Review: Heartlessness and vain trifles

Heartless - Mary Balogh


I have a weakness for Georgian historical romances. Give me a book where the ladies are decked out in panniers underneath elegantly and over-the-top silks, satins, lace, and brocades, with their high white powdered wigs and the gentlemen don glittery wide-skirted coats, who are powdered and rouged to perfection, a beauty patch selected and strategically (not to mention meaningfully!) placed, who stroll languidly around a ballroom in high red-heeled shoes with blingy buckles, who display a well-formed masculine leg adorned in clocked stockings, and I'll purr like a kitty getting tummy rubs. If you were to add a fan to those gentlemen's ensembles, I'm pretty much insensible with pleasure. Case in point: Heartless by Mary Balogh. Consider me insensibly pleasured and please excuse my incoherent under-the-influence ramblings about this wonderful book. Fellow readers, I have come late to love for this book, but nonetheless I love it with all my, um... heart. The characters (and it pains me to refer to them as mere "characters" because they all feel like treasured friends) are so very well drawn including the flaws that make them feel not just genuine and real but interesting and sympathetic, a story with passion, humor, and angst, and a truly glorious wallow-in-the-sumptuous flavor of the Georgian era. I fell in love with all the characters in this lovely book but especially with Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon and Lady Anna Marlowe.


As I read Heartless, I kept returning to the thought that Lucas's clothing was not just simply window dressing for the very fashionable Duke of Harndon newly returned from ten years in France. I thought of the many things I look for that drive the romance narrative - how the main characters interact with other characters, their relationships, the emotional and physical tension between characters, and that sometimes elusive ingredient, the Goldilocks factor, or how much story is just the right amount of story. All of that is here in glorious technicolor. On the surface I just really delighted in Lucas's splendid plumage, but in Heartless I feel it is more. It is central, maybe even essential, to revealing his character as well as a driving force for the romance between Lucas and Anna. I thought of what Jennifer Crusie says in her essay Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real:


"Women are preoccupied with details like clothing and environment because most of us are mistresses of unspoken communication. Women can usually tell more about someone from looking at her or him than from listening because, as everybody as far back as Aristotle has known, character is not speech but action. And the way people present themselves and their environments is action. In particular, the details of the way people present themselves are heavy with meaning. Women (and observant men) know that God truly is in the details, and so is a lot of truth." (my emphasis)


Clothing projects a certain image, gives clues to class and life style, captures attention, emphasizes differences, can elicit a range of feelings, and it shows character and moves the narrative. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Permit me to introduce you to Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon in all his glory as seen through the eyes of his bemused Uncle Theo, Lord Quinn:


"I have spent time in Paris and know how men dress and behave there. Though even there, as I remember, you have a reputation for leading fashion rather than following it. 'Tis perhaps a good thing that you also have a reputation as a deadly shot and swordsman, or it might almost be thought..."


"Yes?" The clear gray eyes of his nephew narrowed slightly and the fan stilled in his hands. "What might almost be thought?"


But his uncle merely laughed and looked him over from head to toe with leisurely appreciation. His amused eyes took in the powdered hair neatly set into two rolls on either side of his head, the long hair caught behind into a black silk bag and tied in a large bow at the nape of his neck - it was his own hair, not a wig - the austerely handsome face with its dusting of powder and blush of rouge and one black patch; the dark blue silk coat with its full skirts and silver lining and lavish silver embroidery; the tight gray knee breeches and white silk stockings; the silver-buckled shoes with their red high heels. The Duke of Harndon was the very epitome of Parisian splendor. And then, of course, there was the dress sword at his side with its sapphire-jeweled hilt, a weapon with which his grace was said to be more than ordinarily adept. (5-6)


But wait, there's more:


"'Twas the fan that really slayed 'em."


Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon, was neither drinking nor sitting. He stood elegantly propped against the marble mantel. He raised the fan to which his uncle had just referred, a small ivory and gold affair, and opened it to waft it languidly in front of his face. "It serves to cool one's brow in a warm room," he said. "It has a purely practical function, my dear."


His uncle was in a mood to be amused. He laughed afresh. "Pox on it, Luke," he said, "'tis pure affectation as are the powder and rouge and patches."


His nephew raised his eyebrows. "You would have me appear half naked, Theo?" he asked. (5)


That drip-drip-drip sound? Pay no attention. That's just me melting into a puddle.

How, I asked myself, did that 20-year old rather naive, vulnerable, idealistic young man known simply as Lord Lucas Kendrick and whose aspirations were to perhaps one day become Reverend Lord Lucas Kendrick, to marry his childhood sweetheart and live happily ever after become the cynical "heartless" but utterly fashionable Duke of Harndon standing before his Uncle Theo?


There had been no one more unfashionable than he when he was a boy. He had been interested in nothing but books and his future career in the church and his family and home...and the woman he had planned to marry. (20)


How does a young man who had everything and everyone he held in high regard and close to his heart ripped away from him, when the bedrock of his very existence was cracked right down the middle, go on? How and why Lord Lucas Kendrick was replaced with Lucas 2.0 is presented masterfully, little by little, a detail here and there until the picture is complete. The Duke of Harndon, who returns to England ten years later to answer the call of duty with only a smattering of curiosity as to the fates of those he had loved, is a very different man from that vulnerable 20 year old. A man forced to excise his youthful vulnerability like a surgeon removing a cancerous growth.


He was not vulnerable now. He had spent ten years - well, nine anyway, if he remembered that for that first year he had whined and pleaded and then staggered into a life of wild, self-pitying debauchery - carefully cultivating an invulnerability. He had amassed a fortune entirely by his own efforts, first by gambling and then by careful investments. He had made himself into the complete Parisian gentleman so that he was not only accepted everywhere but even sought after in the very highest circles. He had learned how to attract the most beautiful and fashionable women and how to make love to them and how to get rid of them when he tired of them. He had acquired expert instruction on the art of swordplay and on the skill of pistol shooting and had made himself deadly with both weapons; he had learned how to be charming in manner but steely of heart. He had learned that love was not to be trusted, even when it was the love of one's own family - especially then. He had learned neither to expect nor to give love.(11)


He appears to care more for being the fashionable Parisian gentleman than a man who has not set eyes on his younger sister, brother and mother for ten years. Here's a man who's moved to emotion, a grimace, out of concern for his uncle's lack of respect for his hat yet appears to be callously uncaring of his responsibilities to his family and the people who have served his family for generations?


"Must you ram your hat on your head as if to glue it to your wig? Did you not know that hats are not meant to be worn on the head but to be carried decoratively beneath the arm?"


His uncle threw back his head and guffawed inelegantly. "Pox on your French ways," he said. "You are living in an English climate now, my lad, where a hat is not an ornament but a head warmer." (10)


Lucas's introduction in all his finery - the fan, the cosmetics, the beautifully tailored jackets and waistcoats, the lace falling over his hands, the powdered hair, and the red-heeled shoes, the ironic address of "my dear" - at first gives an appearance of an utterly superficial man, callous to all emotion but for those necessary to choose his ensemble or for those who lack polish and style. But these elements of his armor are his protection against feeling laid bare and found wanting and provide a safe distance between the heart of Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon, and those who could still hurt and devastate him.


Much is made of Lucas's heartlessness, and clearly his brother, Ashley, and his sister, Doris, come to believe it. When he coldly rebukes Ashley for mentioning the two duels Lucas fought in Paris in the presence of Doris and their mother, the Dowager Duchess, Ashley feels the sting of humiliation. He bungles the situation of the fortune hunter Frawley and his sister Doris. He humiliates Ashley for his expensive mistress, and shuffles both of them back to Bowden Abbey as if they were badly behaving children.


Lucas's actions seem cold and uncaring and callous but are, in fact, rooted more in an awkward clumsiness, arising from trying to maintain his cool detachment from his brother and sister rather than openly display any genuine emotion which would leave him vulnerable. If he were truly heartless, he could not have regretted his estrangement with Doris most of all nor would he miss the closeness and the hero worship Ashley used to display for Lucas as Lucas did with his older brother, George. What isn't visible is Lucas's remorse, hidden beneath the cutting words and apparently emotionless actions. Ashley can't see how Lucas "felt instantly sorry for the harsh rebuke", how he sympathizes with his younger brother, remembers how painful it was for him at the same age, "young and impulsive and rather gauche." Though Lucas proclaims to feel nothing for any of his family, he feels a small "pang of regret" when Doris does not rush into his arms on their first meeting, discovers an ache in his chest upon realizing that his young sister was not even sure Lucas was her brother at first because he had changed so drastically. The meeting with his mother, always "humorless and unaffectionate", makes him wonder if she ever hugged him. He claims he would not have welcomed "open arms and eager eyes and tears and fond words" from her, but clearly there was a hope for such a welcome.


"He felt nothing for any of them, he decided. They were strangers to him. Even Doris - it was hard to see in her now the child he had cared for. He was relieved.


And yet something in him ached." (21)


I loved the first glimpse Anna has of Lucas and he of her, and how their appearances spark their initial attraction to each other. When Anna and Lucas meet at the Diddering Ball, both are determined to dance the night away and just enjoy the evening. Masks are in place for both - she with sparkling smiles, her new finery, and a slightly flirtatious manner, and he with his raiment designed to dazzle the eye. And dazzle Anna he does.


And then her mind registered what her eyes had seen a few moments before. She looked back to the man standing alone in the doorway. She had thought herself surrounded by the epitome of splendor, but he was - was there a more powerful word than splendid? He was gorgeous. It seemed not quite the word to use for a man.


He was not very tall and he was quite slender. He was graceful - another word that seemed not quite suitable for a man. He wore a coat of crimson satin and waistcoat of gold, both so bedecked with embroidery and jewels that they shimmered. His shoes had jeweled buckles and high red heels, encrusted with more jewels. The hilt of his dress sword was embossed with rubies. His hair - she was sure it was his own even though it was heavily powdered - was dressed neatly in side rolls and bagged in black silk behind. Even across the distance she could see in some shock that he wore cosmetics - powder and rouge - unlike most of the men in the ballroom.


But the feature that had caught her attention more than any other and had caused her to look back at him was the small ivory fan that he was waving before his face.


She went further. Some instinct-some long-suppressed, quite unsuspected instinct of femininity - made her deliberately raise her fan to her nose so that she could laugh at him with her eyes over the top of it. He did not smile back. But he raised his eyebrows and made her a slight bow with his head and held her eyes until a woman as startlingly gorgeous as he took his attention by laying a hand on his sleeve. (33)


As for Lucas, he sees his Uncle Theo with his friend Lady Sterne and one of the two young ladies she is sponsoring for the Season. The younger lady he "undressed with practiced eye and felt he was committing some obscenity" is dismissed as a mere child, but then the group is joined by another couple.


The gentleman bowed and strolled away, leaving behind his partner. Doubtless she was the other of Royce's daughters. Luke looked at her critically. Although he could see her only in profile, she was clearly the elder sister. She was fashionably dressed in a shade of green that made her look fresh and inviting. She was fanning her face and talking to Lady Sterne. He drew his own fan from a pocket, opened it, and plied it absently.


She turned, having finished what she had to say. Her face was smiling and animated. Ah, yes, definitely rustic. A few months in Paris - or even perhaps in London - would soon wipe that expression from her face and replace it with a look of languid ennui. She was gazing all about her with an eagerness that was almost palpable. Her foot was tapping even though there was no music playing. It set her skirt to swaying invitingly.


Her eyes passed over him and smiled impersonally. And then a few moments later they returned and held on him. Had her expression not been so bright and so open, he would have sworn that she was doing the same to him as he had just done to her younger sister. She seemed to realize suddenly that he was looking directly back at her. She smiled dazzlingly, raised her fan to cover her mouth, and continued to smile with her eyes over the top of it.


He raised his eyebrows and inclined his head a little. By God. She was a flirt. (29-30)


The beginning of their lovely courtship is carried out at first from a distance, across a ballroom floor, both physically on opposite ends of the ballroom but with their eyes searching out and finding the other repeatedly. It's a courtship that deepens as they dance and share supper. He is attracted to Anna's vivacity and smiles; she is drawn to his splendid appearance, his courtly manner, and the lure of being able to enjoy a taste of freedom and joy even if only for a period of time. Luke admires her "sparkle" and the mutual sizzle of awareness between them.


A flirt she might be; a coquette she was not. (35)


The woman's open appraisal of him and her very obvious delight in her surroundings made him feel slightly dizzy. Slightly dazzled. (35)


They're both a bit dazzled by the other, but Anna realizes very quickly that there's much more to this man than what's on the surface.


He had lived in Paris. He was a duke. And she had been right about his eyes. Everything about him was graceful - a sort of languid grace. Everything except his eyes. They were dark gray and they were very keen despite the fact that he frequently drooped his eyelids over them. She suspected that his eyes did not miss much. (38)


Lucas has his own language of the fan. The languid movement of Luke's fan flirts, entices and seduces, its stillness may indicate displeasure or a challenge. The fan may be affectation or practical or both, but it is as much a barometer of his emotional temperament as a questioning lift of his eyebrows, a tersely worded command, a quietly chilling tone of voice, or huskily voiced whisper. At the Diddering Ball, Lucas deploys his fan to full effect, charming Anna.


Anna was feeling flushed and hot after the vigorous country dance and it must have shown. After filling her plate and his own and seating himself beside her at one of the long tables in the supper room, the Duke of Harndon drew out his fan, opened it, and cooled her face with it. She laughed at him.(42)


Honestly, I needed a little fanning myself. Is it hot in here or is it just me? A few days later, he escorts Anna and their party to the opera where he wields that ivory fan to stake a claim, to declare his interest in and attraction to Anna more succinctly and satisfyingly than any flowery declaration or passionate kiss or luscious caress.


He was leaning back in his chair watching her, not the stage. She looked into his face a little uncertainly. He was holding his fan, closed, in his lap. He lifted it and ran the tip of it lightly along her hand, which was resting on the velvet edge of the box, from her wrist to the end of her middle finger. He did not take his eyes from hers. He did not smile.


It felt as if some deep intimacy had passed between them. If she had to get to her feet at this moment, Anna thought as she turned her eyes but not her attention back to the stage, she would not be able to do it. (63)


(Drip-drip-drip. Clean up on aisle 2!) Lucas wants Anna, and, in fact, is already a little bit in love with her. All of this is conveyed with a glance and a fan's caress.


One of the most angst-ridden, difficult, heartbreaking scenes takes place in the breakfast room and library on the morning after Lucas and Anna marry. It's a conversation of truth and lies, of endings and beginnings. Anna, not a virgin on their wedding night, believes Lucas had not noticed. She feels beautiful and beloved by her husband and relieved that her lack of virginity had not mattered after all. She dresses and goes down to the breakfast room.


Luke joined her there a few minutes later, looking immaculate and gorgeous in dark red silk morning gown worn over his shirt and knee breeches. His hair was carefully rolled at the sides and bagged at the back and powdered. The dress was informal, she thought, but the effect was not. He bowed over her hand and raised it to his lips before seating himself and indicating to the butler with raising of just one forefinger that he would take coffee.(107) (my emphasis)


He's pleasant, solicitous, amuses her with an anecdote of a maid walking five dogs on leashes during his early morning ride in Hyde Park while she eats breakfast. I couldn't help thinking of the condemned man being given a last meal before meeting the executioner's blade. The "dark red silk" of his morning gown was like a beacon warning of the danger ahead and the figurative blood about to be shed.


Then he politely offers her his arm and and escorts her to his library. When she asks if that is his "special sanctuary", he replies "'Tis the room from which I do business." Right here? I was begging Anna out loud not to go in the library with blinders on. She's like a lamb being led to slaughter, daydreaming of Lucas discussing domestic matters, writing letters, spending the day with her, engaging in conversation to bind them closer. It's not until he seats her in a chair and takes the more imposing one behind his desk and looks at her that the true purpose behind her invitation to the library becomes clear.


"I believe, madam," he said, his voice almost frighteningly quiet, "that you have some explaining to do."


"It seems to be a generally acknowledged truth," he said, "that a man has a right to a virgin bride. It may seem a little unfair since a woman does not have the same rights as a bridegroom. But such is the nature of our world and our society. You did not come to me untouched, madam." (108-109)


The entirety of their conversation in the library is one of the most difficult, painful several pages I've ever read. I will not share more of it here because the impact, the sheer emotion crammed into every sentence into that scene needs to be experienced firsthand. All I will say is this: If you have tears, prepare to shed them now. Utterly gut-wrenching.


Lucas realizes that he is just now seeing the real Anna, that "the smiles, the sparkle, the flirtatious ways had all been an act", that she had "worn a mask during the week of their acquaintance." Anna recognizes the folly of having totally misjudged Lucas.


She had seen steel in his eyes and had heard it in his voice. She had been frightened of him, terrified of him, of this man she had thought quite unthreatening just a few days ago. (111)


Duty by day, pleasure by night. A truth and yet a lie. A terrible time is had by all culminating in Lucas's request/demand that Anna be happy again, to smile again, to reassure him that her smiles were not all fakery. She agrees but begs a respite.


"But not now. Later, your grace, but not now. I would be alone if I may." (115)


The courtship begins with magic and spark and sizzle, eyes flirting over fans across a ballroom, but the work of their real relationship begins during this most heart-wrenching discussion. It's here that Lucas and Anna start to peel away the layers of their respective masks and begin to know each other for the person beneath the mask, and it starts with a red morning gown.


Over the months at Bowden Abbey during Anna's pregnancy, Lucas and Anna settle into a routine until an estrangement between Lucas and Anna late in her pregnancy caused by mysterious letters Anna receives and her refusal to tell Lucas what they are about or from whom they were written. It's the straw that breaks the back for both of them and adds to the tension already in place caused by Henrietta's (George's widow and Lucas's childhood sweetheart) manipulations. (Side note: Henrietta is a real piece of work. Her compliments to Anna are wrapped in insults and faux innocent innuendo, her "friendship" with Anna is a device used to undermine and undercut Anna at every opportunity.) Lucas and Anna for the first time sleep apart, and Lucas admits to loneliness.


He opened his eyes and looked at his bed. Not so long ago he had guarded the privacy of his sleep, seeing to it that he never slept with the woman to whom he made love. Now he wondered if he was going to be able to sleep alone in that bed. For how long? Six months, he had said, four if this child were a girl. Plus the three months that remained of her pregnancy. Nine months, then. Perhaps seven.


Nine months of loneliness.


He hear the last word, verbalized in his mind, and he felt chilled. Loneliness? Was he becoming attached to her, dependent upon her, then? Was it really loneliness he was facing and not just sexual deprivation?

It was loneliness. (241-242)


Attached? Yes. Dependent upon Anna? Oh yes! That is a crack in the ice encasing Lucas's heart, but the moment when his walls come tumbling down completely is the birth of his daughter, Joy. There is no disappointment in Lucas at all upon learning he has a daughter, not a son. Lucas falls in love with his daughter from the first moment he sees and holds her. He celebrates her birth in many lovely ways, not the least of which is reassurance to Anna of how much he loves Joy. Lucas orders the Abbey church bells to be rung for half an hour to let all the villagers know the Duke of Harndon has been blessed with a healthy child (an action the Dowager Duchess objects to, pointing out out that bells should have been reserved for a male heir only, much to her detriment). He gives the servants three bottles of wine to toast his good fortune. He shocks his family by dressing in his most splendid crimson ensemble for the family dinner, the one he wore to the Diddering Ball where he met Anna. Of all his actions to celebrate the birth of his daughter, his "coat of crimson satin and waistcoat of gold", "bedecked with embroidery and jewels" is the one that most puzzles his family but delights Anna. This is a celebration for Lucas, a special occasion, a return of love in his life. For Lucas, the best way to celebrate is by putting on his exuberant, rather elegant glad rags.


Lucas is smitten with Joy, and the change in him is really wonderful. He's much more relaxed, comfortable, simply happy. His relationships with his sister and brother become warmer, and he and Anna become closer. On a walk to the falls with Anna and Joy, Lucas is more open with Anna that he ever has been. He talks about Doris going back to London with his mother for a season, Ashley working as his steward until he sails for the East India Company, and even reminisces about when he, George and Ashley were children. He gathers a bouquet of daffodils for Anna, bows formally to her to present them though he is in an "informal frock coat and breeches and his hair was unpowdered." (259) Here is a glimpse of Lucas letting down his guard with the two people he trusts and loves the most.


Lucas's ensemble for the ball at Bowden Abbey to celebrate Anna's sister's wedding to his friend, Will, is of a man much changed since the beginning. Instead of a disguise to hide behind, he is a man restored to himself and his clothing is his way to celebrate all that he has regained, to rejoice in laying to rest the self-doubt and guilt and recriminations. It is Lucas Kendrick, Duke of Harndon, still leading in fashion, but happy and joyful and playful.


Luke dressed for the ball in burgundy and gold, new clothes he had had made in Paris and sent from there. Although he had made concessions to English country fashions for daytime wear, he still did not trust English tailors and was frequently pained by their creations as worn by men of his acquaintance. His eyes strayed to an upper shelf when he had finished dressing and he pursed his lips. Should he? But his neighbors would be scandalized by the sight of patches and cosmetics on his face. And since when had he cared what his neighbors thought? His Parisian days seemed long in the past. However, as he turned to Anna's dressing room to lead her downstairs, he paused with his hand on the knob and smiled. Ah, yes. If his guests were shocked into a collective apoplexy, then that was their problem. At least Theo would be amused. And Anna too.


He turned back to search for his ivory fan - he had already dismissed his valet. He slipped it into his pocket.


Anna was dressed in a deep pink open mantua over wide hoops, with silver embroidered robings and stomacher. There was lace at her cuffs and edging her cap. Her hair was carefully curled and powdered. She smiled dazzlingly at him as she rose from her dressing stool and dismissed her maid.


"Madam." He took her hand in both of his and bowed over it. "Your beauty quite robs me of breath."


"And you, your grace," she said, her eyes sparkling at him, "have been shopping in Paris again. 'Tis not fair to the other gentlemen who will be at the ball. They will be dressed according to the fashions of the English countryside."


"But then, madam," he said, "I have never followed any fashions at all. I have my tailor's word for it that the design of this coat and waistcoat are three months in advance of what even Parisians are wearing."


"You have forgotten your fan, alas." She smiled.


"Not so, madam." He drew it out of his pocket and touched the end of it lightly to the tip of her nose. "Shall we join our guests?" He made her a courtly bow and offered his arm.


He wondered if she would flirt with him this evening as she had used to do in London and hoped that she would. And he wondered if they would take flirtation to its natural conclusion at the end of the evening. (263-264)


Anna danced all evening with a variety of partners. So did her husband. And neither neglected to converse with their partners or to circulate among their guests between sets. And yet they contrived to look at each other almost constantly, Anna with bright smiles, Luke with deceptively lazy eyes.


And she shamelessly used her fan, fluttering it when she caught his gaze across the room, raising it to her nose when she had his full attention. And he used his, waving it indolently before his face as his eyes did shameful things to her body. (265)


Lucas and Anna have come almost full circle. Clothes in Heartless are not merely "vain trifles", nor are they just "superfluous details for the reader." Neither are they simply, as Uncle Theo would claim, a barrier against nasty weather. Here, they are as much a part of the action as, well, a duel to the death with a villain to save the ones you love most. They also call attention to the barriers keeping Lucas and Anna apart as well as track the progress, or lack, of the romance between Lucas and Anna. They are clues to his character as well as a powerful thread moving the narrative of Heartless to its wonderful conclusion. The beautiful coats, the red heeled shoes, the powder, the patches, his courtly manner, help bring Lucas to life in a really unforgettable way. Unforgettable to the point that I've caught myself wondering about him and Anna in ways that could get me in serious trouble. But it doesn't stop me from wondering what Lucas would be like in, say, 1800, an old man of 80 or so.


Would he still be hanging on to his high heeled shoes and long wide-skirted jackets? Nah. I believe he would still be setting fashions no matter his age in his way and on his terms because his clothing is an outward expression of the man inside. Wasn't it Virginia Woolfe who said that clothes change the way we view the world and the way the world views us? I think there's truth in that statement. Everyday we make those same choices: the right shoes or right jacket or dress or scarf or hat or whatever. They lift our spirits, boost our confidence, make us smile, convey an image, say something about who we are. If they can empower a person to go out and conquer their little piece of this earth, who's to say that a Georgian gentleman's gorgeous plumage is no more than window dressing?