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Bookish Thoughts are essays where I get personal about books that have had a strong impact on my life. They’re not reviews, just ruminations.
This essay was originally written as a guest review for the website Dear Author, under another pseudonym (Fallen Professor). I recently found my hard drive copy and wanted to share it here; you can also read the original post, with discussion, at this link.
A COUPLE OF NOTES:
1. Since one of the unique aspects of this novel is its ending, this essay contains some spoilers. And, even though it’s a classic romance that’s been around for a while, I believe that new readers should be able to experience the ending for themselves if they wish. If you are such a reader, you’ll be able to easily avoid the spoiler section, since I’ve placed it at the very end.
2. For this re-read, I picked up the Kindle version of the updated (2001) edition. According to the author, this new edition doesn’t change any plot points or characters, but adds some 50 pages to the original. Since I don’t have my original paperback anymore, I can’t tell where they were added, but I certainly don’t feel any big changes. The 2001 edition also includes an author’s note where Deveraux explains how she came to write this novel, and what it’s really about. This last point is important because it changed the way I viewed a couple of the main characters; but since I didn’t read the author’s note until I had finished the novel, my original opinion of these two will stand as-is, and I’ll elaborate on it in the spoiler section.
Dear Ms. Deveraux,
When I decided to revisit A Knight in Shining Armor, I confess that I was almost afraid to re-read it for a couple of reasons. First, I remembered crying buckets during certain scenes, and honestly that’s not the kind of story I tend to read these days. Second, I worried that if I didn’t cry buckets this time around, I’d come away with a less than flattering view of my past self. I know, I know.
The good news is that (1) I didn’t cry (or, as Nicholas would say, get “onion-eyed”), but (2) oddly enough, I was probably more moved than the first time around. As the novel shows, time and experience leave their mark on a person, and that certainly includes me as a reader.
Also, just as I remembered, Dougless did enough crying for the both of us. Poor Dougless Montgomery, with her overachieving family and her inability to find her dream man. She’s gone from one bad boy to the next, and at the start of the novel is saddled with Robert Whitley, a surgeon who treats her like crap and who has what to me seemed like a really creepy relationship with his daughter from a previous marriage. This is one aspect of the novel I really didn’t like: Robert and Gloria are sometimes implausibly mean to Dougless, so much so that she ends up stranded in the middle of nowhere in rural England during a “family” vacation. To make matters worse, Gloria snatches Dougless’ purse when she drives off with dear daddy, leaving our heroine destitute as well as heartbroken.
Gloria is in her early teens, and Dougless constantly describes her as “pudgy” as well as spoiled and mean. And this petty behaviour on Dougless’ part really bothered me as well. I understand that Dougless feels legitimately victimized by Gloria, who is herself an insecure girl feeling very threatened by the lovely young woman her father lives with (he shares custody with his ex). But here’s the thing. Gloria takes her anger out on Dougless by lying and pouting and generally behaving like an adolescent. And Dougless, who’s an elementary school teacher and thus well acquainted with unruly behaviour, finally snaps and… slaps Gloria? Really? This was still a shocking scene the second time around, and seemed just as uncharacteristic of Dougless as the first time I read it.
Anyway, once our villains are out of the way, Dougless is left to fend for herself, so she does something that isvery characteristic of her and breaks down in tears. And yes, I know I’m being mean here, because Dougless has every reason to have a nervous breakdown at this point: she’s finally found a man she thinks she can take home to her family, one who had made it seem as if the trip to England was going to involve a marriage proposal, and she finds out he’s an abusive jerk who just gave his daughter a $5,000 diamond bracelet. However, any reader familiar with this novel know just how many tears Dougless sheds throughout the story, even if those tears play an important role in connecting with Nicholas.
Nicholas is Nicholas Stafford, Earl of Thornwyck. It is his tomb that Dougless cries on after being abandoned, and his effigy she gazes at as she wishes for a “knight in shining armour.” And voila, he appears, albeit only in half-armour (details, details…). Nicholas is understandably confused, since he had been sitting in a cell writing a letter to his mother and trying to avoid being executed for treason when he was called forth in time by Dougless’ despair. Soon this confusion turns to anger, since he believes Dougless to be a witch, and this conflict marks the start of their relationship.
I like the way the novel is constructed, with the first half taking part in the twentieth century, and the second in the sixteenth. The very beginning, however, takes place in the past, and the very end in the present. This juxtaposition very much pleases my pattern-loving brain, and feels well thought-out. It also underscores the fact that bothDougless and Nicholas are on personal quests, and that they both need to make fundamental changes. Finally, I think this construction helps us understand, and perhaps, accept, the ending. But more on that later.
Another aspect of the plot that I like is the shared sense of uncertainty: neither we nor the characters know what the exact “magical” item/piece of information is that will send Nicholas hurtling back into the sixteenth century. Without giving too much away, Dougless believes she has the answer at one point, but Nicholas remains. Then something important happens between them, and he does go back to his own time; however, when Dougless checks her history sources, she discovers that the worst has happened to Nicholas.
It is at this point that Dougless is sent back in time, and then the story becomes really interesting, because she’s sent back to four years before Nicholas is accused of treason. Which means that she’s trapped in 16th-century England and Nicholas doesn’t recognize her. I like this detail because, not only does it make sense from the point of view of the story (Dougless needs to prevent a long chain of events that would otherwise lead to Nicholas’ imprisonment), but also because it adds risk and adventure, and becomes the catalyst for Dougless’ own transformation. Because, in reality, Dougless is there to save herself as much as she is to help Nicholas. Her experiences in the 16th century will be a test of those qualities that usually fail her: confidence, a strong sense of identity, and ultimately the ability to make good choices for herself.
Once she finds herself in Elizabethan England, Dougless wheedles her way into the Stafford household, much to a suspicious Nicholas’ chagrin, and begins to work her charms on his family. Eventually, Nicholas begins feeling an uncanny connection to Dougless, and following a series of dramatic incidents he believes her claims of having come from the future to help him. However, there is one thing she asks him to do that he feels he cannot, and this becomes a source of tension with his family as well. The end of her stay is highly dramatic, alternating between joy and despair, with a final sense of bittersweet accomplishment.
And it is here, dear readers, that I must talk about the ending and other details that will definitely spoil a first reading. This is a long spoiler section, and I don’t want to make you scroll all the way down for my final thoughts and grade, so I’ll put them here. Readers wanting a more complete opinion can keep reading below the spoiler line.
A Knight in Shining Armor has many of the hallmarks of its time: melodrama, bigger-than-life characters, and a redheaded heroine who fights for the love of her life. These, I think, make the novel feel a little dated. There are also some aspects of Dougless’ and other characters’ behaviour that I really didn’t like, and that spoiled some scenes for me. But buried deep beneath all the drama and passion is a lovely meditation on history, and memory, and the ways we can (and cannot) control how we are remembered. It is these insights, the realism with which life in a different time period is approached, and the courage of the ending that make this novel worth reading.
Thank you for the memories, Ms. Deveraux.
The novel ends with Dougless being sent back to her own time, alone. She has managed to keep Nicholas from marrying Lettice, and both the date of death on his tomb and the history books attest to the fact that he lived a long, fulfilling life. No longer seen as a playboy who got himself beheaded for treason, the Nicholas ultimately remembered is a scholar and architect who never married but whose son from a pre-Dougless union goes on to make the Stafford line prosperous.
And here’s the problem for many readers: Dougless doesn’t get her HEA with Nicholas. Instead, on the flight back from England she meets a man who eerily resembles him, and the book ends with their sharing a meal on the plane. This is a bold move for a romance novel ending, but for me it works.
You see, I find most time travel romances highly problematic for me for a couple of reasons. First, because I feel that there’s often too much of a compromise that one of the characters needs to make in order to reach an HEA with their hero/heroine. Second, because the way this compromise is attained is usually to make the alternate time period completely comfortable and attractive to the person who will be displaced.
In my opinion, the best aspect of the time travel in A Knight in Shining Armor is the fact that it doesn’t pretend that one can move seamlessly from one time period to another; there are repercussions, and especially serious ones for Dougless. There’s also a theme of responsibility that’s crucial to this story; allowing either Dougless or Nicholas to remain in the other’s time period would mean that one of them would not be taking responsibility for their actions, and thus a much needed transformation would not occur. In the end, how could either Nicholas or Dougless love someone willing to abandon their family and duties?
Therefore, it’s important that both Nicholas and Dougless realize that they belong in their own time, even if it means being apart. Nicholas, interested though he may be in modern life, will always have a sixteenth-century mentality. He’s never going to be the man Dougless really wants, because his concepts of honour and love are very different from hers (the scene where they argue over the meaning of Romeo and Juliet is especially telling here). Also, because he is honour-bound to his family, he cannot possibly remain in Dougless’ time; doing so would truly make him the irresponsible man whose legacy they’ve been trying to alter.
Dougless, for her part, needs to face the challenges of her own time, and not escape into a fantasy world. In this sense, I think the novel does a great job of showing the gritty realities of life in the sixteenth century, and of showing that without the Staffords’ protection, a lone woman in Elizabethan England would not fare well. And here, there’s also the crucial element of perception: while to future eyes Nicholas might pass for an eccentric who believes himself to be from the past, a sixteenth-century view of Dougless is much more dangerous. With her odd speech, wondrous medicines, and offbeat knowledge, she might naturally be thought to be a witch, and her fate would not be as benign. In other words, there’s something to be said for the way society’s opinions of outsiders have generally evolved over time. Yes, we might still be suspicious of things we see as “too different,” but realistically Nicholas would fare much better in twentieth century England than Dougless would in his time.
Therefore, to me it makes sense that they cannot end up together. If they did, they’d have to make compromises that would go against some very valid beliefs; and, more importantly, they would not fulfill their personal quests because of these compromises.
So the novel uses the trope of a reincarnation of sorts. Reed Stanford is the architect Dougless meets on the plane. She’s distraught, and initially refuses his attempts at comforting her. But eventually, he shows her the miniature Nicholas had commissioned of her, with the words “My soul will find yours” on the back, and explains he’s had it since childhood. And at this point, Dougless understands that she will, in a sense, reunite with Nicholas through this man who so uncannily resembles him.
Reed’s appearance works for me in several ways. First, I like the fact that he’s not presented as a direct descendant of Nicholas. His last name -Stanford- and his nationality -American- do suggest that he might belong to a branch of the family that emigrated to the New World (Nicholas had shown interest in Dougless’ home country), but he’s not the duke mentioned as the current heir to the Stafford estate. That would have cheapened the ending for me. The fact that Reed is an architect was also a nice detail, since this had been Nicholas’ passion, but one he didn’t feel he could freely pursue due to his social class. Finally, though there’s a strong sense of recognition between them, Reed and Dougless are going to start any potential relationship from scratch. And hopefully, by this time Dougless has become more confident in herself (we see she’s off to a good start in the way she speaks to her sister and deals with Robert upon her return to the present) and doesn’t revert to the doormat she was in her part relationships.
And here I’ll add a final note about her past relationship with Robert, and the way it’s resolved. As I mentioned at the start, I had a difficult time with Robert and Gloria throughout the novel, because they seem like cartoon villains. However, the author’s notes explain that there’s a good reason for his behaviour: A Knight in Shining Armor is a novel about alcoholism. Not about the drinking per se, but about the “alcoholic personality” that drives people to try to destroy those they believe to be more fortunate.
As Robert explains in his final meeting with Dougless, and the afterword confirms, the root of Robert’s anger is his feeling that Dougless is just “playing” at working for a living, because her rich family can bail her out any time she needs; while he has always struggled financially, and even as a prosperous surgeon he obsesses about money. So he takes this out on Dougless by making her pay for expensive things with the argument that as a “liberated woman” she should be glad he’s treating her as an equal; and Dougless, who has spent years going from one co-dependent relationship to the next, can’t find any arguments against this. This is another reason why it’s important for Dougless to remain in, and confront, her present. If she stays in the past with Nicholas, she’ll be trapped in a similar relationship, as his mistress; in the present, she has the chance to achieve closure with Robert and rebuild her self-esteem with the hopes of a future happy relationship with someone who loves her without wanting something from her.