Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Journal of Kitty Adair!

Our book today is R. T. Lawrence's 1963 historical-fiction romp, The Journal of Kitty Adair, and the instant you read the front cover copy, “the lusty adventures of an Elizabethan wanton and her lovers, told by the wench herself,” you'll not only get a fair idea of the book's parameters but also start to wonder if you haven't heard this one before.

In confirmation of that suspicion, you need look no further than the book's back cover, on which is scrawled (in lettering designed to look like red lipstick): “Another Forever Amber!”

By 1963, Kathleen Winsor's monumental historical novel Forever Amber – the lusty adventures of a Restoration wanton and her lovers, told by the wench herself – had been a bestseller for twenty years and spawned an entire mini-library of imitators (including, prior to Lawrence, the indomitable “Angelique” series that we'll get around to here at Stevereads, one of these fine days). Only a curiously naive academic would cite Moll Flanders as the ultimate genesis of these books. No, the read spur of invention here was the advent of the women's rights movement at the forefront of the American social scene. During the Second World War, far more women than ever before in American history were given a taste of a working world previously known only to men – many of those women liked that world and worked well in it (better than most of their male counterparts, as both they and the poor drafted counterparts knew quite well). The modern women's rights movement in America was born of such humble beginnings – it's only when we get an actual taste of what we've been missing that we become insatiable for it.

As unlikely as it seems, steamy bodice-rippers like Forever Amber, To Dance with Kings, and The Journal of Kitty Adair were born not of literature (although Gone with the Wind certainly didn't hurt) but of widgets – of punching in and out of the local manufacturing plant or writing up a storm at your local newspaper (even if it happened to be The New York Times) while all the go-getting male writers were drafted away.

And it isn't that women took these opportunities and through them gained the confidence to write the blockbusters in question (R.T. Lawrence was, after all, a man – and he had lots of company) – it's that all this female empowerment in the workplace created a market in the publishing trade … for novels in which pretty women succeeded or failed entirely on the strength of their looks and sexual appeal. These novels, most of them, may have been written by women, but they were most certainly written for men – nervous men, vaguely emasculated men who wanted to escape into a fantasy-literature in which “the wench herself” narrates her life story. That story invariably involves the wench being born to poverty and raising herself to the glittering world of high-class solely by sleeping with increasingly more powerful men. To some benighted male readers (like, for instance, the manufacturing plant's ad-copy writer, whose job had been taken over in 1942 by a woman who did it faster and better than he did and wasn't an unremitting A-hole to her co-workers the whole time), this stuff must have seemed like a return to Eden.

Not that it couldn't also be lots of fun. The Journal of Kitty Adair is lots of fun, in its earnest, overheated way. Two pages haven't gone by before young orphaned Kitty is peeling off her clothes for a little pubescent romp with the local hostler's boy, and the boys – and men – keep, as it were, coming: Kitty soon learns that she has a knack for pleasing, and this propels the book along.

But it isn't the only thing that does. Lawrence's single greatest skill as a writer luckily appears at the single weakest spot of most historical romances: he's very good at dialogue – when his characters are talking, you can't stop reading. As an example, look at this snippet from almost half-way into the book – Kitty has been brought to the attention of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's sepulchral spymaster, and he's examining her in his fire-stoked study. When he asks her if she feels any love for England, she boldly tells him no, that she'd only be undertaking his services as a business arrangement. His answer startles her:
“Without love?” He pulled himself up and walked closer to the fire. “I don't want just another spy. I have dozens of them in every important city, in every important country. Few of them have any love for England. They take English money, yes, but they will also take French, Spanish and Papal coin. We pay them for information about France; Spain pays them for information about England; the Pope pays them for information about every country. Spying, my young lady, is a lucrative business. Money comes from all sides., Sell secrets as you would mussels and cockles in the marketplace.”

Walsingham started into the fire for a long time.

“Would you like to see England invaded?” he asked, his back still turned.

“No, sir.”

“Would you like to have Spanish soldiers marching up and down the streets of London, killing everyone who looks disloyal to King Philip? You say you are not a Catholic. Would you like to face the Inquisition and say that? England, my dear, is in danger of becoming another Spanish colony ...”

“Impossible!” I cried. “We have Sir Francis Drake … we have ships … soldiers ...”

He turned and snapped his fingers.

“We have nothing powerful enough to stop the Spanish except love for England. Ships? A heap of floating timbers compared to the Spanish fleet – and Philip is now building more and more men-of-war. Every prow is pointed in but one direction: England.”

To indulge the conceit of his novel (Lawrence follows the 'battered tin dispatch-box' idea of having only found the journal of Kitty Adair), the author adds a curiously charming footnote at the bottom of the page:
Walsingham was violently anti-Catholic. Much of his feeling stemmed from the fact that he was English ambassador to the French court when the Huguenots were slaughtered on St. Barholomew's Eve, Aug. 24, 1572, and narrowly escaped serious injury. It is strange he did not lecture Kitty on this point.

Kitty finds a perilous future in espionage – and a veritable parade of famous Elizabethan personages make their appearances. It's a quick, eminently satisfying read, as so many of your better historical romances tend to be. Kitty does indeed come a cropper of the Inquisition and comes a whisker away from being killed – she also finds her true love (and the almost-true love who's always waiting in the wings in books like this), although Lawrence very cannily leaves the whole business hanging in mid-air, ready for sequels should Angelique-style sales warrant it.

They did not, and for all we know Kitty spent the rest of her days as an insurance underwriter – happy to be out of the house and earning an honest (though not yet equitable) paycheck.

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