If such a thing exists, Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is part of the historical romance canon. It’s a classic of the genre that still appeared at #6 on All About Romance’s 2010 Top 100 List 18 years after publication. I voted on their list for 2013 and included it myself. An intense and sometimes painful read, Flowers from the Storm’s status as one of the best romances novels ever written is understandable and unassailable.
Christian, Duke of Jervaulx is a mathematician and a rake. We meet him acting on both inclinations early in the book: the latter leads to a duel, the former to working with a Quaker academic and his daughter Archimedea, called Maddy. When Christian has an “apoplexy” (stroke) shortly after presenting a mathematical paper, he disappears from their lives until Maddy and her father come to live at a rest home/psychiatric hospital run by her cousin. Christian is a patient and a troublesome one at that. When Maddy meets Christian again, he has been brought very low and is presumed mad. She realises he is “not mad, but maddened” and approaches her cousin saying she has “An Opening”, a spiritual calling, to help Christian. The apoplexy left his language processing centers damaged, but Christian finds he is able to communicate first through mathematics and later with language as Maddy works with him. He recognizes in her a chance to escape the hospital and seeks to do so by any means necessary.
Progressive for The Regency, the hospital is every dehumanizing psychiatric care nightmare rolled into chapters: abuse, restraints, ice baths, isolation. Kinsale shows us Christian’s muddled, struggling mind and I found these sections harrowing and must confess to jumping forward to a less upsetting section of the book to console myself before going back to continue reading chronologically. Mercifully, Maddy and Christian get away from the hospital, but a marriage of convenience is required to prevent him from being sent back as it will give the impression of a fuller recovery.
Romance novels can succeed on many levels, but the best ones have the same thing in common: If a writer can honestly portray the emotional lives of her characters, everything else will fall into place. Flowers from the Storm is not a light-hearted romance, it can be a tough read precisely because the characters are so well drawn and the reader feels their struggles. Christian and Maddy are two puzzle pieces that fit together only because of the situation they find themselves in. In either of their previous lives, their relationship would not have worked. Forced by circumstance, they build something together that is more than they ever would have been separately.
Thank you, Malin, for reminding me that I had not read this yet and for promising me Christian and Maddy would leave the hospital soon when I emailed her in a heart-wrenched panic.
This review is also posted on my tiny little blog.