The Beast of Beswick
The Beast of Beswick is what you get when you put Beauty and the Beast and The Taming of the Shrew into a blender with a whole lot of feminism and drink the results. The heroine, Astrid, is beautiful, bookish and prickly; full of feminist rage; and determined to protect her sweet, pretty, but surprisingly shrewd younger sister, Isobel. The hero, Thane, is horribly scarred; very brooding and moody; and rather inclined to embrace the role of a villain in a gothic novel. His saving grace is a rather sarcastic sense of humour, and the hero and heroine spend most of the book arguing, bickering, and fighting with each other. This is less distressing than it may sound – both Astrid and Thane clearly enjoy a good fight with someone who isn’t afraid to fight back – but if you don’t enjoy conflict between hero and heroine, this book is probably not going to be for you.
I want to start by noting that while there is a good strong homage to The Taming of the Shrew here, Thane absolutely does not share Petruchio’s abusive tendencies and has no desire to ‘tame’ Astrid. This is not to say that he doesn’t spend most of the book behaving like a total jerk at every opportunity, but he is not an abusive jerk, and he does have understandable reasons for his jerkishness.
The Beauty and the Beast elements are a little more superficial, though one thing I liked is that while the story was driven by the heroine’s decision to sacrifice herself by marrying the Beast to save her sister, her sister has her own ideas about that, and her own agenda, too. It’s a very cleverly thought out book on a lot of levels.
The story begins with Astrid’s discovery that her aunt and uncle, who are her and Isobel’s guardians, are plotting to marry Isobel to Lord Beaumont. Lord Beaumont is the man who destroyed Astrid’s reputation many years earlier after she rejected him and broke their engagement, and Astrid has reason to believe that Beaumont’s interest in Isobel is largely about avenging himself further on Astrid. She is determined to prevent this from happening.
Astrid is several months away from financial independence (she will come into her inheritance on her 26th birthday), but she does have one card up her sleeve: if she marries, her husband will have final say over her sister’s choice of husband. So she needs to marry fast, and she thinks she has just the answer – Lord Nathaniel Harte, the Duke of Beswick. Nathaniel (who prefers the name Thane) was horribly wounded during the Napoleonic Wars – he took a bayonet to the face, among other things – and carries terrible scars, both physical and emotional. His horrifying appearance and worse temper have earned him the sobriquet ‘The Beast of Beswick’.
But Astrid isn’t afraid of a bit of bad temper, and she reasons that a Duke needs an heir and someone to run his household, and that a scarred Duke will have difficulty finding a bride. A marriage of convenience between them will solve both of their problems.
Naturally, it isn’t as simple as this.
The Beauty and the Beast angle is set up early in the story. Here is Thane seeing Astrid for the first time:
Her features were exquisite in their cameo-like symmetry – a perfect creamy oval with wide set eyes, an elegant nose, and lush, unsmiling lips. She was Renaissance art in the flesh.
But even as Thane admired her, it wasn’t the kind of beauty that beckoned. Instead, it warned. Or perhaps it was her rigid posture taken with the dour set of that rosebud mouth and the sheets of ice in those eyes. Or the dark hair that was scraped off her forehead into a ruthless coiffure gathered at the nape of her neck. All those sharp angles and cold edges wouldn’t hesitate to decimate a man.
Astrid is fiercely intellectual – she reads Latin and Greek, has studied mathematics, the sciences and anthropology, and she shares Mary Woollstonecraft’s views of the importance of female education. She does, however, go rather beyond Woollstonecraft’s arguments, and for me, some of the ways she talked about feminism felt a little out of place, or perhaps out of time. Astrid’s anger at the chattel status of women and her powerlessness to choose her own life rang very true to me, but when she started talking about overthrowing the patriarchy and writing ‘a story about a man trapped in a woman’s body and the intersection of male and female ideology’ I found myself being pulled out of the story.
Don’t get me wrong, I am down with overthrowing the patriarchy, and I’d read that book. I’m even open to the idea that these are things that an intellectually-inclined woman of Astrid’s time might think about – why not? But I had difficulty believing that this was the language a woman in Regency England would have used to express those thoughts. While these words were in use in the early 19th century, I don’t think they were used in quite that way or context. Wollstonecraft, for example, uses the term ‘the tyranny of men’; the word ‘patriarchy’ doesn’t seem to have been used in a political context until Marx and Engels got hold of it, and the feminists co-opted it later again (there’s an interesting history of the word here, if you like feminist historical linguistic rabbit holes).
(And yes, I know that historical romances vary in their fidelity to the history of the time, and there are inaccuracies that I will gladly accept in the name of a reading experience that doesn’t enrage me. I also know that something that bothers me might not bother another reader, and vice versa. But for me, this felt like an intrusion of modernity into a novel which was saying interesting things about feminism and the roles and restrictions imposed on women in the early 19th century, so it felt both out of place and a bit unnecessary.)
Astrid is assertive, strong and energetic; she rides horses considered untameable by other riders, and she wears modified trousers when doing so. In short, she refuses to be defined by the traditional trappings of femininity in any way. And so, in best Taming of the Shrew fashion, Astrid is set up in contrast to her younger sister, Isobel. Isobel likes music and dancing and needlework, and has no interest in Astrid’s intellectual pursuits. She is far from stupid, however, and it becomes clear as the book progresses that while she genuinely enjoys the feminine arts, she has also learned how to perform femininity in ways that will get her what she wants. In this sense, she makes an excellent analogue for Shakespeare’s Bianca, who is also far less meek and sweet than she appears – though there is a strong tone of approval by both the characters and the narrative around Isobel’s weaponisation and subversion of docile femininity to her own ends that is not present in The Taming of the Shrew.
Back to Beauty and the Beast, here is Astrid’s first impression of Thane:
Nothing could have readied her for the bleak vista of his face, with its sutured lines and grisly lack of uniformity. A serrated tear ran diagonally from his upper right brow, across the bridge of his nose and cheek, down to his left jawline. It screamed of untold agonies, and the field surgeon’s hasty stitching over poor cautery had only made the end result doubly macabre. Like the novel of the modern Prometheus, Frankenstein.
Howard does not hold back in describing the gruesomeness of Thane’s appearance and injuries, which extend far beyond his face. I both admired this and found it difficult to read – we frequently see minor characters reacting with fear and revulsion to their first sight of him, though the characters who spend the most time to him become accustomed to his appearance to the point of not seeing it. But the reader doesn’t get to become accustomed in the same way, because every time we start to do so, the text reminds us of how horrifying his appearance is. I found this difficult to process, perhaps because I found myself feeling guilty for being distressed at the descriptions of what he looked like and identifying with the characters who were appalled.
For all of this, Astrid, is very physically attracted to Thane right from the start. It probably helps that her first sight of him is when he is stark naked and in the bath, and she is both appalled and fascinated by what she sees, and by her own desire.
Thane is a difficult character to like, principally because he is filled with so much self-loathing that his viewpoint is quite uncomfortable to read. Now, to be fair, Thane has plenty of justification for feeling monstrous, unlovable, and betrayed by everyone. His fiancée broke off the engagement when he returned from the war and she saw his scars; his own father – with whom he had always had a difficult relationship – had a heart attack and died at the sight of his injuries. These are pretty traumatic things to deal with and as a result, Thane’s scars go far beyond the physical. Unfortunately, he seems to have decided that the best way to deal with this is to drive any new people in his life away before they have time to reject him, and consequently, he spends large chunks of the book behaving like a gigantic jerk. He really goes out of his way to be obnoxious to Astrid at every opportunity, particularly in the first half of the book. It’s a fine example of toxic masculinity, come to think of it – Thane has no capacity to express vulnerability and so he uses aggression and anger to mask it. Given the strong feminist themes in the book, I don’t think that this is accidental.
And yet, we can see that Thane’s worldview is not the full story. His servants are extremely loyal to him (his valet routinely disobeys him for his own good and simply refuses to take his bad temper seriously); his aunt clearly adores him; and he has several very good friends who love him and tease him. Astrid is extremely attracted to him from quite early in the story, and is not shy about expressing this – and he certainly recognises her desire and her response to him, even while he is telling himself that she couldn’t possibly be attracted to such a monster. On reflection, he’s quite an unreliable narrator.
I suspect that all of this is psychologically realistic, but it doesn’t make for a fun read (on the other hand, if tortured heroes are your jam, you are definitely in luck here). I was also a little uneasy about all the emphasis on Thane’s appearance. While the story makes it clear that the characters who recoil from Thane are not to be admired, I wonder how all this self-loathing would read to someone who suffered from similar scarring? By the end of the book, Thane has accepted his appearance (and apparently, the story of Beauty and the Beast has become a family favourite), but he spent so much of the book thinking of himself as a monster, as unfit to be a husband or a father or a lover, that for me, this was the overwhelming impression.
Thane and Astrid spark off each other beautifully. They are both quite willing to be rude, obnoxious and deliberately provocative, and one gets the sense that they both enjoy having someone they can fight with without pulling their punches. I really liked this – I loved that Astrid was unfazed by Thane’s chronic grumpiness and that Thane was frankly delighted by her sharp tongue and sharper mind.
However, I also found their relationship enormously frustrating, and to me this was a fundamental flaw in the story. Throughout the book, there was a repeating pattern where Thane and Astrid would bicker or fight, then have a moment of closeness, either physical or emotional, things would start to look positive, and then Thane would either lose his temper and flounce off or decide that he was not good enough for Astrid and leave her for her own good, or decide that Astrid had rejected him and leave her for his own good. Sometimes, just for variety, Astrid would contribute to this giant dysfunctional yoyo effect by deciding that she was too attracted to Thane and couldn’t take the risk of falling in love with him, and do her own distancing, which would just confirm all of Thane’s worst fears and off he would go again. It was exhausting to read.
To do Astrid justice, she does commit to the relationship about halfway through the book, and starts doing grown-up things like using her words. Alas, Thane is still going through the cycle of emotional closeness and hot sex followed by dramatic flouncing right up until the second last chapter. This did not leave me with any confidence that he wouldn’t start repeating the cycle the moment I closed the book.
The minor characters in this book are great fun. I’ve already mentioned Isobel, who is such a fascinating cipher and perhaps my favourite minor character, but it would be remiss of me not to mention Thane’s valet, Fletcher. Fletcher has clearly known Thane for many years and has no respect for his tantrums.
Thane fought his irritation at the valet’s complete lack of respect. He settled for staring Fletcher down with a protracted, honed look. It was one that made hardened generals quail on the battlefield, but the man did not cower or scurry away.
“If you mean to intimidate me, you’re wasting your time,” Fletcher said.
“I pay you to be intimidated.”
His valet arched a brow. “Very well, then. Pretend I’m quaking in my boots if it suits you.”
I also liked this:
“Do I pay you to disagree with me, Fletcher, or is this another one of your overly generous handouts?”
“The advice is free, though whether you choose to listen is up to you.”
Thane was perhaps at his most likeable in this book when he was interacting with Fletcher. We get a real sense of his humour, and frankly, the fact that Fletcher is still there and giving Thane a hard time speaks volumes about Thane’s character, I think.
Thane’s Aunt Mabel is another excellent character. She is eccentric, frank, and bracing. She loves Thane, and is completely unfazed by his scarring, simply telling him that ‘perhaps you’ll have to depend on your other redeeming qualities for once,’ when he complains about them.
I also liked this:
“Why would you think I’ve said anything to her?”
“Because you’re you. And you’re absolutely incapable of not ruining things for yourself.”
Oh, yes. Aunt Mabel knows Thane very well indeed.
One of the things that Aunt Mabel is especially frank about is sex. She embroiders phalluses, reminisces cheerfully about being caught skinny-dipping as a young woman, and takes lovers who are half her age. Many of these lovers are footmen in her employ or in the employ of her friends, and this troubled me. I think it was intended as a humorous reversal of a common trope, and we are supposed to be cheering Mabel on, but the power differential made me really uneasy. If the genders had been reversed and Thane’s uncle was running about seducing the maids, I would have found this horrific, and not funny at all, and while I think reversing the genders does change the dynamic in some important ways, this still made me uncomfortable.
Since we are talking about sex, I would also like to pause to mention that one thing I really liked about this book was Astrid’s frankness about sex and her own desire. She is, initially, afraid of her attraction to Thane, but this isn’t about virginal shyness, it’s an entirely rational fear of becoming emotionally attached to someone who is clearly emotionally unavailable. The sex scenes between them are very hot and very egalitarian (though the one where they started discussing feminism in the middle was a little strange).
This is not an easy book to grade. On the one hand, it’s very cleverly written and structured and the author has done really interesting things with the two classic stories she is riffing on. There were some really nice subtleties here, such as Astrid considering at one point that she and Thane are both scarred, both the Beast, in this story – it’s just that her scars are on the inside, and not visible to the eye. And I liked the way that by any rational measure, both Thane and Astrid were quite shrewish in temperament, and that if anything, it was Thane who was tamed by Astrid… though perhaps that’s just the Beauty and the Beast theme coming back.
I enjoyed the complexity of the characters, and I was especially intrigued by Isobel, whose inner life is so opaque to her sister, and yet clearly quite well-developed. There’s a lot of heat and sensuality in the book, and some lovely moments of humour. These are all really big positives.
On the other hand, I really did find Thane more obnoxious than he strictly needed to be, and the constant yoyo-ing in the relationship from closeness to distance and back again became increasingly frustrating as the book continued. There were several points where I felt that one sensible, honest conversation could have solved a lot of the problems between them, and while the story did a good job of selling the reasons why this conversation wasn’t possible, these reasons became less compelling with every iteration of their messed up cycle. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a realistic relationship, but it certainly isn’t one I’d want to emulate.
I think, for me, The Beast of Beswick is a B minus. I’m glad to have read it; there was a lot in there to chew on, which is always fun; but I’m not sure I’d read it again.