I was going to write about free romances available on the Internet. After all, MyRomanceStory.com offers free romances (in case you came to this page without visiting our home page, check it out), but we aren’t the only ones. I just downloaded a batch from Harlequin as part of its 60th anniversary celebration. If you go to https://www.harlequincelebrates.com/ you can download 16 different recently-published romances, one each from their many category lines. Then I got to thinking that there probably were lots of romances available free on the Internet. Sure, I already knew about Project Gutenberg, which has tons of public domain novels, but I went to visit it. The oeuvre of Jeffery Farnol, the Regency romance author who wrote before Georgette Heyer, is there. So are potboilers by Edgar Wallace, a thriller writer of 100 years ago. And lots more. Very tempting. Then I found another public domain site, the Ebook Nook at https://www.ebooknook.com/eromance.html and I got ambushed by a romance. Not by one of the new romances, which were by authors I’d never head of. Mingling with them on the list were novels by familiar names, including Jane Austen. I saw a novel by Wilkie Collins, a mid-Victorian writer who is famous for The Moonstone. I’ve heard that some literary heavyweights think his The Woman in White is one of the best books ever written. His The New Magdalen was on the site, so I dipped into it. And I got caught. I had to read the whole thing. It was that interesting.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The New Magdalen. But I’ll be honest: it was complete melodrama. Soap opera. Victorian sentimentality meets the socialist movement, and the result is a very talky, innately silly romance. And I couldn’t stop reading it. I was absolutely ambushed. I love this stuff. I don’t care how absurd the plot is, I love the poses of nobility that the characters strike, and the scenes in the mansions of the wealthy, and the arrogant behavior of the social elite. Not to mention the judgment by progressives against the mean-spiritedness of those with pretensions to blue blood. Even in 1873, when this novel was published, and which certainly could be taken as a high Victorian period, there were people in England who looked askance at the social order in all its injustice. (Sometimes we don’t know or forget that social movements take decades to succeed.)
I stayed up past my bedtime to read this book. I absolutely could not resist it. What was going to happen to the heroine? What kind of woman would she prove herself to be? And isn’t it amazing that her big problem simply is not a problem anymore in Western society? And what was her problem? Those of you familiar with organized Christian religion know of course that Mary Magdalene has been variously called a saint and a prostitute who followed Jesus. (Although Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, thinks she married Jesus and had kids, too.) The heroine of The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins is a fallen woman. What the heck is a fallen woman? A woman who has had sex outside of marriage. Possibly for pay, but possibly as an adulteress. We don’t even know the concept in the United States anymore. In Dirty Little Secrets of Buzz, the author, David Seaman, points out that Paris Hilton had money, was a member of the social elite, and beauty, too. But she didn’t have international fame until she leaked a sex tape of herself. What a different world we inhabit from the standard world of less progressive nations or of other times. The heroine of The New Magdalen is a woman who has lost her chastity, and as such has lost her reputation and any chance of mingling with ordinary society. Just as today there are shelters for abused women, in 1873 England there apparently were refuges for fallen women. In her case, her sin was poverty, and she was victimized and forced into prostitution. Eventually, she escaped to a refuge and was rehabilitated. But her past wouldn’t let her go. No matter what job she held, and what friends she made, eventually, the truth of her past would come out, and she would be tossed out onto the streets. Being a fallen woman back then was social death and economic death, too. A clean reputation was all. Not so today in our world.
The heroine of The New Magdalen is so desperate for another chance at respectability as this novel opens that she decides to assume the identity of a woman who has just died. (Or so she thinks.) Taking on another woman’s life, along with her relationships and social status, is a common theme in romances. Sometimes, it’s because of a chance meeting with a doppelganger, a double. Other times, it’s a twin doing her very different sister a favor. Still other times, it’s a case of amnesia and mistaken identity. Playing with identity, and thus with other people’s expectations of us, is a popular romance plotline. Often it’s a shy heroine who suddenly inhabits the life of a hottie. But sometimes, as in Barbara Cartland’s very similar romance, Stolen Halo, it’s a woman who has led a degraded life, who seizes a chance to start fresh. Usually the writer figures out a way to make the heroine blameless for the mistaken identity situation. She was pressured by her evil sister. She was unconscious when somebody else mis-identified her. She had amnesia.
Not so in The New Magdalen. Mercy Merrick deliberately steals the identity of Grace Roseberry, in order to start her life afresh. She knows it’s wrong. And Wilkie Collins does not let her get away with it. As I said, it’s a soap opera. There is a lot of lecturing by a charismatic and handsome preacher. There is a lot of posturing and melodrama. And there is a happy ending of a sort, the kind that the author of the Saint novels, Leslie Charteris, so cleverly elucidated in one of his Simon Templar adventures: When faced with an either/or situation in which neither choice is desirable, pick a third action. That’s what happens in The New Magdalen, and it’s pretty interesting to realize that the answer, even nearly 140 years ago, was to go to the American west. Frontier society was famously not inclined to judge people about their pasts.
I knew the writer had to come up with a happy ending. He’d created a dilemma and he had to resolve it. Because, after all, this was a romance, and in a romance, a happy ending is a foregone conclusion. It’s how the heroine gets to it that’s the fun. I was ambushed, bushwhacked, and completely entertained by this antique romance. And now that I have experienced how easy it is to find an interesting romance to read free on the Internet, well, now I’m in big trouble. Free romance novels, 24/7. Yikes.