Love and the Loathsome Leopard (This DIK review was written by an author)
1977, European Historical Romance (Regency [1810s] England and France)
Duron Books, 149 pages, Amazon ASIN 0872720276
The first novelist to grab me by the throat and drag me into the world of romance was Barbara Cartland. I was fifteen years old, trapped in a car driving through the Black Forest and bored. My parents kept pointing out the lovely settings but, hey, I was from Minnesota. Big trees didn't impress me ( not that much did impress me at fifteen).
When we stopped for fuel I sauntered through the magazine section looking for anything to read. A Barbara Cartland paperback was the only English choice available. Reluctantly I purchased it, hoping fervently it would prove distracting enough to get me through the next couple hours.
It did. And how! It set me on a course of romance-devouring gluttony which I am still feeding twenty-five years later.
Love and the Loathsome Leopard is not the romance I read in the Black Forest. I can't honestly remember that title. But it was the oldest Cartland I could find at the library and so I withdrew it, set on discovering how Dame Cartland stood the test of not time, but my own fond memories.
The plot is familiar. Abused as a child (and I mean really abused; we're talking daily flogging here), John Heywood, Lord Cheriton, ran away from home and joined Wellington's army -- during his years of fighting earning the sobriquet The Loathsome Leopard. He spends the next fifteen years cursing his father and wondering about his sweet, saintly mother, a woman who could do little to shelter her son from his maniacal sire. I'm not sure why she couldn't, but as with any Cartland novel we must simply take such assurances as gospel or leap rather violently out of the "suspension of disbelief."
After both parents died, Cheriton told his solicitors to let the hated house of his youth fall apart. He doesn't think about it for nine years, until he is ordered to return to his family seat and clean the coast of a murderous gang of smugglers. To do so he opts to disguise himself as a retired army captain.
Wivinia Compton, orphaned daughter of the local curate (and no, this is not a typo, and yes, I can not help but wonder what the affectionate diminutive of this name is) lives in Cheriton's crumbling, decaying manor with her brother and the retainers Cheriton thoughtlessly sentenced to unemployment years before. When Cheriton arrives in town, he is amazed to find that though falling down, his old family manse is inhabited, clean, and well-decorated.
The lovely spiritual girl who meets him at the door has exorcised its demons. But she has her own problems. Not only is she being terrorized into aiding the local smugglers, but their hideous leader is determined to marry her.
Wivinia rather digs the newly arrived captain. In fact, so much so that by page seventy-three they are declaring their adoration for each other. A few pages later the Loathsome Lothario Smuggler King meets the Loathsome Leopard and a masculine bit of territorial posturing goes on. Almost immediately afterwards Cheriton is called to another town to roust a different gang of ne'er-do-wells. The jealous smuggler kidnaps Wivinia and her brother and carts them over to France. A few hours after landing, Wivinia's virtue is about to be excised when -- you guessed it -- Cheriton appears!
Cheriton heroically performs a rescue, kills the horrible smuggler king, reveals his true identity, and declares, again, his undying love. The book ends in Cartland de rigueor fashion, with Cheriton filled with awe at the discovery that with the power of love filling him he can forgive anyone, even his wretched father.
So does Cartland hold up? Aside from writing foibles such as an awesome adherence to a one sentence per paragraph structure, and a heroine who cannot seem to speak an entire sentence without at least one . . . hesitation, sure.
In a Cartland romance the core attraction between the hero and heroine is spiritual. Real spiritual. Images of the heroine as an "angel haloed by light," "pure," and "sacred", abound (even if there is rather too many times the heroine reminds the hero of Mom for this reader's comfort level.) The villains are the worst. Physically and spiritually disgusting, they epitomize evil. And the hero is amazingly stalwart and dashing and experienced.
But, sadly, I'm not the same reader I was twenty five years ago. Though still a silly romantic, I am much more jaded. I no longer buy into the idea of instantaneous, spiritual rapport between two souls who have struggled through life in search of each other. But I'm glad, profoundly glad, that at one time, I did. So thanks, Dame Cartland, and may you ever grow new flocks of silly romantics.
"They kissed and together touched the divine."
-- Connie Brockway
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