That Scandalous Evening
by Christina Dodd, historical (1998)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-380-79091-2
I cannot lie and say that I would have enjoyed That Scandalous Evening were not for the ending grovel scene. Christina Dodd isn't writing a romance story here as much as she is spinning an often very painful story of a heroine's constant humiliation and heartbreak at the hands of one of the most aggravatingly stupid and misogynistic heroes I've ever come across, but with a difference: the hero truly abjects himself to the heroine at the end, putting the fate of his heart entirely in her hands. In that moment, heroine Jane Higgenbothem has power that she has never had before. In that moment, I surprise myself by actually experiencing vicariously a feminine thrill at the idea of a fellow woman having so much power over a man. How Jane deals with this power in those last five pages of this book elevates this book from a wallbanger to a very memorable near-keeper for me.
Eleven years ago, Miss Jane Higgenbothem, plain and unmemorable, has a crush on Ransom Quincy. As an artist, she ends up sculpting an unmistakable likeness of Ransom. She sculpts Ransom in the nude, but because she has never seen an unclothed man before, she's stuck when it comes to the part between the legs. What she ends up doing to compensate for her ignorance ruins utterly any chance of her showing her face in Society when a petty fellow debutante spitefully unveils the statue in public - with Ransom in attendance in the party. The darkly amusing thing is, eleven years later she still has no idea why her statue of Ransom is so terrible!
Today, Jane accompanies her niece Adorna (who will go on to feature prominently in Ms Dodd's Governess series) as Adorna makes her debut in London. Jane only wants to keep to the background if she can't be left to her art, but unfortunately Ransom recognizes her. Now, take this ladder and we'll both try to suspend our collective sense of disbelief together. Ransom wants revenge on Jane because it is the only adult thing to do when he barely loses anything while Jane has lost everything but her name as a result of the scandal that took place more than a decade ago. He is also a secret agent - don't laugh, people - and he decides that causing a big splash by "courting" Jane will distract his target from his investigations. Maybe someone should tell him that distracting one's target will work better if the method of distraction does not draw attention to him. Oh, and he suspects Jane to be an intermediate courier for the spies after reviewing some very flimsy and circumstantial evidence mostly revolving around his ego (a bitter woman spurned by him driven to treachery - how tragic!) but that goes with the territory of Dumb of which his head is the capital.
The rest of the story is painful and heartbreaking. Jane cannot stand up to Ransom at all - her feeble protests are swept aside like a house of cards in a storm. Ransom uses her sexually and places her in the line of danger without her knowing what he is doing with her. Jane is like... I don't know, the plain girl in high school falling for the football captain, not realizing that the jerk has a bet with his team that he can get into her underpants without trying or something. I want to smack some sense in to her and ask her to grow a spine even as a part of me understand how hard it can be to let go of the beautiful delusions one can harbor when someone so far out of one's league suddenly seems to adore that person. Ransom is also very, very stupid - his methods of catching a spy are laughable. If a man as one-dimensionally moronic as Ransom can actually qualify as a spy, Bugs Bunny is the new Pope. But the cruelty of Ransom runs deeper: he actively took part in the ruination of Jane's standing in Society because of his wounded ego when he should very well know that Jane, as a young woman, is ignorant of what lies there and therefore shouldn't be utterly crushed and ruined like Jane was eleven years ago when he led the lynch mob on her. And now he still wants to "avenge" himself on her. GOD. Pardon my language but Ransom is truly one for the Steve Morgan "Please do me a favor and fucking DIE, thanks!" Hall of Fame.
But all that heartbreak and anguish lead up to that one glorious moment when Ms Dodd, that evil woman, suddenly cuts off Ransom at the knees. Now, for me to go on will mean that I will be spoiling the story completely, so I've decided to mask the spoilers. Use your mouse to highlight the text in order to discover the spoiler.
[spoiler starts] Jane is finally given a chance to pursue her ambitions in France and she is about to step onto the boat when Ransom shows up. In full view of everyone, the insufferably proud jackass drops onto his knees onto the muddy ground and asks Jane to stay with him. What makes this scene truly great is that Jane actually wants to leave him. She's finally had enough and he has driven her close to the edge, and as she remembers all the humiliation and unkind nonsense he had gleefully heaped onto her with no consideration for her feelings, she really wants to leave. Of course she will stay with Ransom or this won't be a romance novel, but by the time she makes her decision, there is no doubt in my mind that Ransom is aware of what she is giving up to stay with him, just as he is aware that she is with him by her choice.
This is a wonderful scene and I cannot do justice here as to how right Ms Dodd has written that scene. It is impressive just how tangible Ms Dodd manages to make the awareness between the two of them that Jane now holds all the power between the two of them and she can truly repay him for the nonsense he has caused by walking away there and then. By being the so-called better person, which is to say, by not avenging herself on Ransom by breaking his heart completely, Jane has vanquished Ransom at last. After all, now that they both know that she could have left him but she didn't, she now holds over his head the fact that he may have asked her to come back to him and forgive him, it is actually she who chooses to go back to him. She decides that they should be together. She has finally broken free of him and she returns to him solely by her own decision. His power over her has diminished considerably.
For the first time, I understand how some readers feel when Jane Eyre returns to care for her now weak and useless liar and bigamist of a bad boyfriend. The Jane in this story suffers, often stupidly, a victim of her passions. But unlike in Jane Eyre where the fantasy takes a different turn when the oppressor becomes so crippled that Jane Eyre triumphs over him by generously taking care of him and loving him completely on her own terms with that man having no more chance to turn her away - a more romantic version of Misery, if you will - Jane Higgenbothem's ending satisfies me considerably more because Ransom isn't forced to depend on Jane's love. He is still whole and still the same old insufferable idiot that he was before. Only this time, he loves Jane and he wants her back. She could have said no. She nearly said no until he further lowers himself and begs once more for her to stay. Only a few heartbeats later, after Jane's internal struggle with herself is over, does she return to him on her own terms and not because he tells her to. In doing so, Jane has conquered that part of herself that makes herself a victim to Ransom's attention - she now sees Ransom for everything that he is, flaws and all, and she now returns to him with her eyes wide open. In doing so, she is making her own choice. She is, finally, taking control of her own life. This last aspect of Jane's epiphany is the most satisfying one for me. It assures me that she will walk away in the future if Ransom ever forgets that he can never take Jane for granted again. [spoiler ends]
By making it very clear that Jane is not being a doormat for making her decision about Ransom at the end of the story, That Scandalous Evening is worth all the exasperation and aggravations I feel while suffering through the book up until that point. Suddenly, Ransom comes off as powerless while Jane is the one who has won. Ransom's ill-treatment of Jane until point turns out to be nothing more than a catalyst for Jane's self-discovery. Despite everything Ransom has done to her, Jane doesn't seem to be making a wrong decision at all by the end of the book.
In just a few pages, Ms Dodd has managed to reverse my opinion of this book completely. I'm suddenly glad that I'm not a general matching wit and strategy against her in a battlefield because the maneuvre she pulls on me in That Scandalous Evening isn't merely sneaky, it's almost an evil kind of genius! I cannot do anything more than to take my figurative hat off to her. That Scandalous Evening is a painful and emotionally draining rollercoaster ride, but the unexpected payoff is so good and so vicariously fulfilling. And when I think of how this payoff is this good because of how Ransom pushes Jane too far until he nearly loses her for good, thus making his humbling so much more enjoyable, I have to admit to myself that I have been completely played like a violin by Ms Dodd, so masterfully until I do not realize what is happening until it's too late. What can I say? I feel bruised all over from the experience but damn, I feel really good nonetheless!
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