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven't you?"


The "alpha male" hero in Temptation, is Sir Joshua Wyatt, and is in some respects typical of a Charlotte Lamb hero. He's much older than the heroine (39 to Linden's 17 at the onset), wealthy, sophisticated, attractive, and like Rochester, not conventionally handsome:


"He was not a man whom one would ever forget—a face to stand out in a crowd, the strongly modelled features reflecting energy, power, and the will to win. There was a harshness in the structure of forehead and nose, force in the line of jaw and mouth. Her father would find him an interesting study, she told herself." (7)


En route to Malby, his childhood home, Joss White/Sir Joshua Wyatt takes a wrong turn, crashes his vintage car (HP version of Rochester and his dark steed) on one of "rough tracks" in Yorkshire at Goatswood Hill (so similar to Gateshead), and is rescued by Linden Howard. While his car is being repaired, and he heals from minor injuries, Joshua stays with Linden and her father in their cottage, Helots. Over the course of several days, Joss appallingly and apparently purposefully sets out to sexually awaken and seduce a girl half his age, slinks away the morning after, and leaves a devastated Linden with only her father to enlighten her about her married lover.


After Linden's discovery of Joss's perfidy, she is shattered. Overwhelmed with guilt, pain, and betrayal (and not a little hysteria), she has but one thought: an overpowering need to escape, "desiring nothing but extinction" via the highest point of the beck — to throw herself into the icy waters. Her father, Lin, instead falls trying to prevent her suicide, and is gravely injured.


Like Jane, Linden is otherworldly, and, if not exactly fairy-like, then pretty darn close. She "once lived in a sunny web of air" until Joss "had torn it to shreds." Like both Jane and Bertha, she's also an outsider, different from any woman Joss has ever encountered. Linden, before Joss, was a mix of innocence tinged with "a strong streak of common sense" as well as a weird pocket of maturity in her acceptance of some of the "oddities in mankind's make-up." Yes, she's naive, trusting, and convent-raised but also strangely philosophical, perceptive and worldly-wise. Linden very clearly understands her father, a famous reclusive artist, who merely tolerates and ignores her most of the time.


"Do you love him?" Joss asked her abruptly.

"Of course," she said, looking surprised. "He's my father."

"That's reason enough?" His mouth twisted and he looked suddenly harsh and unapproachable.

"Don't you think so? He's very good to me. He never shouts or hits me. He makes sure I have all I need."

Joss looked down at the table. "Does he love you?"

There was a silence. He looked up and caught a vulnerable look on her smooth-skinned face. The brown eyes held wistful regret, the pink mouth trembled slightly.

"I don't think so," she said quietly. "He can't forgive me." (22)


Linden's perception picks up on a dark side to Joss as well. She intuitively recognizes a "hard edge to his face, the abrasive assurance of a man accustomed to getting his own way" despite a compensating "humour and charm", but uncertain of their depth.


"He was like one of Lin's pieces of chiselled flint, the hidden veins of his personality going deep beneath the outer surface." (15)


Linden has an almost flower child vibe (with an emphasis on "child") from "her tumbled mop of honey-blonde hair" to her avowed vegetarianism as well as a zen-like ability to live in the moment. The quiet, tranquil, pastoral, if rather isolated, little cottage she and her father share in the Yorkshire village is commune-like without many modern conveniences— no telephone, no car, no television, the nearest neighbor a mile away. Linden definitely is a child of Mother Nature.


The rolling tide of summer grass had engulfed the small meadow in a sweet-smelling flood of lambs' tails, coltsfoot, feverfew, the drifting pollen from them pale yellow dust on Linden's bare arms as she lay full length among them. Half dreaming, half thinking, she listened to the high sweet song of a lark in the blue air above her head. If she opened her eyes she could see the tiny black shadow, suspended like a paper mobile from some invisible string, so high that it appeared to be en route from the sun, a tuneful Icarus solely engaged in expressing his joy in life. (5)


Linden went a little, well, mad in the aftermath of Joss's betrayal and deceit. An absentee father who ignored her since the death of her mother, most of her life split between living with nuns in a convent and a quiet Yorkshire village, a place that's a step back in time, leaves her unprepared and defenseless. Linden, "a woman in embryo", is totally inexperienced and without defenses in coping with a sophisticated much older man like Joss.


Almost two years pass until Linden and Joss meet again. Linden's heartbreak is her call to the wider world just as the Red Room in Jane Eyre is Jane's first step to toward her journey of independence. Those months are needed for Linden and her father to heal, to travel and to forge a closer relationship. But her hatred for Joss is all consuming, her constant companion, his destruction and death at her hands is the subject of all her fantasies.


"...she hated him so savagely she would have put a knife through his ribs if she had ever seen him. He had set out deliberately from the beginning to make her love him; she knew that now. She remembered the night they had talked of the moon, and he had said it was temptation to be the first to possess it. Now she knew he had been thinking of her, not the moon, and already that moonlit hell had been in his mind." (78)


Gentle, pacifist, wouldn't-harm-a-butterfly Linden Howard transforms into Tisiphone the Avenger at Joss's country estate, Wildmere. Linden at this point more than any other truly becomes "the mad woman in the attic", and Joss experiences the full measure of her wrath. It's as explosive, as destructive, as the conflagration set by Bertha at Thornhill in Jane Eyre. Wildmere, aptly named for the violent vortex of emotions surrounding Linden and Joss and their first meeting in eighteen months, is the place where Linden's hate for Joss blooms, where her dreams of revenge come to fruition. Linden becomes violent: "she wanted to scream, to break things." Joss is the "destroyer, the dark shadow", the thing that "stood between her and life. He blotted out the sun." She is "helpless in the grip of passion as great as overpowering desire", "hungry for revenge" and, even more satisfying, Joss provides the means for her retribution "every time he looked at her."


He held her life in his fingers, she thought with sickening realisation; he always had from the first day. Hatred was a mild word for how she felt about him. He moved in her bloodstream like a disease. (125)(my emphasis)


Joss proposes to her. She slaps him hard enough to leave her handprint on his face, and he doesn't retaliate in word or deed. He offers explanations for his actions and proposes to her again. Her reply is to taunt and torture him by telling him she and his son, Daniel, are lovers.


She needn't dream of killing him any more; he was killing himself. The drink, the guilt, the regret were eating him alive. He was like a poacher who sets a trap for rabbits and gets his foot caught in it and cannot escape. He was bleeding to death. She had seen the jealousy, the hunger, the need in his eyes when she told him Daniel was her lover. She was feverish with pleasure, sick with pain. (102)


She discovers Josh purchased her father's painting, a work completed after her suicide attempt and has it hanging above his bed.


"I had to have it," he said, and his eyes flickered to Lin's painting, his face sombre as he looked at the stormy Yorkshire sky, the grey and white of the river, the girl's slender, distraught, despairing figure.

"You can sleep with that hanging over your bed?"(...)

"I don't sleep," he said heavily, looking at it. "I drink." (111)


And. . .


"He looked at her, hell in his eyes. 'I love you,' he said.

She was silent for a moment.'I know,' she said." (...) He had loved her, it was true. And loving her, he had destroyed her for one night's satisfaction. His love was greed, hunger, self-willed desire. It was not a love she wanted or could recognize." (111)


She lets him kiss her, feels the way he trembles, but she refuses to respond and sticks the knife in a little deeper.


"I hate you,' she said softly. 'I despise you. If you were dying I wouldn't lift a finger to help or comfort you—I'd stand and smile." (111-112)


I really wanted to look away, put Temptation aside, never pick it up again, so many times, but I couldn't not complete the journey with Linden and Joss. Linden's father advises her that Joss taught her to love and to hate, but she also needs to learn to understand, to forgive. Linden's long journey is painful, fraught with "hatred, the desire for revenge, and bitterness." She descends into a temporary madness similar to Bertha Mason's in Jane Eyre with its awe-inspiring destructive force. Only when her understanding of both their journeys to this point — especially Joss's past, his marriage, his family life, his cynical societal attitudes all those months ago at Helots — when her forgiveness outweighs her hatred and reproach can she liberate them both.


He had fallen in love—for the first time in his life, he had told her, and now she believed it. (...) He had stayed, though, hanging on desperately, unable to go, but Linden could no longer hate him for that. He had been human, in need, having found something he wanted all his life, a love without strings, a love for him as Joss, not as Sir Joshua Wyatt." (179-180)