Monday, July 10, 2017

Review - The Girl in the Gatehouse

Original Title: The Girl in the Gatehouse
Series: -
Author: Julie Klassen
Published: January 1st, 2011

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers

I plainly, honestly, loved this book. It is my fourth by this amazing author, and when you think things can’t get better, there she does it again. I was pleasantly surprised by The Girl in the Gatehouse, it was impossible to put down, and it got me reading late into the night, because I just needed to know more. 

First things first. I feel compelled to say that not every piece of Regency fiction is to be compared with Jane Austen. That’s unfair, and unnecessary, to say the least. Although in this book, the comparison is needed. And in a good way! I didn’t fully understand it until I got to the very end, although I could read some winks, through the entire novel, to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and mostly, to Mansfield Park. For those who have read the latter, the name Mariah will ring a bell, and remind you the unfortunate but well-deserved ending of Maria Bertram’s character. In The Girl in the Gatehouse, and just like her namesake, Mariah Aubrey has a sister named Julia, an Aunt Norris, and a man she cares for, named Crawford. Such things are not randomly done. In Mansfield Park, our main focus is to see how the poor, resigned and sweet Fanny Price gets her heart’s desire and her happiness, and how those wretched villains that made her life miserable pay for what they did. But Julie Klassen takes that classic novel to a whole new level. She decides, through her heroine, to give Maria Bertram a chance of redemption.

There’s so many good things to say about this book, so many twist and turns, plenty of delightful details, that I don’t even know where to start. It was wonderful, and brilliant. For starters, it jumps straight into action, with Mariah sent away from her home, by his own father’s decision, to live in solitude in an abandoned gatehouse, with only a loyal servant and friend for company, in the grounds of a grand state, where her old, widow aunt lives. We don’t know why, but we can imagine that such fate could only come after a big, resonant scandal. Something happened with Mariah Aubrey that made her fall from grace, and cover her family in shame, and although we are not told what that is, as chapters go by, you are able to piece together the puzzle thanks to the clues scattered through the whole story. Something I really loved about Mariah is that, in despite of her situation and the many limitations forced upon women at the time, considering them inferior to men in all aspects, she chose to make her life count and put her talent as a writer to good use. True, she did it for the money she needed to afford the gatehouse she lived in, but still, she didn’t back up, and continued to write her stories, sure of her talent and the knowledge that her books were good enough to be published. 

On the other hand, we find our hero, Captain Matthew Bryant. He’s a naval officer, and comes from a very strict family who never truly appreciated him for what he is, in despite of his efforts to please them, and his many virtues. There’s no way I could not love him! He’s desperately trying to win over a woman who rejected him years ago, the blonde, beautiful Isabella Forsythe, who is engaged to another man, a fact that he doesn’t care about. He’s sure that, by renting Windrush Court, and inviting her to a house party, along with other guests, he will make her change her mind, and thus, break her engagement to marry him instead. He put all of his efforts to win Isabella, no matter what, and although she wasn’t the woman for him, that nerve and determination are certainly admirable. But he found Mariah before making his plans a reality. They met in the middle of a storm, both real and metaphorical, as they were both weathering a gale of their own by the time he knocked on her door, Mariah struggling with her scandal, her new life, her writing, and her longing for her family and the man she loved; and Matthew, trying to make his life count after years at sea, fighting both in the Napoleonic wars and the home front, dealing with his sister’s past scandal, and his parents, that always focused on everything he wasn’t, clearly stating that they preferred his late brother over him. They didn’t have it exactly easy, but they still knew what they wanted, and went for it. 

Their love story was utterly beautiful, and it had me rooting for them from page one. With every word and encounter, with that soft, unexpected first kiss, and all those almost-kisses, I just saw how they simply had to be together. Both Mariah and Matthew are deeply built characters, and their love goes beyond mere romance. I especially loved that emotionally raw, open moment they shared that night in the gatehouse, only the two them, deprived of sleep, and although it was short, it was a beautiful instant of shared trust, where I could see how much they came to be friends and rely on one another, in despite of all their flaws. Mariah certainly made a terrible mistake when she gave herself to an engaged man she was deeply in love with, later being both discovered in bed together, and she felt devastated when she found out that it didn’t have the same meaning for her than it did for him, because he had the chance to go back for her and propose to make things right, after Isabella Forsythe called off their engagement, but he didn’t, and she was the one paying the steepest of prices, bearing all the weight of society’s condemnation. I liked the fact that James Crawford, in the end, had a chance to acknowledge his guilt, and told everyone what he did, why he did it, and his true feelings about Mariah, stating that he would have chosen the honorable path if his life wasn’t manipulated by his father. But still, in my opinion, that was weakness, because, with enough determination, he could have broken free of that iron fist and made the decision to marry Mariah, facing the consequences that it would bring, if he had seen her worth. But he chose not to; he had the opportunity, and didn’t take it.

I guess that the main moral of this story is something we all need to remember, all the time, because we face it every single day, and that is that our mistakes do not define who we are. God took care of that when His Son shed His blood in that cross, only for love. Mariah got to be an accomplished author, and started writing her own dire past in a novel she titled The Tale of Lydia Sorrow –from which we can learn what really happened that fateful night–, but that book never got to a conclusion, because, although there were consequences to what she did, she decided not to focus on narrating how terrible the price she had to pay was, choosing to burn the pages and leave the past behind. In the end, she was the heroine of her own story because of the decisions she made, and funnily enough, stories are one of the things that unite her and Matthew (that letter of his, at the end, was the sweetest thing). Matthew found out about her scandal, and although he was angry at first, later he understood that Mariah was more than her past, and that she was worthy of being loved, of a second chance. Unlike his first love, she wasn’t fickle and changing like the tide. They were alike because they both had different goals when they met, but upon getting to know each other better, they knew which of them were worthy, and which weren’t. Mariah grew stronger from her experience, in despite of the many tears she shed, and although both of them lived under the pressure of pleasing everyone else, they made the very important decision to stop trying to get the world’s approval, and for once, do what was good for them, attending to their very neglected happiness. 

I wish I could do justice to all of the amazing little details in this novel, and of course, the other but equally important love stories, like Dixon and Martin’s (and Maggie, obviously), Lizzy and Hart’s, and of course, Captain Prince and Amy Merryweather’s. All of them speak of a love that chose to go beyond mistakes and flaws, and the shallow opinion of society, and they warmed my heart, making me root for all of them, wishing for them to find their happiness. Captain Prince’s story is fascinating, and although for a moment I considered it a little unnecessary for the main plot, I was soon engrossed by his life and all those things he did, after he chose not to please convention and society rules, and live by his own decisions, that I couldn’t stop reading. The only thing I wish I could have read is William Hart fighting to rescue Lizzy Barnes from her horrible life at the poorhouse, and although their story is not the main focus of the novel, I would have liked to read a little more development in both of their characters, see them fighting for their love. After all, they had their share of bitterness, but their love took them by surprise and lead to a happy ending.

I say this in all my reviews on books by Julie Klassen, and I’ll say it again. She’s a brilliantly committed author who truly cares about historical accuracy, and makes the effort of sitting there and do her research, when so many others don’t, and it is noticeable in their novels. It’s a pleasure to read a well-constructed book, with a solid foundation. She creates deep, passionate characters, blended with a unique, elegant writing style, and knows how to add the dashes of mystery right when they are needed to keep you turning the pages. She’s probably one of the most talented authors I’ve ever read, and all of her books are a treasure chest I’m always delighted to open. This book is a proof of it, because, how are we so sure that, in Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram didn’t regret what she did, didn’t become a better person after ending up in exile, with only her memories and the reminder of her mistakes for company? How do we know that she wasn’t worthy of being loved, only because social pressure and convention dictated she wasn’t? Didn’t she have the right to a second chance, to truly, deeply fall in love after what happened? Did her mistake and the price she paid made her stronger, or utterly destroyed her? I know that Mariah Aubrey isn’t Maria Bertram, but even so, I chose to believe the first. In Mansfield Park, she was a hateable character, with her spoiled upbringing, her well-trained vanity and the constant praises towards her beauty, her remarkable but dull engagement, and her rivalry with her sister, not only over Henry Crawford, but over every other aspect in life in which they were required to excel. Her future, after the ending of the novel, is a big question mark that Julie Klassen chose to fill with her own tale of redemption, humanizing her, and going to the roots of her scandal. And it is brilliantly done.

Needless to say, I’m going to read each and every one of Julie Klassen’s books, and I hope all of them are as good or better than this one! 


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