When I saw this book at a yard sale a few years ago, the captivating picture of a sword-wielding lady on the cover, coupled with the knowledge that the book is a romance by an evangelical Christian author, convinced me that this read would be right up my wife’s alley. I wasn’t wrong; she was initially skeptical of the historical setting (being more into modern settings), but once she got into it, she “couldn’t put it down.” She in turn recommended it to me; and obviously my reaction was positive as well!
The chronological setting here is 1814; the geographical setting moves from Oxford, England to the high seas, and finally to China. So we begin in the milieu of a Jane Austen novel, move in effect to the world of Hornblower (the sailing ship carrying our characters to China isn’t a naval vessel, but the Napoleonic Wars are going on and it’s fair game for French privateers), and winds up in a cultural setting from which the later one in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth hasn’t greatly changed. Broadly speaking, this is a “Regency romance;” but Isabella isn’t typical of heroines in that type of literature. Raised by her uncle, a rather unworldly Oxford dean, she’s a “bluestocking,” just as learned as most Oxford students of that day, and inclined toward blunt directness in speech, in a society that valued neither trait in women. More scandalously, she was humored in a desire to be taught fencing from a very young age, and is quite good at it. So Orcutt departs here somewhat from formula –though she follows it in another respect; it’s probably no spoiler to say that when a man and woman in a romance novel begin their acquaintance with a mutual antipathy, you can usually guess that they’re made for each other.
This book isn’t without its flaws, which cost it a fifth star. Some of Orcutt’s plot devices are strained: why Phineas employs some of the subterfuge he does, and what role he expected Julia Whipple to play in his plan –perhaps none; but in that case, confiding it to her would be spectacularly stupid!– isn’t explained effectively (or at all). The logic of Isabella’s opposition to his plan, once she knows about it, escapes me; it seems to be groundless, and out of character. And the verbal sparring between the two when they met had a forced quality, IMO, disproportionate to the situation.
While comparisons to Austen and Forester are natural because of the settings, the author’s prose skills and ability to evoke a milieu in depth aren’t equal to theirs. She uses first-person narration to provide a pretext for a style that’s somewhat similar to early 19th-century diction, but not so elegant as Austen’s –for instance, she uses contractions, though rarely, which Austen doesn’t at all, and constructions like “Did I not?” or “Can you not?” where Austen would have said “Did not I?” or “Can not you?” Also, while she explains nautical terms better than Forester does, she tries to give her writing a period flavor by using undefined archaic terms like “modiste” or “verrucas” –which Austen did not, with the unlikely result that the modern writer is much more apt to send you hunting for a dictionary than the 19th-century one. (I still don’t know what “verrucas” are, and from the context I’m not sure I want to!) In fact, one result of reading the book was to remind me (again) how much I want to read the rest of Austen’s novels and the rest of the Young Hornblower omnibus, sooner rather than later!
However, there are considerable offsetting strengths here. The major characters are round, and developed well enough to capture the reader’s interest and goodwill. Isabella herself is a likable protagonist. She’s not perfect and not a super-woman –her impulsiveness can be very ill-advised (the stunt that lands her on the Dignity was so irresponsible and hare-brained that I wanted to shake both her and Orcutt, until I recalled that the heroine of my own novel did something just as irresponsible and hare-brained, which provided some perspective); she’s not immune to female vanity, and she can get seasick, cry out with fear at times, and whimper when she’s drenched with icy rain. But she’s got a good heart, she cares about people and shows it, and when the chips are down, she has the guts to fight to protect herself and others. (There’s not much in the way of action scenes here, but there are some.) And she takes her Christian faith seriously, but not ostentatiously.
Orcutt also deals (where Austen does not) with the darker realities of Regency society: poverty alongside of wealth; prostitution; laudanum addiction –and the monstrous trade in opium, smuggled illegally into China in return for the tea the English market coveted so much. She also makes you feel the stifling atmosphere of the English social world of that day, where Isabella is a 25-year-old spinster just because she has qualities any sane man should have appreciated (and where society women think cattiness is an art form, and turn it against any woman whose willingness to be who she is reminds them of their own artificiality), and the nauseating horror of exactly what Chinese foot-binding did to a woman’s foot. There’s a strong note of equalitarian feminism here that’s refreshing in Christian fiction. I also liked the inter-racial romance (Isabella’s love interest proves to be half Chinese, though he conceals the fact), and the cross-cultural theme. So, all in all, a rewarding read I’d recommend to readers with an interest in these genres.
Author: Jane Orcutt
Publisher: Revell, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.
A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.