Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Book Review: The Braeswood Tapestry

A Fair Trade Book

(Amazon refuses to link properly; click around on the page the link opens if you want this book, not the audiobook series or the Kindle.)

Title: The Braeswood Tapestry

Author: Robyn Carr

Author's web site:

Date: 1984

Publisher: Little Brown

ISBN: 0-316-12975-5

Length: 297 pages

Quote: “Lady Anne was a fine hand with a needle, and the tapestries she finished were hidden away with her jewels when the war was upon them. This one is her own scene of the brae behind the house.”

That’s about as much as there is about the tapestry in this novel. Readers who might have been attracted to the tapestry-inspired, green-gold-and-black jacket painting are likely to be disappointed by the story of The Braeswood Tapestry because it’s not about tapestry work or a tapestry worker at all. In fact none of the characters has any particular talent for anything, which is probably why I don’t find them interesting or memorable as characters—and this is supposed to be a story about people, about moral character. 

Carr seems to be writing for women who like romance novels. A romance lies at the center of her story, so it’s tempting to describe The Braeswood Tapestry as a romance novel; it contains enough detailed sex scenes to qualify. But there’s more to the story than the romance; there are several pages of plot resolution after the wedding.

This story is set in England in the seventeenth century, in the time of King Charles II, the “Restoration” of the British monarchy after a brief, war-torn experiment in democracy. Charles promised to restore property to various “Loyalists” who had helped him reclaim the throne. In historical fact, he had some difficulty doing this because there were sometimes disputes about which pieces of property should be restored to different supporters. The fictional manors of Braeswood and Dearborn have been reassigned to the fictional Kerr and Wescott families. Carr is vague about the precise ranks, titles, and etiquette that Sir Stephen Kerr and Sir Trent Wescott would have enjoyed in real England; perhaps we can forgive her for not learning, and educating us about, the differences between knights, barons, viscounts and so forth, because her goal is to educate us about the responsibilities Trent and Stephen wield. Seventeenth-century British lords-of-manors didn’t just sit around sipping tea and wasting the rent money they collected from poor farmers. They enforced the law, and were supposed to be examples of morality, for “their” farmers and villagers.

Stephen, who is blond, enjoys the reputation of being honest and virtuous. Trent, who is dark, suffers from a less wholesome reputation (and eventually confesses having participated in a few robberies during the war years). Both of them carry riding whips with which we see them hit people in the story. The story begins with Stephen lashing out, literally, at teenaged Jocelyn, who tried to take a basket of food to her older brother, whom Stephen is threatening to have hanged (for no valid reason). Trent rescues Jocelyn. When their sad, sick, abusive father scolds Jocelyn rather than trying to comfort her or rescue her brother, Jocelyn decides to throw herself on Trent’s mercy and see whether he can save her brother’s life. Trent doesn’t mind rescuing Jocelyn’s brother, just to score points for virtuousness off Stephen; as his butler tells Jocelyn, initially mistaking her for a boy, “He meant you no particular kindness…he simply hates the ****.” (The level of profanity and scatology in this book is lower than in some actual seventeenth-century literature.) Trent doesn’t bother telling Jocelyn that her brother is safe before accepting What She Has To Offer—her chastity—because contemporary social notions of moral rectitude do not positively condemn male aristocrats for taking advantage of any “sluttish wenches” of the lower classes who fail to conceal any possible charms they might have from the male aristocrats’ view and are, therefore, Asking For It.

Because this is a novel, and because similar things were happening in the colonies (where homesick British fortune-seekers and remittance people were glad enough to find fellow Brits that they began to overlook differences of social caste), Trent likes Jocelyn enough to want her to like him, too, and she does, and romance blossoms. Carr is aware that that’s not the way these relationships normally went in real life, but, to keep the romance readers interested, she reminds us constantly that Trent and Jocelyn are different from most of their respective peers, and both of them constantly surprise each other just by acting like…well, like decent human beings whose minds haven’t been bound by feudal European notions of caste.

She might have done this, perhaps more credibly, by making either of them devout Christians. She doesn’t do that. Jocelyn’s father is a preachy old Puritan; Jocelyn is, like Trent, so thoroughly turned against what they think of as Christianity (or “churchianity”) that she doesn’t recognize the clergyman she meets for the first time at the wedding. For a story about morality this novel is curiously silent about the British laws that penalized failure to attend church. I can accept the idea of seventeenth-century English characters not being active Christians, as I’m sure many were not, in real life; I can’t quite believe that seventeenth-century English society would have allowed them to be unbelievers in peace.

Meanwhile, as the conflict between Trent and Stephen develops, Trent comes to represent good ethical conduct (despite his extramarital fling with Jocelyn) and Stephen comes to represent evil. He’s not just a spoilt brat or a bully. He may be a sociopath. His father wants to disown him and leave Dearborn to his cousin, Lady Adrienne, who is not exactly a Good Girl either. Trent likes Jocelyn because, despite the rebellious impulse that led her to barter her virginity for her brother’s freedom, she is otherwise a Good Girl; she doesn’t meddle, doesn’t ask for more—she’s delighted with anything he offers her, sort of a prototype for Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman—doesn’t gossip, doesn’t manipulate, and does help him avoid being framed by Stephen.

Adrienne likes Trent, partly because he seems to be considered reasonably attractive, partly because she’d like to end the Kerr/Wescott feud by marrying a Wescott, partly because she’s going to have to marry one rich aristocrat or another within the year and Trent is closer to her age than most of the other possibilities…but Adrienne “falls in love” with Troy, an adventurer who will break her heart by confessing, after a discreet sexual affair with Adrienne, that he’s not really an aristocrat at all. Adrienne would like to marry Trent and continue having sex with Troy, which was the kind of arrangement with which many male and female English aristocrats contented themselves at this time. Carr won’t let that happen. Romance apart, all four of these young people find each other attractive; the question is which of them should marry each other.

Neither of the girls is even sixteen years old yet, but half-grown chicks like them were considered women at this period, which partly explains some of the disparagement of women in seventeenth century literature. The boys are about as close to being men as the girls are to being women: Trent's voice frequently "booms," and Stephen's higher voice may or may not have yet to change. Neither girl is fully aware, either, of the moral conflict Carr is building up between Stephen, whom nobody wants, and Trent, in their rivalry for King Charles’ favor and for advantages over each other’s hereditary claims to property and social status. That conflict will end only when one of the young men is dead. No points for guessing which one that will be.

In the end I’m not sure how to judge this novel because I’m not sure what it was meant to do. If it’s meant just to entertain us, for a little longer than the average romance does, by doubling the romance and ending with four good friends living happily ever after, then the moral conflict between Trent-as-Good-Feudal-Lord and Stephen-as-Evil-Feudal-Lord is unnecessary; Stephen could have been nasty enough to get the story rolling by introducing Trent and Jocelyn without half the vice and violence he drags into the book. If it’s meant to make a statement about a Humanistic sense of good and evil, as distinct from either chastity or religious identity, then the detailed sex scenes are unnecessary; more research about the positions and duties of the young men could have displaced most of the sex and made a stronger story of moral/ethical conflict. Either way, The Braeswood Tapestry is adequate as a sexy, violent novel-for-adults; either way, it seems to me to have tried to be a better novel-for-adults than it succeeds in being. 

But who cares? It's been a bestseller. If you've discovered Carr through her more recent novels, you may want to go back and read this old one. If so, you can buy it here as a Fair Trade Book by sending $5 per copy + $5 per package to either of the addresses at the bottom of the screen, and we'll send $1 per copy to Carr or a charity of her choice.