Mirrors and Bemazement: For My Lady’s Heart by Laura Kinsale

It’s been just over a year since I started this blog, and it has taken that full time to work up the courage to write about Laura Kinsale’s work. Her backlist includes some of the most complex and intriguing romance I’ve ever read, and I am perpetually astounded with how she plays with the English language. While I do plan to eventually tackle my very favorite of hers (Flowers from the Storm), today I’m looking at a book that’s a close second in my affections, For My Lady’s Heart. Here’s the blurb, cover photo, and link to CWs.

With Princess Melanthe di Monteverde widowed, a political marriage would tip the balance of power to any kingdom that possessed her. Determined to return to England alive and unwed, she hides behind a mask of witchery.
 
Protecting her is Ruck d’Angleterre, a chivalrous knight who never wavers—and the only man Melanthe wishes could lift the veil of her disguise. He once desired her, but now his gaze reveals distrust. As they flee her enemies, Melanthe’s impossible love for the Green Knight grows.
 
Ruck has remained chaste for thirteen miserable years, since his wife entered a nunnery, continuing to honor their marital vows. In that dark hour, when the church stripped him of his spouse and his possessions, the princess secretly came to his aid with two emeralds. Her safety is his duty, yet his heart is not pure. Each time he gazes upon Melanthe’s sable hair and twilight eyes, he wants more.

Buy links at the author’s website. A comprehensive list of CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.

First Meeting

I’m going to examine two passages in this post, starting with Ruck and Melanthe’s first meeting. Despite the fact that Melanthe is the focal point of the passage, she’s described primarily in terms of what is absent – particularly noteworthy is the absence of any description of her face, which Ruck is unable to look upon.

A shimmer of color sparkled at the corner of Ruck’s eye. He turned his head reflexively, as if a mirror had flashed. Space had opened around him. At the edge of it, two spears’ length distant, a lady paused. 

She glanced at him and the guard as she might glance at mongrels scrapping. A princess—mayhap a queen, from the richness of her dress and jewels—surrounded by her attendants, male and female, secluded amid the crowd like a glitter of silent prismatic light among shadows. 

Cold… and as her look skimmed past him, his whole body caught ice and fire. 

He dropped to one knee, bowing his head. When he lifted it, the open space had closed, but still he could see her within the radius of her courtiers. They appeared to be waiting, like everyone else, conversing among themselves. One of the men gave Ruck a brief scornful lift of his brow and turned his shoulder eloquently. 
[…]
He watched her hands, because he could not bear to look long at her face and did not dare to scan her body for its violent effect on his. The gauntlet and the falcon’s hood, bejeweled like all the rest of her, glittered with emeralds on silver. She stroked the bird’s breast with white fingers, and from four rods away that steady, gentle caress made him bleed as if from a mortal wound in his chest.

She turned to someone, lifting her finger to hold back the gauzy green veil that fell from her crown of braids to her shoulder—a feminine gesture, a delicacy that commanded and judged and condemned him to an agony of desire. He could not tear his look from her hand as it hovered near her lips: he saw her slight smile for her ladies—so cold, cold… she was bright cold; he was ferment. He couldn’t comprehend her face. He hardly knew if she was comely or unremarkable. He could not at that moment have described her features, any more than he could have looked straight at the sun to describe it.

Ruck first sees Melanthe as a shimmer of color “as if a mirror had flashed” and then the empty spaces that open around her. Even the visual cues that Ruck does receive from Melanthe use turns of phrase that over-emphasize absence: “a silent prismatic light” is remarkable for the modifier “silent,” which denotes an absence of sound for an already soundless phenomenon. 

The longer Ruck stares at Melanthe’s “silent, prismatic light” the more he sees of her. In the full version of this passage, a section I’ve cut describes various parts of her body and clothing – jewels, embroidery, her hair, a dagger – as Ruck takes them in. But despite the narrative insistence on Ruck’s gaze, the object of it never quite comes together as a whole. Melanthe is fractured, seeming absent despite her overwhelming presence, active primarily in terms of her effects on Ruck.

These effects are described so poetically that the passage almost – almost – lets you gloss over how fully it overturns the romance trope of the hero finding the heroine instantly attractive, although that comes through clearly at the end: 

So cold, cold… she was bright cold; he was ferment. He couldn’t comprehend her face. He hardly knew if she was comely or unremarkable. He could not at that moment have described her features, any more than he could have looked straight at the sun to describe it.

I’m going to insist a lot in this post on how closely the language mimics the emotional journey of the novel: the narrative takes the unfamiliar and slowly, carefully, brings it closer to the reader, in ways that echo how the novel presents love as a path to perception and knowledge. “Ferment” is a prismatic term: it’s uncommon, but legible to the reader through a constellation of related words around it. Ferment here is a state of “agitation or excitement,” but in 21st century English it’s almost never used in a nominal form. The word recalls two other, more familiar nouns, though:  fermentation, a chemical reaction that gives off heat; and firmament, an expanse of stars as cold and distant as Melanthe. In bringing these meanings together, ferment creates meaning for the modern reader, bringing together the “ice” and “fire” themes central to the passage. 

Another word that flies a bit more under the radar here is “comprehend,” but I found it almost equally as strange.  What does it mean to “comprehend” a face? We think of physical beauty as demanding perception, appreciation, or desire perhaps, but not comprehension. Diving into a bit of etymology, though, comprehend starts to make more sense. It comes from the latin “com” – together  and “prehendre” – grasp. So, to comprehend is to be able to grasp something as a whole: exactly what Ruck fails to do in this scene. He cannot comprehend Melanthe’s face in the sense that he is not able to look upon it and take it in as a whole. In contrast, various etymological dictionaries suggest that to understand (which has a less clear provenance) is about standing among or between. Ruck has no problem with that kind of knowledge: he can be near Melanthe; he simply cannot  grasp her as a whole. 

That comprehension, the grasping as a whole, is the business of perhaps the most romantic scene in the novel, and on my list of most moving scenes in all of romance. It takes place at the very end of the book: while there are no plot spoilers here, readers who like to encounter prose for the first time in context might want to put a pin in things and come back after they’ve read the final chapter.

Happily Every After

At this point of the narrative, the plot twists and turns have all been worked out, and Ruck and Melanthe are discussing their future. Ruck promises that even if his career as a knight takes him away for a time, Melanthe need not fear for his faithfulness. She is not entirely assuaged, however, and has a lingering request. Throughout the book, we’ve been reminded that Melanthe is afraid to look at herself in the mirror. This fear works, I think, on at least three levels: there’s basic human insecurity, the fear of finding one’s own reflection less than beautiful. On a more esoteric level, Melanthe has been accused of being a witch, and her fear of not appearing in mirrors reads as a period-appropriate worry over her own unnaturalness and difference. And finally, her fear of mirrors works on a metaphorical level: in the course of fighting to escape the grasp of powerful men, she fears she’s lost her sense of self. 

A shimmer of color as if flashing off a mirror, of course, is what first caught Ruck’s eye the first time he was in Melanthe’s presence. He couldn’t take in her face at that moment; but this is the end of the book, and he’s fully able to now. She holds out her mirror to him, asks him what he sees, and here’s how he responds:

He did not even glance at the mirror. 

“Sharp wit,” he said. “Valor past any man I know. Foolish japery and tricks worse than a child. Lickerous lust, hair like midwinter night. A proud and haught chin, a mouth for noble-talking—that does kiss sufficiently, in faith, and slays me with a smile. Guile and dreaming. A princess. A wench. An uncouth runisch girl. My wife. I see you, Melanthe. Ne do I need a glass.” 

“Look in the mirror!”

“Luflych.” He wrapped his hand about her tight fist. “I see the same there.” 

She gave a rasping breath of relief, without opening her eyes.

“Thou art certain? My face is there? Thou dost not say me false?”

“I fear for my life do I e’er say thee false, my lady.” 

“Oh, I am lost! I need thee to sayen me true. I need thee to say me what I should be. All is changed, and I know not what I am.”

“Then will we keepen watch and see. And if ye be someone new each morn, Melanthe-—God knows thou art still my sovereign lady. Nought will I be at thy side in e’ery moment, but in spirit always, and return to thee with my whole heart, to see what bemazement thou wilt work upon me next.

We see so much of Ruck and Melanthe’s first meeting come back in this passage. The theme of absence returns in Melanthe’s fear that she won’t see herself in the mirror. That fear casts a slightly different light on their first meeting: the fact that Ruck took her in mostly as an absence suggests that he immediately sensed her deepest fear, “seeing” her emotionally even as he failed to physically. 

In this case, of course, Ruck’s gaze doesn’t falter: he looks Melanthe directly in the face, and tells her what he sees. Many of the disparate elements from the first passage are there: her hair, her royal bearing, her mouth, the very contradictions that so confused Ruck at the outset. But this time, not only does he perceive it all under a different aspect, he is able to take all those disparate elements together and grasp them – comprehend them – as a whole: “I see you, Melanthe.”

Another major change between these passages is the movement from mostly-standard-English to Middle-English-inflected dialogue. A great deal of textual work has gone into making the language in this latter passage understandable. By this point, readers are accustomed to many of the grammatical features of Kinsale’s Middle English. Two of the most unfamiliar words in the above passage – lickerous and runsich – have been highlighted earlier, ensuring that readers recall their meaning. Other features have been used so frequently that they’ve become second nature: e’er, thee/though, ne/nought. 

The process of making unfamiliar language gradually legible to readers is one that fascinates me, and in this passage I think the language has a lot to say about the way Ruck and Melanthe have fallen in love. “Bemazement,” for example, is a word the strangeness of which passes virtually unperceived. It sounded (to me at least) quite familiar, but in fact the term is so infrequently used that it returns no more than 400-odd Google results (along with a passive-aggressive query if you really mean “amazement.”) It’s clear to readers, though, because it relies on the common prefix be- that turns a verb transitive, as well as proximity to words like “bemusement.” Drawing on our familiarity with similar terms lets us read this uncanny word as if it came from our own vocabulary.

As I was scouring the few actual Google results for “bemazement” I found a quote from a 1903 translation of Dante Alighieri’s Convivio that defines the word “bemazement” as “bewilderment of the mind on seeing or hearing on in anywise perceiving wonderful things.” It goes on to tell us the following:

“For in so far as [these wonderful things] appear great, they make he who perceives them reverent towards them, and in so far as they appear wonderful they make him who perceives them desirous to have knowledge of them” 

The Dante is a translation, and there’s no reason to suggest its influence on Kinsale’s text, yet it still offers a lovely bit of intertextual felicity. In a very different context, it uses bemazement to explore the relationship between perception and desire, to suggest that desire is a kind of awe inspired by the very act of seeing. It’s perfect, then, that Ruck and Melanthe seal their love this way: with mirrors and bemazement.

For me, though, the key part of the last passage isn’t this strange word, but what directly precedes it:

 “Nought will I be at thy side in e’ery moment, but in sprit always, and return to thee with my full heart” 

If we look at what follows “in” in each sentence, there’s a significant functional difference. “In every moment” is a time marker – it describes when Ruck can (or cannot) be by Melanthe’s side. “In spirit,” by contrast, is a marker of mode- it describes how Ruck will be there. The parallelism functions to highlight the promise of a deeper, spiritual presence in the absence of a physical one. “Return to thee with my whole heart” brings the passage full circle, by reiterating the theme of love as wholeness –  comprehending (grasping together) rather than understanding (being close to). By emphasizing the manner of Ruck’s love, rather than proximity in time or place, the book deepens its exploration of spiritual love as equally important to the physical.

 In a way, I think of this as another point of connection between language and love in the novel. As a modern-day reader, some of the religious themes in For My Lady’s Heart are hard to read: the text takes seriously things like religious vows of chastity, the Medieval church’s edicts about marriage, and whether physical lust is sanctioned within the bonds of holy matrimony. It can be hard to connect these attitudes to the way many of us think about love and lust in the 21st century. But just as the text does with words like “ferment” and “bemazement,” Ruck and Melanthe’s story takes the strange specificity of the past, and helps us comprehend it through connections to broader, nearly timeless depictions of love. 

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