So I bought Wicked Intentions in the hope that what I loved so much about Voices would be recaptured and sustained.
Joyce writes a series of loosely connected Victorian romances, set in the mid-Victorian era and positively steeped in the dense, oppressive atmosphere of that time. Instant winner for me, as I absolutely love those repressed Victorians. What I enjoyed particularly in Voices was the way in which she mixed the grim realities of Victorian Britain with a romance that worked within that context – a sort of grim, desperate love story that suited the moody, heavily mannered world of her characters.
In Wicked Intentions, Joyce retains her dark and dreary London setting with a most excellent starting chapter, which set the tone for a really meaty, angst-ridden romance:
In Parliament’s new limestone palace, already damp and lichenous where it crouched beside the stinking Thames, debate raged. And so the season limped on, with the endless rotation of dinners, dances, operas and soirees, accompanied as always by the constant, grating murmur of politics and gossip, marriage and legislation, secret cabals and open scandals that took place in the myriad stifling rooms.
I love the visual of Parliament crouching besides the stinking Thames.
Our hero Thomas Hyde, Lord Varcourt is introduced in a parlour setting, amidst his fellow aristocrats, and notes:
The world was made and unmade in rooms like this, and already, Thomas could begin to read the threads that went into its making. Soon he would have enough gathered into his hands that he could pull them and watch men dance…
Yes. So Thomas fancies himself a puppet master of sorts, steeped in political intrigue, sniffing out secrets for the advantage of the Whigs. He is regarded with wariness by his peers following the suspicious death of his older brother some six years earlier.
In the same parlour sits the mysteriously veiled spiritualist, Esmeralda, without whom a fashionable parlour is incomplete:
Esmeralda heard the dead, she claimed, and saw visions – and collected like pearls the secrets of the noblewomen who confided in her.
She is nothing but a charlatan to Thomas, who watches her, infuriated and reluctantly fascinated. Esmeralda’s biggest patron happens to be his mother, whose fragile mental state he believes Esmeralda is manipulating to her own mercenary ends.
For a man like Thomas, who sees schemes and plotting everywhere, Esmeralda is an unknown quantity, a threat. So when she leads his mother to the ‘discovery’ of an expensive piece of jewellery, he is roused to action and pursues her for answers.
This is an excellent set up. In fact, the first chapter was a masterpiece of brooding repression and angst.
Unfortunately, every chapter thereafter saw my interest dwindle. Is there such a thing as too much melodrama? Despite the fact that both characters carry the sort of emotional baggage that makes a Thomas Hardy novel cheerful by comparison, there was something unrelenting about the dialogue, particularly between Thomas and Em who love to make grand and sweeping statements to each other.
“I could kill you,” she said, her words almost wistful. “I don’t mean that I have the power but that I have the will, a far more difficult thing. People sometimes wonder if they are capable of taking a life. I know that I am; I almost took my own. After that, life itself seems so insignificant.”
On it’s own, this is a little rich. But when every interaction between Thomas and Em carries the same level of hysterical intensity – well, intensity leaves the building. What’s left are two people who take themselves far too seriously.
Thomas saw an emotion behind the glassy clarity of her eyes: pain. It was as distant as a star, and yet he knew that if the distance could be bridged, the vastness of it would dwarf his being, the heat sear the flesh from his bones. It was turned not on him, but inward, and he wondered what stuff she was made of that she could survive it…
Puppet master Thomas, for all his brooding darkness and supposed political acumen, spends the entire novel acting on impulse; from kidnapping Em, which leads to their first brutal sexual encounter; then kidnapping her (again), drugging her, tying her up, and accosting her pretty much as the need arose… these were not the actions of a sophisticated thinker. There’s never any evidence of the operator we are supposed to believe him to be.
There are two mysteries in this story; the truth behind the death of Thomas’s brother, and the mystery of Esmeralda’s stolen birthright. Neither of them are precisely gripping, and the story is essentially a series of encounters – all turgid, overwrought and overwritten – between Thomas and Em in the lovingly created settings of Joyce’s Victorian London.
A disappointing C for this.
1. For some reviewers the sex scenes were a too dark. These did not bother me; in fact, I thought the relationship between Thomas and Em was best expressed through their physical interactions, better by far than their ridiculous conversations.
2. I bought this book to read on my iphone. Big mistake. I really didn’t enjoy the experience and I wonder if part of my irritation stemmed from the dissatisfaction I felt with the format. iphone as reading device: FAIL.