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The Rebel Bride!

By (April 21, 2013) No Comment

rebel bride 'historical'

Our book today is The Rebel Bride, originally published in 1979 by that tireless romancer, Catherine Coulter. When it appeared back in ’79, it was one of those thin Signet Regency romances, the ones with the decorative covers and the filigreed script, this time a courteous, predictable story about Kate Brandon, a fiery-tempered and independent redhead who sets her world of 1814 London abuzz with her free spirit and her unconventional ways. When she comes to the attention of the book’s Darcy figure, Julien St. Clair, the handsome, brooding, easily-angered earl of March, sparks fly between them, and Coulter, now a veteran of hundreds of romance novels, handles the expected developments with smooth skill even though The Rebel Bride first appeared very early in her career.

Then it got a second life, resurrected as part of Signet’s “Topaz” line in 1994. The marketing types at Signet had observed, as had the whole American romance novel industry, the unexpected success of long-haired Milanese cover model Fabio – if he appeared on a book’s cover, shirtless, with his tresses flowing, that book sold, regardless of its author. Marketing types pay attention to such things, and the best of them are nimble to adapt.

Hence, “The Topaz Man” – a rather obvious attempt to clone Fabio in a laboratory. The publisher crafted an entire line of books under the Topaz imprint, united by one thing: the presence of the same luscious male model on all the covers. The model was gorgeous, toned Steve Sandalis, one of the most easy-going and laughter-prone hair-tossers you could hope to meet in a lifetime of RITA conventions. He was handily more attractive than Fabio – leanly chiseled, muscular, and with facial beauty given only to Greek bloodlines. He appeared on hundreds of covers; he was the Topaz Man.

Although the strategy didn’t quite duplicate the unexpected sensation of Fabio, it nevertheless worked: Topaz books, lavishly presented  to customers in their own special floor displays (and with Sandalis himself, always a contractual prince, appearing at dozens of promotional events), sold extremely well. So well, in fact, that Signet was happy to dig up old properties and give them Topaz makeovers. By the time the line was in full swing, Coulter had rebel bride regencyalready become a bestselling author in her own right. She seemed a perfect fit for a little opportunistic reprinting.

There was only one problem: the book chosen, that 1979 version of Rebel Bride? Well, it wasn’t exactly Topaz Man material. Instead, it was a perfectly acceptable specimen of that once-upon-a-time staple of the romance genre: the Austen-esque Regency novel in which sharp word-play and scrupulous historical accuracy (not only in matters of dress and transportation and food, but also – perhaps more importantly – in matters of psychology) were all-important, in which author after author professed her life-long love of the Divine Jane and would no more sully that pure Austenite world than she would turn to penning porn.

You knew porn would turn up eventually, didn’t you? In Coulters original version of the novel, Kate is a delightful spitfire who thinks nothing of accosting a ‘peasant’ when she sees him whipping a poor work-horse:

“You probably deserve the kicking. You probably deserve much more. And if you fed her properly she wouldn’t be so mangy. You should be shot.” From long experience facing Sir Oliver, ranting and waving his cane at her, she now felt no fear. She, quite simply, wanted to kill him.

(and when words fail her, she hauls off and punches him, which perhaps Emma Woodhouse never did, but you just know she must sometimes have been tempted). In the brief Afterword she adds to the 1994 version of Rebel Bride, Coulter rebel bride topaz insetdeploys key euphemisms with the precision of a spin master:

The Rebel Bride was my second novel. Although it was originally published as a Regency, I always felt that it was a historical romance at heart. So I’ve rewritten this story of two stubborn, strong-willed people, and Topaz is bringing it out again for you – this time as the historical it could have been.

Newcomers may find that a bit odd – after all, the original Rebel Bride was set in 1814, and so is the updated version; they’re both clearly historical novels set in the Regency period, so doesn’t that make them both Regency novels?

Not quite, and you can guess why: in her rewrite, Coulter mainly added one thing that had been missing from her earlier version – one thing that’s scrupulously missing from all true Regency romances – and it wasn’t more, um, historical detail:

She repeated his name over and over, arching her hips to draw him deeper into her. He found he couldn’t control himself. It had been too long. He covered her lips with his hand and felt long-awaited release, moaning his own pleasure into her mouth.

In other words, Steve Sandalis wasn’t hired to stand around polishing his boots – and maybe he had a little help making those Topaz books sell so well. As a calculated strategy, it couldn’t have been any plainer, and although the makers of the Topaz line might not have known it at the time, their strategy would eventually be adopted by every romance publisher in America. The old-style prim and witty Regency romances are hardly published at all anymore in the 21st century – all those rather stately covers with their statuesque women and their noticeably older men have been as thoroughly transformed as the books themselves have been. Now not only do we get much younger male models with smoldering good looks,lucy reading rebel bride but we get sex, sex, sex, even starting on the front cover.

The irony is that two-thirds of the new romance novels crowding the shelves at the nearest evil chain bookstore are technically set in the Regency period – there’s an argument to be made that Regencies are flourishing as never before. But if that’s true, it came at a price: these are  all Topaz Regencies now, moaning in pleasure in every heaving chapter and only engaging in witty banter in the brief intervals while the maid changes the sheets. The painstaking research is often gone or muted, the historical accuracy is, let’s just say, wavery, and the One Thing on every character’s mind is no longer respectable marriage (although that always manages to happen just the same). The Topaz novels weren’t the first to make that change, but they certainly did more than any other brand to establish it as the change to maintain … and game old veterans like Coulter did their bit to help. The new Rebel Bride isn’t any worse a novel than the original – Coulter’s rewrite left untouched all her scenes of genuine talent and vim – but it joins in the key change from yesterday’s romance novels to today’s: it leaves nothing to the reader’s imagination.