Barbara Samuel is an author about whom I have been hearing good things for years, so I was looking forward to an intelligent and enjoyable read in The Black Angel. Well, loath as I am to offend the author and her many admirers; I have to say, this book drove me nuts.
Set in England in the late 18th century, the story plunges immediately into high drama by opening with a duel in which a man is killed. Lady Adriana St. Ives, hoping to stop the duel, has ridden “ventre a terre “ to the scene, but is too late. In horror she can only watch as her brother Julian, seconded by her half-brother Gabriel, puts a bullet through the heart of Everett Malvern, her former lover. Because Malvern is a nephew of the King, her brothers must flee the country and Adriana is left with her shame and her regret.
Five years later, Adriana is about to be married to Tynan Spenser, Earl of Glencove -- an Irish peer and distant cousin chosen for her by her dead father. She has never met the man, but he knows of her past and is willing to have her because he has political ambitions in England and believes an alliance with her family can help him. She is marrying him because her father’s death and her brothers’ exile have left the family on the brink of financial ruin, and Tynan has agreed to a substantial settlement.
Adriana is committed to this marriage out of a sense of duty, but she fantasizes about her brothers galloping back to save her. Ah, but to save her from what? It appears that Adriana is less afraid of intimacy with a stranger than she is terrified of her own desire. Even though her youthful affair with a scoundrel ended in shame and disaster, she cannot forget the physical pleasure that he brought her. Nor can she stop her treacherous body from anticipating the pleasure of lying with Spenser Tynan, a man whose physical beauty and reputation as a lover have earned him the sobriquet, “The Black Angel.”
Thus, Adriana embarks upon her marriage and her relationship with Tynan determined to show him only coldness and distance. She deliberately wears only unattractive dresses and keeps her hair tightly braided, trying to make herself “disappear.” On their wedding night she does her best to prevent any response to him from betraying her passionate nature. Although she is unsuccessful, her rejection of her own response -- and of him -- angers and humiliates Tynan and he swears to avoid her altogether once she conceives his heir. On the day after the wedding, Adriana’s brothers return.
There are two issues in this plot that require resolution. One, of course, is the relationship between Adriana and Tynan; the other is the exoneration of Adriana’s brothers, who are arrested as soon as their presence in the country is known. These central conflicts are embellished by a truly extraordinary number of additional significant characters and issues. Adriana’s immediate family includes four sisters. Two of her siblings are the children of her father’s former slave and mistress, conceived while they were living on the family plantation in Martinique. There is even a cousin, who never appears as a character, but to whom Adriana writes. All of these characters, though secondary to the plot of this book, are presented in such a way as to make them seem more like main characters who have strayed from their own books. Information about them is provocative, never quite complete, always hinting at more of a story to be known.
In fact, the tendency to withhold information was one of the most aggravating qualities of the style of this story. The truth behind the startling opening scene is not disclosed until halfway through the book, important truths about Tynan don’t come out until nearly the end. Although this technique can create suspense or an intriguing plot reversal, I find it merely irritating when it prevents me from forming a full picture of the characters. Too much of what happens before these disclosures seems foolish or pointless without full awareness of the characters’ history and motivation.
The characters in this story are boldly drawn; Adriana and Tynan are passionate, courageous and warm-hearted. Barbara Samuel is known for the sensuality of her writing and her descriptions of the characters, their actions and interactions, do not contradict that reputation. I would have found it a bit less frustrating if there had been more thought and less lust, but I know that isn’t a drawback for every reader.
Indeed, I was moved to considerable respect for her technique when I realized that several scenes had “shown” rather than “told” by provoking a very warm but unwelcome response -- unwelcome because I didn’t want to be moved by their lovemaking. I felt I didn’t really understand these characters well enough to be emotionally involved with them -- which was exactly the dilemma faced by the heroine!
The Black Angel raises serious issues: Adriana’s struggle with debilitating shame and a double standard for sexual behavior, slavery and the oppression of Ireland by the British. But there is an incoherence about the structure of these story elements that mirrors the inconsistent nature of the main characters’ relationship. I assume this confusion is a byproduct of the deep passions of the characters, but I would have had more respect for such ardent lovers if they had been balanced by a more disciplined plot, or by more reason and less breathlessness in the treatment of their emotional struggles.
So, while I have to agree that Barbara Samuel is a gifted writer and I am sure that many readers, particularly her fans, will enjoy this book, I also have to say that her style left me less than satisfied. I need a little more discernment to leaven this much passion, a little more wisdom with the wild.