The quest for authenticity in a novel of historical fiction comes with more than a few caveats. The greatest novelists of historical fiction, from the multi-narrative epics of E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and many others) through the fantastical historical suppositions of Philip Roth (American Pastoral, The Plot Against America), worked within the context of strong narratives that built as much on the strength of the time period as it did on the motivations of the characters. The historical fiction writer understands that meticulous research is imperative to the development and sustenance of a quality book. If logic and veracity (even within the confines of fiction) are absent, and the reader feels more than slightly manipulated by the machinations of the sub-genre (in the case of Impossible Saints that’s historical romance), then the strongest response upon finishing such a book is relief, e.g., this is a well-crafted building and it’s nicely decorated, but the characters are crafted and obvious to within an inch of their lives.
On that note, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Clarissa Harwood’s Impossible Saints. It’s a graceful and empathetic portrayal of a suffragette, Lilia Brooke, in 1907 England. She leaves her confining small town for the attractions afforded by London and the potential to change lives through liberation. She wants women to vote. She wants the right to access contraception. She wants Unions to have access to the workplace and therefore ensure better wages and safer conditions.
What we want will always come with obstacles, of course, and in this case those are represented by the intellect, the stable ethical principles, and the undeniably winning smile of Anglican priest Paul Harris. Clarissa represents spontaneity and independence, while Paul stands for order and composure. She is torn between radical liberation options and those better suited to compromise and acquiescence. No matter the means by which an end is reached, it’s the unpredictability of love (and passion) that probably speaks loudest.
Lilia’s path towards London is introduced within the first Chapter. In Chapter Two, after we meet the dashing Paul Harris, we also meet Thomas Cross, his nemesis. Cross is “…darkly handsome, in a panther-like way — sleek, muscular, and, Paul fancied, ready to spring upon his prey and sink in his gleaming fangs in one quick motion.” It’s a quick and effective way to illustrate the antagonist here, the fellow Anglican who might prove to squash Paul’s plans, but it’s obviousness makes it hard to take seriously, from the man’s very name (Is he a martyr? Is he a means to crucifixion?) to the fact that he never really pays off as a true villain.
What works well here is that Harwood provides a history for her two leads. They knew each other. They grew up with each other. Paul remembers Lilia when she played Joan of Arc in a youthful production. “He was struck by the incongruity of such a beautiful mouth on a young woman who clearly took no pains with her appearance.” There is a deeper history as well, one which proved to be the best summer of her life and the worst of his. She questions whether he’s a Papist, and he refers to himself as an “Anglo-Catholic”. The potential for some sort of late night assignation between the two would not be as scandalous had he been a full-blown Catholic clergy, but Harwood still makes it clear that the struggle between the two is real. Harwood nicely summarizes how that initial introduction of Lilia to Paul was guaranteed to render all that followed tragically anti-climactic:
“She could never live up to that first impression. A Jeanne d’Arc who grew up to be a schoolmistress instead of dying a triumphant martyr at the stake was bound to be a disappointment.”
Harwood confines much of the “action” in this novel (such as it is) to a series of impassioned discussions between characters about social issues and ideas. We learn about radical and conventional women’s rights groups. We hear the back and forth about the need for contraception, the right to access such services not simply for the sake of the woman, but as a staple of human rights. Lilia cries easily when she hears certain musical passages, and it makes the reader wish there had been more written about her vulnerability. She’s almost too strong — a character ready-made to be embraced on screen by Kate Winslet or Kierra Knightley.
There are places in Impossible Saints that could have been offered more exposure, and one of them is the section about the penitentiary in Whitechapel. Harwood has clearly done her homework here, but the reader senses it’s only a temporary stop to the development and resolution of the romance between Lilia and Paul. Again, the compelling drive of a romance for any human reader with a beating heart is undeniable, but the genre itself does seem to be confining. Identify the drive, introduce the obstacles between where the two characters are and where they want to be, and reach an ending. Consider this moment, near the halfway point, after a particularly pulse-racing moment between our potential lovers:
“Suddenly Lilia pulled away… as outwardly breathless and stunned as he felt. Her face was flushed and her hair fell in loose waves over her shoulders, the hair ribbon having come undone during their passionate embrace.”
Certainly it’s a strong moment for the characters, but the way it reads is typical of the novel’s tone. The difficulty of creating convincing scenes in the moments after a forbidden embrace in 1907 London are overwhelmed probably by the fact that it’s been done too often by others who may or may not have had a better approach to the genre. Harwood is just getting started here, and while the levels of romantic ecstasy may not match the heights of the Brontes or even Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, the reader prone to enjoy this genre might just as well wish the author was more assured with where she wanted to go and had faith that the romance and historical social changes in gender roles would balance each other out.
The problem is that these otherwise stale moments are hard to ignore. Lilia becomes more involved in the suffragette movement. People die, and characters (including Lilia) are temporarily imprisoned. Lilia realizes that public speaking takes more “of her brain” than anything else, so she needs to concentrate. If she wants to be a dynamic spokesperson for the cause, she has to eliminate romantic distractions. It’s at this point that the reader wishes Lilia would choose a more cerebral social activist route, if only to avoid such clumsy romantic lines as these:
“…a kind of madness possessed her and she pressed her lips against his… His hands moved to the back of her neck, under her hair, caressing her bare skin and making her tingle all over.”
Later, as Harwood approaches this potential assignation, the reader cringes at the awkwardness of it all. Perhaps that’s the point, but it makes for some painfully stale lines:
“Their tongues met, tentative and exploring.”
Paul claims that a friendship between the two of them would mean destruction, but they end up married, and the lead up to that arrangement is comically formal. “The might be two lawyers corresponding about a longstanding court case instead of lovers arranging their wedding.” There are passages of High Church and Low Church in England, and some background in that history (either prior to or while reading this book) will be helpful.
Paul and Lilia do finally consummate their relationship. She proves to be “remarkably unself-conscious about her nakedness…” and that scene leaves as soon as it’s introduced. There is pregnancy, heartbreak, and success as Lilia finds her voice as an undercover reporter, “…exposing her experience in Holloway Prison as Lilia Brooke and in Walton Goal as Joan Burns.” By this point, the reader might feel the loose ends are tying together too little too late. There’s a tidiness by the end of Impossible Saints that seems too convenient, like the final scene in a black and white British film of the ’40s, where the once fierce liberation-minded female is tamed by the love and commitment and wedding ring of a good man.
There’s a compelling book out there, waiting to be written, about the struggles and impossible obstacles faced by a brave woman in early 20th century England trying to find her voice in society. Had Impossible Saints not been so concerned with finding love and making opposites attract, it would have been a more compelling and meaningful examination of a time and place worthy of deeper exploration.