Hello, everyone! One of the best parts of being a youngin (relatively) is being able to discover dusty tomes from the 80s, brush them off, and devour them as if they were brand new. I spent my last month immersed in Karleen Koen’s historical novel Through a Glass Darkly, a 740 page whopper that combines detailed historical research with a sweeping, soapy love story. Think an Anglo-French version of Gone With the Wind, but without any of the racism. Spoilers ahead!
Synopsis: 15-year-old Barbara Alderley, beloved granddaughter of the esteemed Duchess of Tamsworth, has lived all her life sheltered from the outside world. When her mother, desperate to pay off the debts left by her traitorous Jacobite husband, conspires to marry Barbara to the 40-year-old Roger Montgeoffry, Lord Devane, Barbara is at first delighted, having loved Roger since she was a child. Determined to win Roger’s affections, Barbara gives her all to the marriage, but struggles to gain her footing as an innocent young woman in the bacchanalian French court. When Roger’s secret past comes back to haunt him, Barbara must face the pain of adulthood, and make choices that will change her relationships forever.
My thoughts: Clocking in at almost 750 pages, stuffed to the brim with minute detail of early 18th century fashion, architecture, politics, and gossip, and heavy with dramatic romantic sagas, teary-eyed monologues, and backstabbing betrayals, Karleen Koen’s novel is not for the fainthearted. Through a Glass Darkly is a family saga that chronicles the lives and relationships of dozens of characters, from the aristocratic Tamsworths, to their servants, friends, and everyone in between. Many critics compared it (sometimes unfavorably) to Gone With the Wind, which I think is apt, but I would also compare it to its more contemporary peer Outlander, another book series that sets its decades-spanning family drama in a meticulously written historical time period. Some critics at the time described the novel as a “bodice-ripper,” which I think is unfair, since the protagonist in this novel is anything but the stereotypical helpless little woman traditionally featured in 80s historical romance novels. According to author Karleen Koen, she deliberately wanted to avoid the trope, as well as the “virginity-sexual tango” trope in many historical romance novels, in which the protagonist is constantly trying to resist “giving herself away” to a tempting, but dangerous man.
Before she began writing it, Koen envisioned creating a story about the relationship between a young woman and an older man, a plot element riddled with emotional tension that required much planning and foresight. Koen also sought to create a story that featured issues relevant to contemporary women, such as the non-existence of “legal rights. If a husband wanted to beat his wife to death he could do it, and if her parents didn’t care… No birth control. If you had any normal sexual urges you were pregnant all the time, and half the women died in childbirth. Life was very violent and short and I just wanted to show how it was without getting up on a soapbox, so someone reading it would say, ‘I’m glad I live now.'”[4https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Through_a_Glass_Darkly_(Koen_novel)#cite_note-ChicagoPlotTwist-4
Through a Glass Darkly is primarily a novel about growing up, and coming to terms with the fact that the relationships between adults are complex and intricately intertwined. When we begin the novel, Barbara is youthful, headstrong, and charming, believing that her beauty, kindness, and willpower will allow her to accomplish all of her goals, even if those goals include turning a lifelong bachelor into a devoted husband. When she marries Roger Montgeoffry, a once penniless soldier whose luck, handsome looks, and beguiling charm have earned him an enormous fortune, she quickly wins him over with her youth and wit. The first part of the novel follows the path of a typical romance novel, where a beautiful young woman captures the heart of a handsome older man and rides off with him into the sunset. If that were all that the novel held, I could see how critics might dismiss it as simply a well-researched “bodice ripper.” But Through a Glass Darkly isn’t interested in telling this traditional romance; it’s interested in challenging the very idea that such a story could ever turn out happily.
The title of the novel comes from the famous verse in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” a verse commonly thought to be about the viewer having an imperfect, or obscured, version of reality. This theme carries through every plot in the novel, from Barbara, whose childish love for Roger cannot begin to capture the reality of his character, to Diana, Barbara’s scandalous mother, whose disregard for her family leaves her unprepared for how deeply their tragedies will affect her, to the Duchess of Tamsworth, whose attempt to give Barbara happiness ends up sending her into certain heartbreak. Life in the novel is cruel and unpredictable, and no one ends up with the future that they expected.
One of the more intriguing parts of the novel is its treatment of sexuality. As a rule, the aristocratic protagonists of the book marry for money and find love in extramarital affairs, with male and female characters alike finding true love outside of their spouses. Affairs are so normalized in the novel that there is little room for moralizing around chastity and faithfulness. Even Barbara, the story’s moral center, indulges in her fair share of extramarital relationships. In fact, the novel’s central conflict revolves around Barbara’s belief that her love for Roger will defeat the not only the barriers of age and differing past life experiences, but also the strict gender roles that structure their society. Barbara’s need for Roger’s total devotion, love, and faithfulness stands at odds with the ideology of the era, in which husbands had free rein with their sexuality, while women had to repress theirs or risk ruination.
But while Roger’s infidelity is a large stressor on their relationship, one of the novel’s largest twists is the reveal that Roger is secretly in love with another man, a fact that must be kept hidden even in the relatively sexually liberal court of Paris. This reveal is the turning point of Barbara’s relationship with Roger and the end of her sheltered life. While Koen hints at Roger’s bisexuality throughout the novel, it’s not until his secret is revealed that she shows that the court is intolerant of anything other than outward heterosexuality. She also contrasts Roger’s bisexuality, which is presented in the most masculine of terms, with that of Tommy Carlyle, whose flamboyant gayness is seen as grotesque. These two extremes leave little room for nuance, thought just by making the protagonist’s love interest bisexual, Koen boldly subverts the conventions of heterosexual romance novels.
Roger is a more complicated romantic hero than the standard, but I personally found him to be one of the weakest parts of the novel. While other characters rave about Roger’s handsome looks, charm, and kindness, he seemed to be callous of Barbara’s feelings, especially because he agreed to marry a girl that he knew was in love with him, while still continuing his secret affair with his male lover. It also never made sense to me why Barbara loved Roger in the first place. At the very beginning of the novel, Barbara declares that she has always loved Roger, but there wasn’t enough backstory to sell that to me. Their pairing made me feel like Koen had tried to write a newer version of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, but had missed the essential spark and chemistry between them. I much preferred Barbara’s other love interest, Tony, who seemed to value Barbara for her character, rather than her youth and beauty, and actually supported Barbara during her hardships. Alas, I’ll have to wait until the sequel to see if they ever end up together.
The book’s other flaws are minor. As in many books written about rich people, Koen relishes in the drama and romance of her aristocratic protagonists, while showing little interest in the lives of the poorer characters that serve as the book’s window dressing. While some of the servants, like Barbara’s lady’s maid Thérèse, her page Hyacinthe, and Roger’s secretaries Montrose and Caesar White are fully fleshed-out, the other servants are characterized as nothing but lazy, stupid, and dishonest. Barbara and her grandmother often mention having to bend servants to their will to iron out their undesirable qualities. For a book written in the 1980s, it reminded me a lot of the way poor people were depicted in books like Jane Eyre, where only the educated, middle-class, and aristocrats are seen as human. But since this is a historical novel about the soapy lives of rich people, I cut the book some slack for having historically authentic rich people attitudes towards the “undeserving poor.”
Another minor flaw in the novel is the absolute deluge of tragedy that occurs in the second part of the book. Half the characters are dead by the last page, some in senseless ways, other dead of the mundane scourge of sickness, stroke, and old age. There’s so much death that even the characters seem to think it’s a tad much, and as a reader, I found the onslaught of deaths desensitizing after about the 15th child dies of illness. But again, as book set in the early 18th century, all of these deaths are historically accurate. Koen even said that she wanted to portray the realities of the time in all its sickly glory, and she manages to do this without making it seem like she’s stamping her modern 1980s opinions on the minds of her 18th century characters. A character might lament being constantly pregnant, and fear death in childbirth, but never questions the principle idea that it’s a woman’s lot in life to bear children. This kind of restraint is what makes Koen such a perceptive storyteller, and what keeps her novel feeling authentic, if a tad soapy.
Final Thoughts: Through a Glass Darkly is a novel of epic proportions. You’ll be swept away by the immersive details and the scandalous family drama. From secret affairs to fatal duels, the novel is exciting and passionate. If you’re wanting to get lost in a book for the next few weeks, the novel offers the perfect form of escapism.