Okay, here is a deep confession. I have read portions of or all of a dozen books and have nothing to review today. I am a Kindle Unlimited subscriber. I had maxed out my borrows with about half of those being weeks or months old.
So, I decided to do a big clear out. I went through all of them this week. About half of them were good but did not capture my attention within the first couple of chapters. As for the others, they are series and I am only on two or three. I should have completed at least one of those to review next week.
Instead, I thought I would share with you today my favorite writer. The woman that inspired me to write, especially romance. The woman I consider the Grand Dame of the genre…Bertrice Small.
Bertrice did not just inspire my passion for writing though. She taught me about life, about what it means to be a woman, a feminist, and a success. That might sound a bit exaggerated, but it is not.
Skye O’Malley was the first of her books that I read. I was thirteen (I think) when I stole it off my Gran-Gran’s bookshelf, just as I had been doing with my step-father’s Penthouses. I had been reading for barely three years due to my dyslexia. In that time, I had gone from Curious George to Little House to Grace Livingstone Hill to now this.
Skye was barely older than I was when her story began. Her beloved father who was pretty much a pirate has sold her in marriage at fifteen to a monster, a man who rapes, beats, and steals her dowry for his sister with whom he is having an incestuous affair. I laugh as I think about all the Amazon rules that this trade publishing romance from the late 1970s/early 19080s broke.
Over the course of two books of her own and another four about her family, the reader watches her grow from that deviant but broken woman-child to a beautiful but disillusion young woman to a sassy, happy, and mature wife and mother to a distinguished family matriarch, and finally to old woman with one more battle to fight for her family. It is a remarkable life and story that spans seven decades of history from Elizabeth I to James I. Its settings too vary from Ireland, England, Algiers, a small fictional duchy that bordered France and Italy, Ottoman Turkey, and France. Skye married six times, four of whom she loved. She had a handful of other lovers. She was enslaved, raped, and abused on several occasions as women of the times often were. She was betrayed by her friend and Queen. And she sought and got revenge for that betrayal against the most powerful monarch of the day.
That book and series alone would have been a stellar achievement. But Skye O’Malley and her descendants are far from the only strong women fashioned by the pen and mind of Bertrice Small. The Kadin was her first bestseller. It too tells the story of a young Scottish lass kidnapped, sold into slavery, and married too young who triumphs in the end.
There are so many others too. My list of favorites seems endless: Rosamund, Betrayed, Blaze Wyndham, Love Wild and Fair, A Memory of Love, To Love Again, Love Remember Me, and I am sure I am missing some. Some of them were so dark that it pained me to read. Others filled with hope.
What made and still makes Bertrice Small books the standard against which I measure this genre, others, and especially my own writing? The same things that I have been highlighting in this series.
1) Characters – Her heroines especially are some of the most inspiring and vivid portrayals that I have ever read. You almost believe that these are real people. And Skye’s final husband, her soulmate and best friend, Adam de Marisco is a hero unlike most others, a man before his time who valued Skye’s mind and untameable spirit over her beauty, who sought to free and enable her rather than capture or tame her. These are people that I have spent over three decades loving and relearning in the pages of books.
2) Pacing – Bertrice manages to keep the reader engaged through books that exceed one-hundred-twenty-thousand words on average. She does this primarily through…
3) Point of View – She is mistress (other than Jane Austen….perhaps more so even) of the Deep Third Person. It is the magic wand that she uses with which to paint characters and worlds so vivid that you feel as if you can walk right into them as if you are the characters themselves.
4) Theme – As always, this is the one that sets any book, series, or author apart for me. No matter how the writing unless there is some deeper meaning it never ranks higher than four stars. With Bertrice’s works there are two central themes:
- Fate – Throughout all of her works, as in real life, shit happens. Shit over which the heroines have no control. This is especially true given that these are historical romances, written about times in which women had little to no control over their lives. Her heroines were forced to marry men they did not love, bear children they may not have wanted, sew tapestries when they would rather be fighting battles, bury husbands and children, and through it all, perhaps hardest, shut the *f* up about the injustices they suffered. Life was incredibly hard…as it is for all of us. Mistress or maid…even men had far less control of their destinies than they believed. Certainly, more than we believe we have or do we?
- Nobodies’ victim – All of that may sound incredibly depressing, horrifying in fact. Feminist might be up in arms about many of the historically accurate eventualities in these stories. Except for one thing – these women were nobodies’ victims. No matter what life or Fate threw at them, these were women who took lemons and turned them into lemonade. Not to say they did not struggle, have their downs, or get depressed. They did. But they all got back up. Made the best of their situation. And reaped the benefits of that determination. It is a life lesson that I have turned to over and over and over again. Until finally like Skye, I have found my true hero and soulmate, a life partner that respects and worships me. A man I can laugh and love with. And, yes, I credit Skye and Bertrice with some of that…with instilling in that young teen the vision that no matter what happens, you are strong enough to get through it. Pretty amazing…for books which were dismissed as bodice rippers.
Oh, and there is one more thing about Small’s books…they taught me a surprising amount of history. It was only recently that I have discovered just how much research and how accurately Bertrice portrayed it. Fiction books have become my favorite way of exploring the subject.
The only negative for me with these books was the amount of time Bertrice spent describing locations, clothes, and even the food. These things mean nothing to me when compared with the depth of thoughts and feelings of the characters. Granted some of this might be due to my autism. One key characteristic of MY autism (everyone’s is different) is that my visual memory sucks. Even with my daughter and partner when I close my eyes, I cannot see their faces in my mind. So, there is no way I can imagine all those long descriptions of clothes and foods that I am not familiar with. No problem, I usually just skip those. Although to be fair, I saw the term frumenty so many times that last Christmas I looked up the recipe and tried to make it. Don’t!
Bertrice Small wrote books that were as Jane Austen’s was dismissed as ‘mere romantic drivel.’ Feminist derided her and others of the era. What they all failed to recognize was the strength and power of these characters, these women, who never gave up, who owned their shit, and refused to allow even kings and queens to break their indomitable spirit. That is what makes these books timeless…and why Bertrice Small is not just my favorite writer, but who I want to be when I grow up.