I am such a fan of Anne Gracie's books. I found this author after I read her Merridew Sisters series where I fell in love with the way she wrote characters of surprising depth and layers mixed elegantly with perfectly placed dashes of wit and humor, and packed such surprising emotion into every word. Of course after reading that series, I went on a Gracie glom, reading Tallie's Knight and Gallant Waif, two of the best "traditional" regencies I have ever read. So I've come to expect a certain standard when I open a book written by her and always look forward to a good story free of those pesky stereotypical characters and with the Gracie fresh take on a familiar plot. A Winter Bride does not disappoint in any way.
Damaris Chance (Tait) is a fine heroine, one of my favorites - quiet, determined, and resourceful. She lived most of her life in China under her rather stern, pious and cold father's judgmental eye. Despite, or perhaps because of, her severe and harsh upbringing, she is kind and considerate of others and yet has a core of steel. When her missionary father is murdered, Damaris escapes, walking for untold miles, to get to the coast, searching for refuge on an English ship to take her back to her mother's homeland, England. While her reasons for not marrying aren't unique or surprising, they were still valid, adding a dash of angst to her backstory but not serving as an overpowering drawn-out reason for conflict in the romance between her and Freddy Monkton-Coombes.
When Damaris encounters Freddy early one morning (he's just ending his day as she begins hers), he really begins to understand and appreciate that marriage is not Damaris's number one priority. Above all, Damaris wants safety and security but is smart enough to know marriage will not guarantee her either. Damaris's idea of independence is tethered to the dream of a cottage, "with chickens and a vegetable garden, somewhere quiet and peaceful. And safe. Above all, safe." The only way to realize her dream since marriage is out of the question and outside of sponging off Aunt Beatrice and Max is to earn money with a job as she explains to Freddy:
“What kind of job?”
“I paint china.”
“China?” It was the last thing he would have thought of.
“What sort of china?”
She rolled her eyes at him. “What sort do you think? Cups, saucers, plates, bowls, jugs.” She bared her teeth at him in a falsely sweet smile and added, “Chamber pots.” (Loc. 680)
She said abruptly, “Have you ever had nothing, Mr. Monkton-Coombes?”
He frowned. “In what sense?”
“In any sense. Have you ever had nothing, owned nothing, not so much as a penny to your name?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, I have—several times in my life—so don’t talk to me about ‘need.’ You look at me and see a girl who’s well fed, well dressed, comfortably housed and elegantly shod.” He couldn’t help but glance at the boots she was wearing. They were damn ugly and far too heavy for her.
“Not these. I can’t very well tread the filthy backstreets of London in dainty slippers, can I? Especially not with the weather we’ve been having,” she said impatiently. “I mean in general, I appear to have everything I could ever want.”
He nodded. “And you know from whom all this abundance comes, don’t you?”
“Lady Beatrice and Max.”
“Exactly—and don’t misunderstand, I love Lady Beatrice dearly and am deeply grateful for her generosity and that of her nephew—but what if, for some reason, Lady Beatrice or Lord Davenham turned against me? Where would I be then?” (Loc. 961)
“It’s happened to me twice in my life—twice! And I won’t let it happen again. I have to have money of my own, that I’ve earned myself and owe to no one. I don’t expect you to understand—people like you grow up with an assumption that you’ll always have everything you need—not everything you want, but what you need to live—” (Loc. 976)
Freddy, at first glance, seems to be a bit of fashionable fluff more concerned with waistcoats and cravats and avoiding "Pursuit by Muffins." For the first third or so of the book, I thought of him as Freddy the Fribble, Freddy the Feckless, Freddy the Flippant, Freddy the Flirtatious Fool and so on. He seemed to be nothing more than the standard fake rake seen in so many historicals I've read. Like Damaris, he has absolutely no desire to marry and has used his "rakish" reputation as an effective deterrent to all the marriage-minded "muffins" and their mamas. Well, it was "effective" until Freddy's mother arranges a house party that coincides with his annual visit to Breckenridge, invites every "muffin" in London, and as good as takes out a notice in the paper that Freddy will choose one from the baker's dozen or so muffins to ensure there are little Monkton-Coombes to carry on the family name. It doesn't take long for the "muffins" to draw a bead on the elusive Freddy so that no matter where he goes he's besieged by lisping ladies and enough fluttering eyelashes to generate their own wind tunnel. There's "Fluffy and the Whip," the Armthwaite sisters, as well as Hermione Fullerton-Smith, "of the Lincolnshire Fullerton-Smiths and a muffin of the highest order" just to name a few. And, this sets up the fake betrothal between Freddy and Damaris.
So far The Winter Bride sounds like any of a number historicals, but Anne Gracie takes these tried and true elements - a young lady with an awful tragic secret, a young "rake" about town and a fake betrothal - and fashions a really outstanding book with layered complex characters and a wonderful romance between these two. Freddy surprised me more than any character in the book. First, although he has a "rakish" reputation, I'm not sure I ever really bought that. He has a mistress during the first two or three chapters, but he just impressed me as a more honorable man than someone who willy-nilly debauched widows, married ladies or pursued single ladies interested only in dalliances. Second, Freddy is definitely not a butt-kicking, tough-talking "alpha" seducer hero. He struck me as being more gentle, more introspective, definitely less aggressive, and more comfortable working inconspicuously in the background to achieve his goals as opposed to just rolling over anyone and anything. For example, when he discovers Damaris walking alone in the early morning hours to get to the pottery, not once does he act high-handed, throw her over his shoulder to take her back to Aunt Beatrice, or forbid her to ever do that under threat of bodily restraint. Instead, he quietly (Okay, he grumbles a little but still) rises early each morning to offer her safe escort. Third, he seemed a bit frivolous and without real substance at first. But discovering bit by bit the truly callous cold way his parents treated him after the death of his brother (and still treat him) added a depth I didn't expect. Freddy morphs into Freddy the Fervent, Freddy the Forthright, Freddy the Faithful, and Freddy the Fearless about halfway through The Winter Bride.
Both Damaris and Freddy have been rejected by those who should have been a refuge - Damaris's father's condemnation of her "bad blood", the way Freddy's parents see him as a nonentity other than insurance of keeping the family name and title going forward. When Damaris sees first hand how they offer no warmth or love or kindness, only criticism, she is appalled and curious why Freddy allows it.
Afterward, when they were alone, she tackled Freddy about his silence.
“Why do you let him speak of you like that? You’re not a spendthrift. You’re not a fool—far from it—and I don’t care what your father says, you do understand investments. You might act the frivolous rattle in society but I know from Mr. Flynn that you have responsibilities in the firm that you carry out reliably and well. And he said once he has great respect for your business acumen, so why—”
“Good heavens, don’t spread that around, I beg you! It will quite ruin the reputation I’ve spent years building.”
He said it lightly, as if it were all a joke, but there was enough truth in it for her to ask, “Why not? And don’t hand me any flummery about your society reputation—I’m talking about your parents and what they think of you. They show you no respect, and worse than that—”
“They have their reasons.” He looked away, his expression momentarily bleak. (Loc. 2915)
Damaris realizes that she and Freddy have a lot more in common than she initially believed seeing "parallels here" "even though their lives had followed very different paths." This, beyond anything, levels the playing field between them, making them partners with a more equitable balance of power as far as their relationship than anything else.
"Yes, but the way they spoke to you—”
“Was not nearly as rude as how they spoke to you.”
He shrugged. “I’m used to it.”
“So am I. My father was constantly critical. I doubt he ever had a kind thought or word for me—or anyone—in his life.” She squeezed his hand. “Family can hurt you much more than outsiders can.” (Loc. 2589)
I absolutely loved the exchanges between Damaris and Freddy and his parents even though the humor makes his parents the butt of the jokes. They really kind of deserve to be made look foolish for their cruelty and heartless rejection of Freddy over the years. For example, both Freddy and Damaris team up to spike his father's guns as far as any future male Monkton-Coombes . Freddy's father seems to believe that just laying down the law that the Monkton-Coombes "breed sons in this family, missy, d’you hear me?” will ensure Damaris gives birth to only grandsons.
“Damaris has three sisters,” Freddy put in helpfully.
Lord Breckenridge frowned. “What, no boys?”
“None at all,” she admitted cheerfully.
“I like girls,” Freddy said. (Loc. 2608)
His father is close to apoplexy when he finds out Damaris doesn't hunt, and Freddy manages to score a point or two in this exchange.
“Not hunt foxes?” His eyes almost popped with the heresy. “Why on earth not? They’re vermin! And it’s excellent sport.”
“All God’s creatures have their place.”
“A fox’s place is to be hunted, dammit, gel!”
“Not by me.” She nibbled on a macaroon, then added provocatively, “Besides, foxes are sweet.”
“Sweet?” he echoed in disgust. “Foxes are sweet?” He turned to glare at Freddy. “And this is the bride you choose to bring home to Breckenridge?”
“It is,” Freddy agreed. “Delightful, isn’t she?”
“Harrumph!” His father hunched over his wine and after a moment muttered, “Almeria Armthwaite is English and a bruisin’ rider to hounds. You could have had her.”
Freddy smiled. “Anyone can, I believe, as long as he enjoys the whip.” (Loc. 2629)
Freddy's mother sets out to crush Damaris, quizzing her on her lack of ladylike accomplishments, making it clear that she's not an acceptable bride for the heir to Breckenridge. Except Mama Breckenridge has the tables turned on her rather deftly by Damaris when she freely and imperviously admits that she has no musical skills to speak of, is just learning to dance, and though her talent at embroidery is deplorable, she can sew a neat hem.
“Hems,” Lady Breckenridge declared, “are for maids to sew.”
“It’s a skill I’ve found very useful over the years,” Damaris said cheerfully.
Lady Breckenridge sniffed. “Do you have any ladylike accomplishments at all, Miss Chance?”
Damaris smiled. “I’m not sure how ladylike it is, but I do like to draw and paint.”
She was rewarded with a thin smile. “Indeed. Watercolors are quite an acceptable medium.”
“I paint china,” Damaris said brightly and inaccurately. “Cups, bowls, chamber pots, that sort of thing.” She’d been trained to paint with watercolors. The china painting was a new skill. But she wasn’t aiming to please. (Loc.2685)
Damaris routs Lady Breckenridge effectively, reducing Lady B to a state of the megrims, and banishing her "upstairs in a sulk" as she fails to get the best of Damaris. I suppose the coup de grace was Damaris's unladylike interest in herbs, orchards, and bees.
Most of these exchanges are quite funny especially the humor regarding swimming Chinese experimental pigs and orchards on islands because it revolves around Freddy's parents' mistaken belief that Damaris was raised in Venice. Lots of canals there, you know. Like this one as Lord Breckenridge and Damaris tour the estate:
They came to a muddy field dotted with pigs.
Before he could say “pigs” to her, she said, “I used to breed pigs.” It was only a slight exaggeration; a farmer had given them a piglet once, and Damaris had raised it. She’d wept when it had to be killed but she’d still eaten the meat. Meat was always very scarce at the mission and it was sinful to waste food simply because you’d known it as a friend. Pigs were affectionate and intelligent creatures.
He turned his head to stare at her. “You bred pigs? Good God!” Then, after a pause, he asked, “What kind of pigs?”
“A Chinese breed. They were experimental,” she hastily added.
He grunted and gave her another hard-to-read look. “Experimental Chinese pigs, eh? And do they swim, these Chinese pigs?”
She gave him a blank look. “Swim?”
“Yes, well, they’d need to, because of the canals, wouldn’t they?”
She managed to keep a straight face. ”Er, no, we kept them on an island, where we had the orchards.”
“Extraordinary,” he murmured to himself. “Experimental Chinese swimming pigs." (Loc. 2802)
But the last battle between Damaris and Freddy's parents is far more serious and serves some much needed truth and honesty for not only his parents but for Freddy himself.
“You are clinging to the past in the most morbid fashion. It’s unhealthy. It’s also childish.” Oh, God, she’d never been as rude to anyone in her life.
“Childish?” Lord Breckenridge sputtered, outraged.
“Yes, childish,” Damaris said coolly. Because it had to be said, and if nobody else would say it . . .
“All three of you—Freddy included—are acting as if . . . as if, if you held your breath long enough and wished hard enough, you could open your eyes and George would be alive again and you could all go on as before.”
“You can’t live like that,” she hurried on, frightened she’d lose the courage to speak her piece. “People die. People you love and depend on and need, die.” Her voice cracked. “And those left behind must grieve—and then move on. From all I’ve heard, George was a wonderful, much beloved son, clever and talented and noble and affectionate.”
"And in your grief, your sixteen years of grief, you’ve forgotten—both of you—that you have another son who did not die. And he’s also wonderful, just as wonderful as George—”
“Pfft!” Lord Breckenridge made a puff of disbelief.
“—but in a different way. He’s clever and talented and loyal and responsible and kind, but you’re blind to it—willfully blind. He’s even blind to it himself. He doesn’t believe he deserves to be loved.” (Loc. 3654)
Oh my. This needed to be said, and Freddy needed to hear it. His parents had him painted out of each and every painting on the estate after George died. There's one scene in which Freddy is showing her the portrait gallery and Damaris asks if there's a portrait of both him and George, and the answer is poignant and heart wrenching.
“A painting of both of us? Yes, of course.” He led her to a large, gold-framed painting of a young woman she had no difficulty recognizing as Freddy’s mother, seated with her arm around a standing boy, the same boy of the pink velvet suit. Behind her Lord Breckenridge stood with his hand resting on the boy’s shoulder. On the other side of Lady Breckenridge was a large urn, overflowing with vines and flowers.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“There.” He pointed to the urn.
Damaris examined the painting more closely, wondering if perhaps he’d been portrayed hiding behind the urn—she could imagine him as a lively and mischievous boy playing hide-and-seek. But there was no sign of any small face peering out between the leaves. She turned to him. “I don’t understand.”
“After George died, my parents had the artist paint me out of the picture. They put the urn in my place. You can just see the toe of my shoe, there.” He pointed and sure enough there at the base of the urn was a small shoe.(Loc. 3098)
And that's why Damaris final words for them are well justified and deserved. There's been too much needless cruelty and willful neglect and misplaced blame.
“But you have no idea of your son’s talents, or what he’s been doing in the last sixteen years, do you? Because you don’t care to know. You’re mired in the past, stuck, like flies in amber—”
“Flies?” Lady Breckenridge echoed angrily. “Flies?”
“Yes, like flies in amber, whining like little children about the unfairness of life.”
“I do not whine!” Lord Breckenridge snapped.
She ignored him. “Life is unfair. Death is unfair. But while you’re brooding on the unfairness of it all, think on this—sixteen years ago, when George fell through the ice and died, you only lost a son—”
“Only? How dare you say such a thing?” Lady Breckenridge glared daggers.
“We know what we lost,” her husband stated.
Damaris smacked the table again. The sound echoed. “Think, for once in your selfish lives, about Freddy. He lost his beloved older brother, the person he loved most in all the world, his best friend and boyhood hero. But he didn’t just lose George—he lost his whole family.” There was a short silence. Damaris let that sink in a moment.
“What do you mean?” his mother asked stiffly. “We’re here.”
Damaris couldn’t believe it. Had they never reflected on what they’d done? “You two treated him like an assassin, when he was just a little boy who liked to play cricket with his brother. Twelve years old, and you pushed him out of the family—”
“Rubbish!” Lord Breckenridge growled. “We did nothing of the sort.”
She turned on him. “You sent him away to school immediately after the funeral and didn’t even allow him to come home for Christmas, not two weeks later. A grief-stricken, innocent little boy of twelve. It was heartless and wicked and cruel.
“And then you had him painted out of the family portrait.” She shook her head. “The entire time I’ve been here all you’ve done is make cutting remarks about him to me—and I’m his betrothed. I’ve heard nothing but criticism, disparagement and negativity. I cannot credit it. You are his mother and you, his father. He is your son—your only son.” Her eyes prickled with angry, frustrated tears. “What kind of parents are you? You lost one son, but you threw the other away.”(Loc. 3700)
This is when Freddy's eyes are opened, when he realizes that his chameleon act needs to stop, when he discovers that letting them blame him for something that wasn't his fault has to stop, and as he begins to push back against his parents Freddy comes into his own.
“I’ve just had an epiphany,” Freddy told him.
“Epiphany? What nonsense!”
“For years I told myself if I could ignore your insults and your indifference, and pretend I didn’t care, it wouldn’t affect me. But it’s wrong, that old rhyme. Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names, repeated often enough from a young age, can indeed hurt me.”
There was a short silence.
“Deep down I was still hoping it might one day happen.”
“What? Speak up, boy. What might happen?”
“That you’d see me. Accept me. Forgive me.” God, he sounded pathetic. But he had to say it. “But Damaris just shattered that illusion. You’re never going to change. And there was nothing to forgive.”
He stood. “I’m not a boy, Father, I’m a man, and I will no longer tolerate any rudeness to me or any member of my family.” (Loc. 3741)
He also realizes his "fake" betrothal absolutely needs to become a real one. The care he takes with Damaris to achieve this was just wonderful. I fell in love a little with Freddy when he taught Damaris to drive his curricle to take her mind off motion sickness, but his consideration of her, his determination to win her, and his acceptance of her "secret" just sealed it for me. I'm not sure his sympathetic acceptance of Damaris's secret is appropriate to the time period, but that didn't make it any less heart-warming and his reaction read as completely in character for Freddy.
There is, as you can tell with the "muffin" references and the "experimental Chinese pigs", lots of the Anne Gracie humor sprinkled liberally throughout The Winter Bride. I really loved Mrs. Jenkins at the pottery and her oft repeated and detailed predictions of Damaris being "on the Road to Roon" because of her association with Freddy. When Freddy names the cottage he gifts to Damaris as a wedding present, "Roon", I couldn't help but laugh and agree that Freddy had indeed lead her "down the road to Roon."