As I intimated last night, I’d have given up on this book entirely by about the halfway point, if it hadn’t been for wanting to express what I’ve been feeling about it here. I was hoping it might redeem itself towards the end, but it just kept getting worse and worse.
(I’m not going to hold back on spoilers here, so be warned.)
This is the story of a proud woman under a changing set of judgemental religious and other social groups, and yet it’s the morals of the narrative I have a real problem with. From a young girl Tamar is supposed to have enjoyed the power of being seen as the devil’s daughter and thus automatically a witch, and played up to her reputation. However she discovers that she wants love rather than hate, and so starts giving herself over, one way or the other, to men who abuse her and/or those about her:
- She takes her protector’s admission that he raped her very young mother while dressed up in costume – why her mother thought it was the devil – as part of a ceremonial he didn’t even believe in as a simple explanation of why he has occasionally, most desultorily, attempted to protect her, but as no reason to find any fault in him, and accepts him as her loving father.
- While for most of the first half of the book she hates Bartle Cavill for physically attempting to rape her, and then twice coercing her into allowing him into her bed by threatening those she loves, she later on decides it’s all okay because she really loves him, even though he continues to have no respect for her feelings. While rape fantasies have a very long literary history, I’m still really not interested, as they make me feel sick to my stomach.
- She marries a Puritan minister she knows full well looks down on her and wants to ‘tame’ her, in alternating feelings of wanting to obey his principles and trying to show him up.
Beyond the sickening morals of the book, at least as much as the protagonist, who has the excuse of a very weird upbringing in a very charged environment (she and her family are threatened by several literal witch-hunts, which ultimately kill her mother and step-great-grandmother), large parts of the story simply make no sense. Just because it’s a topic I’ve been reading up on, for example, Tamar saves her several-weeks-old-but-near-death baby in one night by unswaddling and washing her, and then taking her to bed to breastfeed on demand all night. I sincerely believe in the importance of breastfeeding, but the storyline is nonsensical: either she has been feeding the baby since birth anyway, or she wouldn’t have the milk to do it (she has older children of three and five, but since they sleep that night simply next to her – but hadn’t been doing so previously – while the baby nurses it doesn’t sound like they’re still nursing to keep up her supply).
There simply seems no point to most of what happens, and no particular conclusion at the end of the book that we couldn’t have had several times before. While some of the emotional vacillation may be realistic for some people we’re given nothing in Tamar’s earlier portrayal to have it seem realistic for her, nor are we given any reason to like Bartle even when he becomes the hero of the hour; he’s still overbearing and emotionally abusive, if no longer physically so to Tamar.
There’s no real depth to any of the characters besides Tamar, and even what seemed interesting about her ends up multiply contradicted by the end of the book. Richard, her father, is possibly the second most developed character, and he never becomes much more than his first description:
One look at him was enough to show him to be a most fastidious man. … He was pale of face, haughty and most elegant; he looked what he was — a mixture of savant and epicurean.
It seems to me that the author simply noticed the 17th century confluence of the naval disputes between Spain and England, the Inquisition and other religious persecutions of Christian denominations other than the nationally established one, and the constant persecution of women generally and anyone who could be accused of ‘witchcraft’, however defined, as well as how that led to the beliefs and practices of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She is certainly trying to hark towards historical and literary references such as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and the Salem Witch Trials.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this book had a lot of potential in its topics. Unfortunately, I hated it, and won’t be keeping it. Nor will I be looking out any more books by the author.
(Hm, I must have forgotten to ever put The Scarlet Letter on the 2009 list or then discuss it on the blog. I certainly listened to it on Craftlit.)
- Response: Rape cannot be disentangled from the wider campaign for justice (guardian.co.uk)
- The Salem Witch Trials: Revival Gone Wrong (socyberty.com)
Tags: Book, books, Breastfeeding, Daughter of Satan, Eleanor Hibbert, historical fiction, Jean Plaidy, Literature, Men, Novels, postaday2011, Puritan, Rape, Rape Fantasies, Rape Victims, Scarlet Letter, Victims