[TW for discussion of rape/description of a scene of non-consensual sex. Also *spoiler alert*]
The plot of Lady Drusilla’s Road to Ruin (from Harlequin’s website, where you can purchase the book):
Considered a spinster, Lady Drusilla Rudney has only one role in life: to chaperone her sister. So when her flighty sibling elopes, Dru knows she has to stop her! She employs the help of a traveling companion, who looks harmless enough….
Former army captain John Hendricks is intrigued by this damsel in distress. Once embroiled with her in a mad dash across England, he discovers that Dru is no simpering woman. Her unconventional ways make him want to forget his gentlemanly conduct…and create a scandal all their own!
I can tell from Goodreads and Googling reviews of the book that most people really enjoyed this book.
I did not. I never really felt engaged by the characters. Their motivations did not make sense to me and so their actions often seemed so disjointed from their thoughts (for instance: I did NOT get the whole highwayman sequence and him kissing Charlotte and then Dru feeling jealous and him turning her on by talking about what it was like to kiss that other woman – I just did NOT get that).
But my main problem arrived in the middle of the book when we got to the first sex scene between Dru and John.
John is upset because he is confused about where Dru’s heart lies. In order to help her to reach her sister and the man with whom her sister eloped before they made it to Scotland, he has slept in hay lofts, broken the law, shared sensual moments with Dru, and fallen in love with her. He is angry that after all of that she seems to love another (of course, he is wrong about this). He is angry and goes to her room, where he and Dru have sex.
The sex scene, though, is not consensual. And so it is VERY problematic. It’s not uncommon in romance novels (especially in those set in 19th-c England, where women’s virtue is coded in different terms and innocence plays a larger role) to read scenes where the man pushes his desires on a woman who appears unwilling in the outset and in her outward appearances but who we know from our perspective as the omniscient reader is happy to participate. That line is sometimes iffy (this is, for me, the greatest fault of romance novels generally). Sometimes it goes beyond the iffy. I felt that it did here.
In many respects, this read as rape and that John’s intent was to fuck her whether she wanted to or not (I wil get to Dru’s response in a moment).
Then he smiled and it was hard and predatory. And if she was to be totally honest, quite exciting. ‘I mean, my dear Dru, that you have dragged me half the length of Britain on a fool’s errand, treating me like nothing more than a sexless lackey. And now it is time for you to pay the piper. Run to tend the wounds of your dancing master, if you must. But you will do it when I am through with you, and not a moment before.’
And he was on her, like a wolf in a sheep’s fold.
Above her, and against her, she could hear the low rumbling of his voice. “Perhaps you thought it a grand romantic adventure to dangle me on a string while running to meet your lover. But damn it, Dru, a man can only take so much. And I have taken all that I can, and then more.’ Then he was pushing her away, on to her back, dragging her up onto the bed and lying on top of her, taking her mouth with slow deep penetrations of his tongue as his hands untied her stays and pushed her bodice and shift to her wait until he could cup her naked breasts in his palms.
He paused again and climbed up on the bed to straddle her, ‘Now, I will take the one thing I truly want from you in payment for this trip. Unfasten my trousers, Lady Drusilla. You know well enough how they come undone.’
And she almost obeyed him without thinking, before sanity returned. ‘I mustn’t.’
He caught her hand, running his fingers lightly across the knuckles of it, and said, ‘I do not mean to give you a choice.’ Then he pinned it to her side and stooped to kiss his way down her chest, and settled on her breast again.
At this point, I was pretty disgusted by this scene. But then, immediately following the last quote, it reads:
She had no choice. She did not have to worry about her father’s anger, or her sister’s welfare, or what tomorrow might bring for any of them. For a little time at least, John Hendricks was in complete control and demanding that he be allowed to pleasure her.
BUT HE DOESN’T KNOW THAT! His character is not redeemable for me after this scene. And I simply don’t understand Dru’s response. I would understand it better if it was about how she felt beautiful (perhaps pleasured is a version of this). But the idea that she wants yet another man to be in control of her is…confusing, to say the least. Her whole life, as Merrill paints it, is controlled by others. I don’t know.
I wasn’t sure if perhaps I was simply being harsh when I hit this part of the book. But then Merrill continues. Almost immediately following the scene, this:
‘Mr. Hendricks,’ she said at last, ‘I think that was probably very unwise of us. Of you,’ she corrected, for now that she thought of it, she had not encouraged the beginning much as she might have enjoyed the end.’
And then the next morning, upon waking up in his own bed and thinking back on the night before, Hendricks thinks (and Merrill writes):
The activities of the previous night had been earthshakingly wonderful. And when he had left her, she had been smiling in her sleep. But he would be lying to call them consensual. She had known nothing of lovemaking when he’d met her, only three days ago. She had been a proper, sermon-reading young lady and well on the way to becoming a spinster. And he was sure the kisses he had given her, only yesterday, were the first she had ever received.
He had worked to break down her defences, weaken her resistance and destroy her virtue. […]
But that had given him no right to push his way into her room and have his way with her.
Sheesh. Merrill and her character, Hendricks, even recognize that you couldn’t call the scene consensual.
Lying with her had been selfish, irrational and unwise. But he had wanted to do it more than he’d ever wanted anything else in his life.
And it had made her happy. Because of that, if nothing else, he had known that it was the right thing to do.
Ugh. Non-consensual sex was okay because it ended in her being happy. Just…no.
And it continues:
And he wanted her, just as much as he had the previous evening.
The circumstances of that bit into his conscience. She had not fought him, but she had hardly given him leave to do what he had done to her. And how he was ready to do it again without a word of consent.
He pulled away from the kiss with a groan, feeling her lean after him as though she did not want to give him up.
So, is the point that we are supposed to be happy that John feels bad about what he did? And go on rooting for their relationship to work out?
This then ruined pivotal scenes for me later in the story. Right at the end [MAJOR SPOILER NOW], John meets Dru in Hyde Park to convince her to elope with him (which, of course, she does). She is waiting for him to appear when this happens:
Suddenly, arms grabbed her from behind, pulling her into the shade before she could manage so much as a cry.
She was being kissed, and, Lord help her, handled. And before the fear could overtake the surprise of it, she realised that the taste of the mouth on her was familiar, as was the way the hands gripped her. And so she relaxed, kissing back, and whispering, when he allowed her breath, ‘Mr. Hendricks?’
Finally, he declares the reasons that he loves her and wants her in his life forever:
‘There must be some strange weakness in me that makes me long to feel the lash of your tongue, or the cold razor edge of your intellect.’ He kissed her on the mouth again with such force that when he had finished with her, she could hardly string two thoughts together, much less wield a razor of them. Then he pulled her pliable body close inside the shelter of his heavy topcoat. ‘Or perhaps it is just sweetens the moment when I have such a strong woman completely in my power.’
I am so weirded out by this. Part of what he loves about being with her is overpowering a strong woman. I know this is playing on their issues of rank (that she, as a daughter of a duke, significantly outranks him) and her willfulness but in light of their first sexual encounter, I can’t view his idea of power outside of the fact that he forced non-consensual sex on the woman he now wants to marry.
This is the first book I’ve ever read by Merrill. I would read more by her, I think. But I am very troubled by this terrible scene and the expectation that the (mainly female) audience will excuse that behavior and swoon over this man (which apparently many, many did).
I am choosing not to give this book an official rating.