This review contains spoilers!
Claiming The Courtesan is one of those novels that is subjective… open to interpretation. Each reader will react differently to certain events, perhaps drawing on their own life’s experiences and emotions. I am no different and this review will be a collection of my own thoughts.
I will start by saying that Anna Campbell did a brilliant job of allowing us a glimpse into Kylemore’s mind, not only as an adult but as a child, and it couldn’t have been an easy task, but it’s impossible to talk about the man without also talking about the boy.
My first thoughts of Justin Kinmurrie, Duke of Kylemore were that he was protecting himself. I couldn’t help but feel that he held back, and when you’re a child raised in fear, not knowing what love feels like, in many ways you become a solitary being, closing yourself off from everyone around you. If we don’t allow people in, they can’t hurt us. If we don’t express our emotions, they can’t be mocked. If we don’t tell people what we are afraid of or what causes us grief, they can’t use that information to hurt us.
I see The Duke of Kylemore as two separate people; Justin, the innocent, frightened child and Kylemore, the bitter and still frightened man. As a child, Justin had built a wall around himself, a fortress that protected not only his heart, but his very soul. I don’t think he was aware he had done it; it was just a vulnerable child’s way of surviving. It was instinctual and I don’t believe he could have his sanity any other way.
As children, we know fear and disappointment, sadness and longing and if we are fortunate enough, we have parents, family, friends or guardians who help us learn to deal with those emotions. Justin had no one, really. While some of the servants who lived with the family cared for him, there was only so much influence they could have on the lad. When the time came, Justin was sent away to school where he was even more alone and had to endure the taunting from the other children when he would cry out in the night because of his horrible dreams.
As a grown man, a wealthy nobleman of title, The Duke of Kylemore no longer had to deal with people’s mocking, scorn or ridicule. Did that mean his peers cared for him? No, of course not and he never deluded himself into thinking that they did. They merely respected him and dared not do anything that would put them on his bad side.
The romantic in me can’t help but imagine that the first time he saw Soraya from across Sir Eldrith Moore’s drawing room, he recognized her as his ‘other half.’ The missing part which would make him whole and his soul needed her to be complete. It wasn’t about self gratification or merely lust. No, I believe he was drawn to her in a way he couldn’t explain nor could he have stopped had he wanted to.
Soraya also had quite a reaction to seeing Kylemore across that room and again, it’s the hopeless romantic in me that believes her soul knew his and that frightened her. She had her life all planned out; she would work as a well paid whore until she had enough money to care for her brother and sister and when she could finally leave her shameful past behind her, she had resigned herself to living alone, never loving or being loved. I think this is why she did what she could to discourage Kylemore’s request to be her protector. The feelings he stirred within her would surely make a mess of the nice, tidy little package of the future she envisioned for herself, and no doubt she saw him as another pompous, wealthy nobleman who thought he was entitled to anything he wanted, including her.
As events unfolded leading up to Soraya’s departure, I could feel a tightening in my chest and found myself thinking, “No, don’t do this… not this way.” Kylemore was stunned by her refusal to his proposal. I thought it interesting that he didn’t actually ask her, he told her: “You will make a most spectacular duchess.” And, “I want you to be my wife.” At this point, Verity noticed how the muscle in his cheek and he was gripped by strong emotions. I believe she took this to mean that he was angry and determined to have his way, which of course he was… but I also believe there was more.
I sensed a degree of panic in Kylemore when she refused his proposal. No one ever told him ‘no’, and wasn’t he offering her the world? Their relationship had been purely physical, as far has he had been able to tell, but in truth, he needed her on a level and with a desperation he didn’t understand. He felt it, but didn’t recognize it for what it was. He thought she was merely an obsession of his lust, something to possess, and to admit he needed someone would be like lowering the drawbridge to the fortress that was his safe haven.
I also felt in Verity – not Soraya – the same panic at his proposal. He was the only man who could undermine everything she had built, everything she had worked for…and again, she didn’t recognize it for what it was, an emotion that went deeper than the sexual attraction she held for him. I think this scared her because as Verity, she needed to be needed. She is a healer, and fixer and a caregiver. There was nothing about the Kylemore the world was allowed to see that she could fit into any of those categories.
I wasn’t surprised by Kylemore’s anger in response to Soraya’s leaving without saying goodbye or giving him her reasons. I understood completely why he assumed she left him – she was a thief, a whore, and all other manner of gutter names he could think of. Because he always assumed the worse in everyone, (and why wouldn’t he with the way he had been raised?) he never considered that she might have had good reasons to leave.
Now, I’m going to get straight to the rape scenes which I thought, if it’s possible given the subject matter, were handled and written well. Now, I’ll make this disclaimer right up front… “No” means “no.” As soon as Verity indicated she was not giving herself willingly, he should have stopped. I don’t think any one of us feels differently about that. However, I don’t think he, at that moment, could even fathom the idea that she didn’t really want him because as we are told, her body betrayed her and she was ‘prepared’ to receive him. Again, he should have stopped and had he been in his right mind, in control of his emotions, I believe that Justin would have but Kylemore was still feeling betrayed, angry and bitter himself. I think that, especially in historical romance novels, the sex act is a form of ownership, which also lends credence to the idea that Kylemore was desperate to own her, to make her his and since he was emotionally detached, the only way he knew was sexually. And hadn’t he literally owned her that way already?
As I stated earlier, it is in Verity’s nature to fix things. She is a comforter and a protector and even though she was held against her will and yes, raped, when she finally understood what was happening to Kylemore, that caregiver part of her was summoned and she responded to his need. The same thing happened to Kylemore when he finally understood why Verity had conjured Soraya. All I can say is thank God Verity had presence of mind enough to keep her true self sheltered while she lived as Soraya.
I remember the part where she had awakened him from a nightmare and then held him and I recalled a puppy we had gotten from the shelter when I was a kid. The poor little thing would sit in our lap and tremble. Wouldn’t look at us, wouldn’t move away but still trembled. I was reminded of this when I read that part. That’s the way Kylemore acted and as Verity began telling her own tale, he wouldn’t interrupt her, wouldn’t look at her… he just let her hold him and comfort him afraid that she might stop talking or worse, let go of him. While I’m not suggesting Justin/Kylemore had split personalities, it was at this point that I believe Justin began to emerge more fully.
I loved watching their relationship become not one of Courtesan and Protector, but one of lovers, true lovers in every sense of the word.
And while there were still obstacles to overcome, I was thrilled with the ending of the story. I’ve come to adore Kylemore as much as I do Justin, and Soraya every bit as much as Verity.
The most frustrating part of the story for me was the whole “I’m not worthy” theme. That bothers me and I think it’s overwritten in many stories and I felt like it was laid on a little heavily in this one, especially since Justin still wanted to marry her. It wasn’t until he called her a coward for not even trying that she considered that perhaps she was worthy after all.
Both characters had much to overcome and their strengths and weaknesses complimented each other beautifully.
The Bottom Line: If I had to sum up this story in four lines it would be done with a poem by Edwin Markham and in my heart, mind and soul it defines Kylemore, the man as he was, and the woman who was Verity.
He drew a circle that shut me out--
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win;
We drew a circle that took him in