Wedded Bliss by Celeste Bradley

Note from Sarah: We’re running this review and the guest review from Poppy together because they illustrate how one item in a larger context can ruin a book for a reader. 

Wedded Bliss is an incredibly enjoyable story with one horrible problem that ruined the whole book for me. I’m going to start off by describing the plot and why I liked it, and then I’m going to get into the problem. There will be a history lesson and ranting. Prepare yourself.

Wedded Bliss is part of the Wicked Worthington series. I loved the last book, I Thee Wed ( A | BN | K | G | iB ), which had not one but two scientist heroes. Wedded Bliss deals with, well, Bliss, who has been living with the delightfully eccentric Worthington family and is considered an honorary family member. She spent her childhood in happy settings with an aunt, but always missing her parents, who made random and rare visits. Bliss is very excited about marrying Neville, a nice, handsome, boring guy who is almost guaranteed never to leave Bliss’s side – given her abandonment issues, this is great news for her. Bliss is so excited about marrying a stable human being that she sets up an elopement.

But alas! Neville has an illegitimate sea-faring half-brother, Morgan. Neville’s evil uncle convinces Morgan that Bliss is out to exploit Neville for Neville’s money. He promises to give Morgan his own ship if Morgan will trick Bliss into marrying him instead. Morgan figures that

  1. he loves his brother
  2. he’s always at sea anyhow so it doesn’t matter who he marries
  3. it’s not wrong to trick someone who is trying to trick your brother.

One rainy night, one hooded cloak, one eccentric aunt, one badly lit nighttime chapel, and one mumbling priest later, Bliss is married to the wrong brother and looking for an annulment. This gets us to page twenty-six.

From that point, we have a battle of wits and wills between the unflappable Bliss and the determined but honorable Morgan. Bliss wants an annulment and Morgan doesn’t want to give her one and that’s pretty much the plot. It’s madly enjoyable because the two characters are each incredibly likeable on their own and they have fantastic chemistry together. Just to complicate matters, Neville’s shitty uncle also starts a scheme to defraud a rich woman and her daughter, Katarina. Like Bliss, Katarina is smart and levelheaded. Like Neville, Katarina is interested in botany and biology. Above all, while Neville pines for Bliss and rages against Morgan, Katarina proves to be an excellent listener.

In a nutshell, I loved this book because it was so well written and the characters are so engaging, though the villain was repetitive. The shitty uncle was basically the same villain as the one from I Thee Wed, pulling the same crap as the shitty mentor from that book. He practically twirled his mustache. I considered that both a feature and a bug. Yes, it was super over-the-top, but it also fit the fun nature of the book. Based on everything I’ve said so far, the book was gunning for a B+ – solidly enjoyable, but just a bit too contrived for an A.

Unfortunately this book has one terrible problem for me, and as I said, it ruined everything.

Katarina is repeatedly stated to be rich because her mother owns a sugar plantation in Barbados.

RANTING AHEAD:

When I read Regency and Victorian romance, and I suspect I am not alone here, I willingly overlook all kinds of things that might interfere with my suspension of disbelief and hamper my escapism. Sometimes an author will help the reader by pointing out that, for instance, the hero is beloved by his tenants and works hard to ensure that they can be prosperous, or he visits his factories and insists that conditions be at least tolerable so we don’t have to wonder if our romantic hero is responsible for the maiming and death of many small children.

For my part, I pretend that things like filth, infection, disease, rampant poverty, and childbed fever are not issues that our hero and heroine have to deal with. They inhabit a place that is a fantasy Regency, not the real one with all its many flaws.

However, because the story specifically and repeatedly mentions that Katarina is rich because of her mother’s sugar plantation, I must confront the source of her wealth, and I know that it’s ugly. Sugar plantations ran on slavery, and while any form of slavery is vile, the sugar plantations of the West Indies were pits from the fiery depths of hell. In the American South, the slave trade from Africa declined partly because the slave population in the South increased due to births. In the Caribbean, that didn’t happen, because in addition to a shortage of women, the slaves (children and adults) died so fast that they had to be replaced by other adult slaves, who were kidnapped from Africa. From Encyclopedia of the Middle Passage:

Only about one-quarter of children born to slave parents survived into adulthood. Malnutrition, overwork, and poor sanitation left slaves susceptible to diseases such as malaria and yellow fever and took their toll on the adult population…. Recent slaves were the most at risk, some 15 to 20 percent of them died during their first year in the Caribbean. Most field slaves only endured about eight years of hard labor before their demise.

While the slave trade in British territories was abolished in 1807, slaves continued to be smuggled to the West Indies. Slavery itself was not abolished by Britain until 1833, fifteen years after the events of Wedded Bliss, which is set in 1818.

There’s no discussion of any this in the book, which was startling given that abolition was quite the hot topic in England at the time. Instead, the fact that Katarina grew up in Barbados and stands to inherit a plantation signifies in the story only to explain why she is slightly awkward due to her lack of exposure to city life among rich people. Katarina’s slaves are not mentioned in the story though Shitty Uncle and Katarina’s mother do discuss the financials of the plantation.

As I said when I began ranting, I recognize that reading romance of any kind often requires some suspension of disbelief. Contemporary romance features CEO’s who have a lot of spare time. Science fiction romance assumes an unlikely tendency for humans and aliens to be sexually compatible. Historical romance is no different: a delicate touch is required that either allows us to imagine that the wealthy have come by their wealth ethically, or tells us directly by stressing how well the wealthy person provides for his or her dependents.

A quick moment of related trivia: Jane Austen specifically brings up sugar plantations in Mansfield Park to show that the Bertram family is of poor character and therefore stands in contrast to Fanny, who is both highly moral and smarter than she appears to be. Austen was an abolitionist, philosophically speaking. All of her heroes have money from land, domestic trade, inheritance, or a combination of the three. For example, the prosperity of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice and the praise of his servant indicate that Darcy is a responsible landowner and employer. In contrast, in Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram has to go to the Indies to check on the state of his plantation – which suggests that he has been lax in his responsibilities in the past, and which reminds the reader that Fanny’s adoptive family has gained wealth by exploiting others.

Because Wedded Bliss raises the issue of wealth stemming from sugar plantations without examination or question, the book was ruined for me. I have to give it an F, and not the fun kind. Deciding what to overlook and what to ignore is a subjective and often unconscious process. Because this book mentioned the sugar plantation specifically so many times, I could not ignore it. Once that happened, this story which had previously made me feel happy and safe (the knowledge that a happy ending is coming does wonders for my anxiety) made me feel angry and sad.

The line of plausible denial is a fine one and a subjective one that will vary from reader to reader. Certainly not everyone’s line would be crossed by this historical detail. But once I encountered the repeated mentions of Katarina’s plantations, I crossed that line, and there was no crossing back.

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