A historical novel about a woman who escapes a dangerous marriage to a wealthy Jamaican, trading material comfort for a life of disguise and hardship on the seas. 1981.
Madeleine Brent continues to be one of the most interested authors I’ve ever explored. Aside from being the only case I know of where a male author adopts a female pen name, Brent wrote quite a few historical novels that are in turn compelling, unusual, and, frankly, loads of fun. Between Golden Urchin, Tregaron’s Daughter, and now The Long Masquerade, I can now safely name him among my favorite authors. He’s also that rare case of a beloved author whose books I don’t hoard for a rainy day; once I have one of his books on hand, I seem quite unable to resist reading it.
The Long Masquerade begins with our heroine Emma becoming engaged to a man whom we know will be bad news. Emma (now a young woman) is an orphan who was taken in by an aunt and uncle. There’s never been much filial affection shared among these three; Emma feels like a constant burden to them. When they suggest that Oliver Foy, a wealthy Jamaican plantation owner, is interested in asking for Emma’s hand in marriage, Emma is taken by surprise. At the same time, this could be a very convenient way out of her uncomfortable living situation.
Unfortunately, this is very much one of those “out of the frying pan” situations. Emma does not expect to be swept away with love for Oliver, but she does hope to enter into an agreeable partnership. We can almost see her trying to be won over by Oliver’s good looks and reputable family tree. But there are small signs here and there; individuals of lower social position seem to be terrified of Oliver. Emma’s honorary father figure, a Chinese man who has looked after her all of her life, seems to know things about Oliver, but he’s not being forthcoming with this information.
So Emma continues in her semi-delusion up until the wedding night. I found it unnerving that Brent chose to dedicate so much attention to Emma’s insistence of being told the “facts of life” beforehand. (In a rather funny scene, she makes her poor aunt almost pass out from embarrassment at this line of inquiry.) All of this contributes to a picture of a young woman who is looking for guidance on how to begin her married life. Which is where things go terribly wrong…
Oliver Foy is, simply put, a devil of a man. Our “fade to black” transition on Emma’s wedding night is followed up with this next chapter opening:
In the weeks and months that followed our wedding there were many occasions when I waited at night in our bedroom for my husband to come to me, but never again with happy anticipation.
Rather, after that first encounter, Emma lives in terror of her husband and his brutal attentions. Yes, this part is quite grim. It’s never graphic, but I was nonetheless mentally disturbed by being so inside the head of a woman who was subjected to such cruelty.
It turns out that many people know about this side of Oliver’s nature. Above all, this explains why Emma’s dear friend Daniel was concerned for Emma’s future. Daniel becomes more and more of a central character as Emma starts looking to her friends and loved ones for help.
Emma, like all of Brent’s heroines, has a great deal of backbone herself. She’s in distress, but she’s not your typical damsel. In spite of the very real danger that it creates, Emma begins to stand up to Oliver.
‘Keep away, Oliver!’ I quavered. ‘Keep away from me, or I swear I’ll strike you.’
He stopped, eyes agleam with delight. ‘You threaten me, madam?’ he said wonderingly. ‘You dare to threaten your husband? By God, you shall suffer for that.’
‘No!’ The word was a whisper, and I felt tears running down my cheeks. ‘I will never let you beat me or degrade me again, Oliver. Never, never!’ My voice rose and broke, but still the words came out. ‘If you leave me in peace I will keep up whatever pretense you wish to the outside world, but I will not share your bed, Oliver. I will not! Have your Maroon girls as you will, but never touch me again.’
Oliver is a violent man, so of course this demand does not go over well. Emma finds herself in still worse danger, but fortunately Daniel shows up to help her fight back. Afraid that the law will be hunting them down, Daniel and Emma have no choice but to disappear from Jamaica.
This is where the stomach-turning abuse ends and the high seas adventures begin. Whew! Emma adopts a male Coolie disguise, speaking the pidgin Creole she’s been exposed to her whole life on Jamaica. She and Daniel sail from port to port around the Caribbean, keeping a low profile as tradesmen. In spite of their care to thoroughly disguise Emma, though, there seems to be someone who’s been trying to figure out their true identities…
And I’ll leave off on plot summary there. This becomes a humble kind of adventure, all the while building up toward something that you know is going to be epic. As in Golden Urchin, I fell for our heroine’s practical skill set and its many, unexpected applications. I also really enjoyed Daniel’s character–how refreshing to have a surrogate father figure who crosses racial, linguistic, and class barriers all at once.
In the end, I do recommend this book. If you can stomach the 30 or so pages that include marital abuse, then I promise that the whole rest of the book will make it worth it. (And make it so much more satisfying when the whole Oliver Foy mess is finally resolved!)
Aside from of course reminding me of Brent’s other works, The Long Masquerade also reminded me of Dorothy Eden’s An Important Family. For its prominent foreshadowing and dark plot turns, I recommend this read if you’re into gothic stories.
Best of all? The Long Masquerade may only be about 300 pages long, but it contains all the plot and setting variety of a novel twice its length. Way to go, Madeleine Brent!