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The Rebellious Ward

af Joan Wolf

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681302,182 (4.06)1
Catriona was no stranger to scandal - but she was an innocent in love ... Only a girl as captivating as Catriona Maclan could have overcome the scandal of her birth to shine as the most sought-after young lady of the London season. Only a girl as daring as Catriona would have played with the fiery attentions of suitors as different as the eminently eligible, handsome and proper Lord Wareham and the notoriously worldly and wicked Marquis of Hampton. Only a girl as stubborn as Catriona would have persisted in adoring the one man she could not have - the brilliant and iron-willed Duke of Burford, the guardian who saw her every fault and was so blind to all else ...… (mere)
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[...]
Catriona MacIan is the spirited daughter of a wild Scottish maiden and her English love, a man who marries and impregnates her in their romantic youth, and then promptly disappears while on a trip home to speak with his family. Fueled by her Celtic pride (a certain amount of ethnic essentialism is necessary to all the characterizations of this novel), Catriona's mother hides the fact of the marriage from her family rather than force her beloved to return against his will, even when it becomes clear she is pregnant. Little does she know, but the only thing keeping him from her side is a lack of a pulse - he died of a sudden illness before announcing the marriage to his family.

So after her mother dies in childbirth, wee Catriona is raised by her maternal grandfather amidst all the craggy Scottish gothicism a girl could wish for, until her guardian dies as well and she is sent off to live in (shudder) England with her father's family, who are probably unbearable, repressed tyrants straight out of a Dickens novel.

But this isn't a Dickens novel, so everyone little Kate (as she is called by everyone but the hero, who has too much dignity for nicknames) encounters treats her with endless kindness, from her great-grandmother to the stable-boys. Hers is a childhood filled with death, but somehow without scars; it is a very, very well-behaved world she lives in. At one point Kate confronts the idea that perhaps the hero (the young duke, who is her new guardian, and some dozen years her senior) is just humoring her rather than displaying a genuine desire for her childish company (and she is still very much a child at this point, perhaps aged 10 or 11):

Her face fell. "You were just being polite."

"I was being polite," he returned imperturbably, "I am always polite. But I meant what I said."

Yes. Everyone here is always, always polite. Well, except for our dashing hero, Edmund, who doesn't remain imperturbable for much longer. He is (bien sur) the pride of Cambridge when we first see him and then the catch of the marriage market in the decade that follows: a very young Duke with an advanced sense of personal and familial responsibility, a talent for mathematics and astronomy, and an exceedingly pleasing face. He divides his time throughout his twenties between the London Season (where he avoids getting hitched and engages in a long affair with a discreet widow), academic pursuits with continental mathematicians, and the attempt to impose some sort of intellectual and moral rigor on the otherwise hopelessly spoiled and irrepressibly free-spirited Catriona.

What kind of hero is Edmund? He has a pinch of Mr. Knightley, if Mr. Knightley were more obviously motivated by jealousy and inadequately suppressed desire. Knightley, after all, is fairly skilled at sublimating his desire for Emma into his persona as our heroine's flawless, externalized superego of a handsome scold. Badly done, Emma!

And Wolf walks a careful line in describing Edmund's highhandedness. He laughs almost as much as a chides, and during early descriptions of Catriona's childhood, he shows a laudable tendency to correct her not as a means of controlling her, but rather of challenging her, of demanding that she live up to her intellectual and moral capabilities. She must do her maths work before he will explain astronomy! So she does her maths work, and then revels, with all the enthusiasm of puppy love, in his explanation of a prize he just won for comet calculations. Yes, comet calculations. And when, as a young (and increasingly magnetic) teenager, she lures her enamored older cousin George into taking her to see some theatricals (corruption!) at a local pub, Edmund calmly confronts the boy for the total lack of spine he demonstrated in acquiescing, but then turns his rage on Catriona for exploiting the effect her magnetism has on the weaker personalities around her. He has enough respect for her to hold her to account for her own actions.

And here we begin to see that Edmund's clear-eyed demands that Catriona take responsibility for her own rather charmed life bleed constantly and messily into less clear-eyed desires. Because correcting her is about controlling her, about asserting his ducal authority over a girl whom he wants both desperately and inappropriately. (While discussing whether Kate is to have a dowry that will outweigh her alleged illegitimacy on the marriage market, the dowager duchess sees him scowl. "He could look very feudal sometimes, his grandmother reflected. 'Of course I will settle money on Catriona,' he said stiffly, 'I have always intended to provide for her."')

I don't mean to cast aspersions on Austen's Mr. Knightly, whose paternalistic superiority I feel the most profound and exasperating affection for (much like his feelings for dear Emma), but in some ways Edmund's obvious tetchiness about his own desire makes him a more satisfying hero, because he is a less admirable one. [...]

Excerpted from my full review at http://sycoraxpine.blogspot.com/2010/02/rebellious-ward-and-cranky-invalid.html ( )
1 stem sycoraxpine | Feb 18, 2010 |
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Catriona was no stranger to scandal - but she was an innocent in love ... Only a girl as captivating as Catriona Maclan could have overcome the scandal of her birth to shine as the most sought-after young lady of the London season. Only a girl as daring as Catriona would have played with the fiery attentions of suitors as different as the eminently eligible, handsome and proper Lord Wareham and the notoriously worldly and wicked Marquis of Hampton. Only a girl as stubborn as Catriona would have persisted in adoring the one man she could not have - the brilliant and iron-willed Duke of Burford, the guardian who saw her every fault and was so blind to all else ...

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