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Book review: Leonora by Gina Pounds reviewed by Ian R. Thorpe
Gina Pounds novel Leonora is a fast paced (bodice) ripping yarn set in the seventeenth century. A young aristocratic Englishwoman is pursued around western Europe by a man to whom her father owes a great debt. Around her the great tulip bubble (yes there was such a thing) is causing economic chaos. Can she hold on to her virtue until she is safely back in England and does her would be debaucher's reach extend beyong The Rhineland.

Leonora: Gina Pounds
reviewed by Ian R Thorpe.
2003-12-03
CREATIVE COMMONS: Attribute, non commercial, no derivs.
KEYWORDS: book, novel, fiction, review, romance, love story, literature, historical, england, belgium, netherlands, rhineland, tulip

When first asked to review Leonora by Regina Pounds I had some reservations. The title and plot outline suggested a typical historical romance, a "bodice ripper," perhaps not a good genre for a man who has been a performance poet and experienced the Roman circus that is stand up comedy. I knew Regina's work through short stories and poems though and so expected to find something with a little more depth than the usual love story.

In recent years many novels that have passed through my hands have been disappointing, promising much but turning out to be formulaic pot boilers. So deeply entrenched is the publishing world's commitment to accountancy considerations that the unorthodox writer of quality fiction who does not aspire to incomprehensible "high literature" has nowhere to go. It is a situation many writers like Gina find themselves in. The literary establishment should always remember that writers are first and foremost entertainers.

Having read Leonora I can say that although not a book I would have bought for myself it is wonderful entertainment and will delight both fans of the "bodice ripper" and lovers of historical fiction. Lurking just beneath the surface of the love story that forms the main plot is a darker world of intrigue and treachery. Europe is in turmoil, in France dissent is evolving into rebellion, Britain having recently lost the American colonies is pursuing an isolationist foreign policy, Spain and Portugal, the first great imperial powers of the modern world are declining and to the north the sleeping giant, Russia, under the crushing authority of an absolutist monarchy, holds itself prisoner in an outmoded feudal system of lief and leige.

In this volatile political climate the eponymous heroine, a haughty and headstrong but somewhat nave English aristocrat sets out on a journey that will take her through France, the Rhineland and Belgium (Germany did not exist as a sovereign nation at the time). Pre revolution France is no place for respectable people to be travelling without an armed escort and the story opens with Leonora, her father and the rest of the party being held up by an awkward squad of French peasants. To the rescue come two Russian aristocrats. It is an encounter that is to shape Leonora's future.

From then events race along at a breakneck pace, helped by Regina's lightness of touch with language and ability to construct rhythmic sentences and fluent prose. One thing I admire very much is the way this writer varies the pace and is not afraid to linger over a scene to build atmosphere. At a time when alleged academics are trying to dictate that narrative and dialogue that does not move the plot forward is redundant it is refreshing to read somebody who knows the importance of building our impression of a character through what they say and how they react to what is going on. For instance there is a line by Dumas where a character "got up from the chair on which he was sitting." Now everything after "got up" could be discarded. But if it was would we feel the character' foreboding? Would we understand that he wanted to delay what would happen next for every possible second? That he hopes something might turn up and save his life if only he can keep his bottom on that another few seconds. With a writer of such skill we do not simply read a novel, we feel it.

This story has its roots in two scandals that occurred in the late eighteenth century but spins around the references to real events a web of intrigue and conspiracy.

Lady Melinda, on deserting her boring and socially unsuitable husband for a much more exotic lover leaves a keepsake with her daughter, a very special locket. Several years later while travelling with her father in the hope of restoring his failing health Leonora is rescued from her first dangerous situation by Count Alexij Stropov and his friend Prince Borowinski. The two chevaliers seem very dashing to the young Englishwoman and following their encounter, both aware of the effect they had, make a wager on who will bed her first.

Gambling continues to play a role when the aristocrats lure Leonora's father, a compulsive gambler, to the tables and he signs away the family estate to Count Stropov in order to discharge a gambling debt. Initially Stropov, reveals that he is no gentleman (Egad sir, one expects nothing else from Johnny foreigner!) by planning to use the debt as leverage in order to seduce the girl. He succeeds in this but in the process falls in love with his conquest.

From that point there are many twists and turns in the plot. The mysterious Black Tulip, a French secret embezzler taunts the two Russians who have been given the task of recovering funds he has stolen from their nation. There is a surprise encounter in Germany through which an injustice is righted and back in England a criminal to whose son Leonora was promised does his best to disrupt her burgeoning love affair with Alexij.

It is not a novelists job to explore moral philosophy but to teach us moral lessons through the fictional lives of the characters and this is executed particularly well in Leonora. In the early part of the book the driving force of the plot is the aristocratic obsession with games both organised and spontaneous. Unfortunately the spontaneous ones tend to affect the lives of those who are not involved. The mannered artifice of the upper classes is summed up when a character rebukes Leonora "You are as direct and uncompromising as ever. Has life not taught you there are many shades of human behaviour? People hide their true motives behind facades of reason and civility."

Later the propulsion comes from Alexij's fanatical jealousy. Having boasted of his many past lovers as he goes to great lengths to accomplish the seduction the Count becomes obsessed by the idea that he may not be the only one to have broken down his lover's defences. At one point I was reminded of a scene that takes place between Tess and Angel Clare in Hardy's Tess of the d' Urbervilles.

This whole theme made me think of the hypocrisy of the "Christian marriage" ideal and the value placed on virginity. The whole business grew from a time when marriage was simply a business arrangement and the rules created by a male dominated society's obsession with property and succession.

Events are driven by Alexij's passion and past follies, Leonora's headstrong attitudes and Borowinski's chagrin at having lost both the bet and Leonora to an exiting climax in imperial Russia. The one thing that struck me as incongruous was Leonora's tolerance of Alexij's boorishness but that is easily forgiven.

As a man and therefore not part of the target audience I found this a satisfying book to read, the quality of the story telling and well researched detail on life during that period will delight most readers. The main characters are interesting and involve one in their adventures while a cast of minor characters and some excellent set dressing provide a rich period atmosphere. My feeling was that the story deserves a much wider audience than it is likely to get. Anyone listening in Hollywood?

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Leonora (historic fiction) - Review

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