The Steadfast Heart

Natasha Phillips has been left alone too long. With most of her family deceased and her brother Peter fully committed in the war on the Peninsula, she’s been marooned in the country with an old aunt. Now that Napoleon has been defeated and Peter is facing deployment to the Americas, he must find a way for his sister to have her first Season. That’s where his friend Major Cameron Talbot comes in: he’s to keep an eye on Natasha, screen her suitors, and offer himself up as a chaperone. As a favor to his friend, Cam agrees–but with trepidation, because everything he hears about the outspoken, impulsive, educated Tasha clashes with his idea of the perfect woman.

This review is going to be full of spoilers. Really, the book is not worth reading, so why hide the ugly truth about it? I am writing this down now, the day after finishing Dorothy Mack’s book, so that I can get the novel away from me as fast as possible.

I tried to be charitable. I read and read, right to the end, hoping The Steadfast Heart would get better. I tried to forgive the hero for his coldness and unfair assumptions about the heroine as he attempts to guide the country girl through her first Season.

The problem is, Cam has an irrational dislike for Natasha, and she–very rationally, dislikes him in return. Then, scandal forces him to marry her (such an old device). After magically and unbelievably realizing she loves Cam, Natasha does her best to improve her appearance and comportment in the hope that he will warm up to her. Unfortunately, succeeding in society and shaking off the dowdy clothes her cousins forced upon her have horrific consequences.

When Cam sees his now-gorgeous wife surrounded by admirers (and has a few venomous hints dropped into his ear by one of those said jealous cousins), he falls into a rage and accuses her of being a whore. Then, when the outraged Natasha threatens to get an annulment, he makes it impossible by raping her.

Of course, Mack suggests that it “might not have been rape” (though, as described, it most certainly was) and makes Natasha swear she will “never forgive [Cam] for so wanton an act of desecration–never!” (170-171). Nevertheless, within days she’s mooning over him again. When they make love shortly thereafter, all’s good. Where’s the lingering trauma, Ms. Mack?

Then, Cam is sent to Vienna on a diplomatic mission (something he neglected to warn his wife about), she spends months anticipating his letters, only to find them cold. When Natasha can’t figure out a way to reveal her pregnancy to him in response to such impersonal letters, she decides to surprise her husband by travelling to Europe and telling him in person.

He should be happy, right? Oh no, not the “moral,” “almost Puritanical” Cam. He looks at her, decides she’s “not big enough,” and accuses her of having the effrontery of passing off someone’s bastard as his own child. Nothing will dissuade him from his delusion, and he spends months of her pregnancy degrading and humiliating her.

Of course, when the baby comes on time, everything is good, their relationship is repaired, and the clouds part. Theirs will be a happy future? Right?

Yeah, right.

I wanted to like The Steadfast Heart. After all, I enjoyed Mack’s The Mock Marriage. I pushed through to the final pages of The Steadfast Heart even though I wanted to throw the book across the room.

Looking back, the books share one of the tropes I detest most of all (and I’ve created a new tag for it: “You Detestable Harlot!”). The hero who is convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that his partner is a slut. It’s just that in The Mock Marriage, Egon Hollister had more reason for his misconception (his fake wife was an actress, after all, which implied, at the time, that she was also a kept woman).  Despite that, Egon’s response to Claire is mostly confined to his inner struggles and verbal barbs–not physical abuse. In contrast The Steadfast Heart‘s Natasha does little-to-nothing to earn Cam’s censure–even by the thin standards of this tired trope.

It’s a shame, really. Natasha has promise as a character. She is educated. She has a colorful family (including a Russian grandmother who had been a ballerina and–it is implied–the mistress of many important men before she settled down). In addition to being bright, Tasha herself is a talented dancer and she has a generous heart. She deserves better than the cold, cruel Cam.

Cam has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and I get the sense that Mack knew it. Even his “soul searching” is written in a confused and clumsy fashion–one that doesn’t even begin to address the multiple ways he has betrayed his wife.

Clearly, I cannot recommend The Steadfast Heart. I hope the other books in this trilogy are better.

My ratings:

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