Today’s post is about Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. As some of you may know, over the past two years I’ve been reading through Kinsale’s backlist with a group of romance-reading friends. Flowers was my first Kinsale novel, and we decided to make it our final Kinsale buddy read. It’s a complex book – one that I’ve been waiting to talk about on the blog for a long time. It’s both wildly innovative, and very much of its time as a 1990s historical romance. I’ve done my best here to think it through and talk about both of those elements carefully. Before we get going, here’s a cover image and blurb, with a link to more detailed CWs at the bottom.
The Duke of Jervaulx was brilliant – and dangerous. Considered dissolute, reckless, and extravagant, he was transparently referred to as the “D of J” in scandal sheets. But sometimes the most womanizing rakehell can be irresistible, and even his most casual attentions fascinated the sheltered Maddy Timms.
Then one fateful day she receives the shocking news – the duke is lost to the world. And Maddy knows it is her destiny to help him and her only chance to find the true man behind the wicked facade.
But she never dreamed her gentle, healing touch would alter his life and her own so completely – and bind them together in need, desire…and love.
A note: while I usually try to keep my blog free of major spoilers, this post is an exception, and will talk about plot points from the beginning to the end of the book. If you prefer to enter a book totally unspoiled, you may want to stop here.
Language is a huge part of what fascinates me about Kinsale’s work. Not just in the sense that I enjoy the author’s prose, although I do, but because in so many of her books, language is foregrounded as a theme. In the Kinsale literary universe, mastery of language allows characters to exert power, create intimacy, and express desire. And so it might not be surprising that Flowers from the Storm is my favorite Kinsale novel, because it’s the book of hers that is the most linguistically innovative, and the most directly concerned with language as a theme.
I think if you were to ask most people about what stands out in the language of Flowers, it’s the speech of the hero, Christian, the Duke of Jervaulx. In the third chapter, Christian has what modern-day readers can identify as a stroke, and Kinsale writes his inner dialogue, conversations, and understanding of others’ speech to reflect various phases of his recovery. I will get to Jervaulx’s relationship to language in this post, but I want to start at a different point. If we are to take language as an important determinant of social relations and the way characters experience the world, it’s important not to bypass the heroine, Maddy.
I get the sense that Maddy is a divisive character for readers of this book. Her 19th-century Quaker religious faith informs her behavior in ways that can make her seem alien to a modern audience; yet at the same time, her overarching concerns are incredibly familiar: the way speech and dress cause her to be judged, her commitment to caring for others, her feelings about sexual intimacy, her view of wealth and social class.
The crux of Maddy’s character arc is that, is that choosing to marry Jervaulx – a wealthy duke – she leaves behind her Quaker religious community, a radical commitment to class equality, and a learned feeling of shame around sex. I argue that one of the ways we can make sense of this confusing combination of sexual liberation and economic normalization is via a through-line Kinsale creates around Maddy’s language use. Control of speech means control of desire, intimacy, and power, an interpretation that depends on reading Maddy and Jervaulx’s relationship to language in tandem.
To get a sense of how Maddy’s faith informs the narrative, let’s start with her first spoken lines :
“I’ve yet to fathom it. No doubt I never will. How canst thou expect any real consideration from a person of his -” Archimedea Timms paused, searching for a suitable word. “- his ilk, Papa?”
“Wilt thou pour me a cup of tea, Maddy?” Her father asked, in just the sort of amiable voice that left one with no room to start an effective argument.
“He is a duke, for one thing, “ she said over her shoulder…
Throughout the narrative, Maddy employs Plain Speech with a consistent set of linguistic markers, including the second person pronouns “thee” and “thou” and the present tense conjugation of verbs with -st such as “canst” and “shouldst,” and the refusal of honorific titles such as “your Grace.” Being a Quaker shapes the way Maddy understands her place in the world, and it also conditions how others understand her (Christian is constantly referring to her as a “thee-thou spinster.”)
A core value that readers come to associate with Maddy’s Quaker speech is the rejection of wealth and ostentation. Maddy articulates a critique of Jervaulx’s financial power as a sign of broader social inequality, in a way that feels unique among 1990s-era romances. It’s not entirely unexpected, of course, for a heroine from a humble background to be awed by a duke’s wealth, to perhaps even be vaguely suspicious of it. But Maddy finds it specifically immoral, and resists it in practice and in speech. She fights her husband constantly on his “vain and profitless” displays of wealth. Her resistance also takes linguistic forms, including telling Christian’s household staff “I am not to be addressed as Your Grace, but simply as your mistress. I am – I was raised in the principles of the Society of Friends, and I cannot be easy with the other.” She refuses to change her manner of speech before Christian’s wealthy family, or even the King of England when she meets him at a ball.
The end of the story, then, where Maddy leaves her faith community to become a duchess can, I think, reasonably be read as a story that prioritizes romance over structural critique of society. It’s a part of the book that has always frustrated me, in part because Kinsale allows Maddy to be so stalwart in her social critique right up until the very end. As I’ll discuss shortly, Maddy retains a lot of forms of individual resistance, but any broader systematic critique of ducal wealth is essentially subsumed by the novel’s HEA.
Another confounding element of Maddy’s Quaker faith in the novel is that it imparts more than resistance to economic power. It also – at least as it’s presented in the narrative – gives Maddy a deep sense of shame around her own sexuality. This is why I think we have to read the economic and social elements of Maddy’s HEA, which I think are profoundly normativizing, against the sexual and linguistic elements of it, which I find more liberatory and radical.
Maddy’s sexual arc involves overcoming internalized shame from what the book presents as a 19th century religious purity culture. And I will say right up front that this is hard to discuss. The sex scenes in the book, particularly the first one, reflect a 1990s sensibility around consent, particularly the idea that social shame might force a woman to refuse sex when she “really” wants to say yes. Because of this, I honestly hesitated to discuss the first sex scene between Maddy and Jervaulx, and I encourage readers to skip this section of the blog post if that’s something that is likely to be hard to read about. Ultimately I decided to talk about it because I want to be honest about the problematic nature of these complicated old-school approaches, and consider what messages they’ve perpetuated around purity culture and consent.
Leading up to their first sex scene, Maddy has told Jervaulx that she doesn’t want to consummate their marriage, because doing so would remove the possibility of annulment, an option that would allow her to return to her religious community. But her resistance to sex isn’t just about the legal state of marriage. She also clearly has learned that sex is shameful: the book presents this as coming from society in general, but primarily from her immediate religious community. She refers often to her own desires making her feel “guilty and ashamed,” and deems the moments she nearly acts on them as “weakness.” She does not know how to process the fact that she feels drawn to her husband, and seeks out physical connection with him. When Maddy invites Jervaulx to sleep in her bed, he says to her “You tell… when to stop […] You say… you don’t want.”
This request that Maddy say no to stop their encounter puts her in a significant linguistic bind. She talks to herself throughout the scene, and there’s a marked contrast between what I read as the voice of her religious society in her head, set apart by italics which simply repeats “Say stop,” and the voice of Maddy’s desires, which describes what she’s supposed to be stopping in the tender, sensual, florid language of romantic longing.
Say stop, because I know thy face so well, even in the dark, thine eyes that turn to mine in bewilderment, in arrogance. They’re blue – dark, like clouds that cross the stars; they laugh without words […] Oh- stop my hands from holding thy face between them, from pulling thee closer to kiss me, thy mouth on mine- deep and passionate. Stop; it cannot be; we are impossible…
This scene is clearly participating in a long and problematic romance tradition of assuming that physical desire tells a “truth” that verbal consent might not capture. It also portrays how effectively Maddy’s learned shame around sex strips from her the ability to affirmatively consent, leaving her instead with only a “stop” that she does not desire to say out loud. It’s a troubling scene, not an easy one to read by any means.
Personally I read it as an early point in a journey, one that runs alongside her journey of becoming a duchess. Maddy ultimately finds agency to give affirmative consent, in part by leaving a sexually repressive community. A later sex scene with Christian, for example, finds him explicitly asking for affirmative consent: he wants to hear Maddy verbalize that she wants him, and while she initially struggles with self-censure, she finally proclaims “I want thee […] I want thee” at the climax of the scene.
I think there’s a legitimate reading of the novel wherein – by centering Maddy’s sexual blossoming and economic mainstreaming via her marriage to Jervaulx – Flowers suggests that readers should see acceptance of capitalism as a precondition for personal sexual fulfillment. But I also think that what’s going on at the end of the novel involves a competing narrative about power, in addition to sexuality and economics, which is mastery of language. And to understand language in this book, we have to understand exactly what the book is doing with the Duke of Jervaulx.
The Duke of Jervaulx
There are, broadly speaking, four different ways Jervaulx’s language is rendered after his stroke. One is a straightforward, close third person POV, which remains largely unchanged across the novel, whether before or during Christian’s recovery. This, for example, is how he describes the restraints he’s forced to wear in the asylum his family has placed him in:
It touched off a nightmare dread Christian had never known he had inside him, a fear that went past reason and pride straight to a well of primeval impulse that made him fight it every time, long after he knew himself damned, long after he’d learned he could not win.
However, in the chapters immediately following the stroke, there are also interruptions to this inner monologue, in the form of italicized series of words that represent his struggles to pin down language to describe the world around him.
After a moment’s hesitation, she walked across the cell. Her hand startled him; as she held it out it seemed to come from nowhere- things did that, jumped up at him from nothing, blast sound sudden make noise didn’t know- Hide things- Pop out there not there WHY! It made him furious.
As Christian gradually recovers his ability to speak, we see less of this italicization. It’s replaced by dialogue that starts out focused on individual words and sentence fragments. Over the process of his recovery, a pattern emerges: we still see ellipses representing hesitation, deletion of prepositions and smaller words, and instances where Christian changes the course of a sentence in order to prioritize the words he has access to in the moment.
Then he said “I was… I write… Daily. At Monmouth. Send for here… write settlements […] He doesn’t come. He writes. He will not… act.”
The other element of Christian’s experience of language that changes is how he hears other people speaking to him. Early in the novel, the sounds of what other people say are rendered in a way that makes it difficult for the reader to separate them into words.
She said his name so sharply, with such decisive emphasis, that he stopped and stared at her. “Morrow. Lord Chansor hear. Thamus show cam sense.”
Later on, we experience progressive change in Jervaulx’s ability to understand others’s speech, with only some small deletions.
“I believe- would be wise” She kept her eyes on him, level. “But I will stay thou art well enough”
It’s worth mentioning here that I can’t speak to the clinical or medical accuracy of how Kinsale portrays aphasia. While her approach to writing Jervaulx feels, to me, to be respectful of his agency, emotions, and subjectivity, other readers might feel differently about the representation of that experience.
What strikes me about Jervaulx’s POV chapters is that Kinsale carefully modulates what readers have access to and what they don’t, in a way that sets important boundaries around his subjective experience. The first thing the novel is careful to do is to not give readers access to more linguistic information than Jervaulx has when listening to others speak- it rejects any linguistic moves that put the reader in a place of power over the character.
It’s also significant that we do have access to an inner monologue that is unchanged by Christian’s aphasia. With the exception of Maddy, almost nobody in the story initially understands that Christian’s restricted linguistic access is not a sign of diminished intelligence or changed personality. The novel, however, ensures not only that Christian has a space of mastery and autonomy within his own mind that transcends the outer trappings of spoken language, it makes readers aware of that space. The novel also asks that we work to understand Christian, regardless of the forms his language production takes: the onus is on the readers to adapt to him, in a world which is otherwise trying to force him to adapt to its exclusionary standards.
If the book is insistent about balancing the reader-character power dynamics within Christian’s POV, it’s also very canny about the ways society attempts to disempower Christian solely on the basis of his language use. Over and over again, Christian’s access to the power he supposedly “inherently” holds as Duke – his title, his funds, his home – is barred via demands of different types of linguistic performance. Christian has to understand verbal questions and write his name to pass his competency hearing; he has to read and write letters in order to deal with his creditors; he has to be able to speak vows at his wedding in order to secure his title and access to his estate; he must converse fluently at society events to convince society to accept him as the Duke. It’s clear, particularly in this last instance, that Christian’s production of comprehensible language is seen as a transaction, on which depends others’ financial investment in his power and social standing.
So, I think, as I suggested earlier, this reading of Christian’s arc gives us access to a different way to think about Maddy’s, as taking place in a universe where language is a significant form of social power, and where understanding those who don’t speak the language of power is an important act of interpersonal intimacy. Within a world that equates not just access to language but choice of when and how to speak with power, the fact that Maddy continues to use Plain Speech until the very end of the book is meaningful. This doesn’t happen only through language. We learn in the epilogue that Maddy has retained her belief in social and economic equality – both in her individual refusal to spend money on personal adornments, and by pressing Christian to donate his money and to work for legal changes to workers’ rights. But I do think that if we understand Flowers as a book where the way a person expresses themselves is meaningful and intimate, and that asking others to take them on their own linguistic terms is powerful, Maddy’s continued use of Plain Speech represents an important marker of individual values and faith. Her retention of her Quaker language indexes the fact that she still has the control to act with her values individually, even if she has been removed from the social movement in which she previously enacted them.
And in some ways, that’s not entirely satisfying. There is, quite simply, no structural interrogation of the system of power into which Christian is re-integrated. No discussion of what Maddy loses, socially, by joining him in it, and very little examination of its morality, nor of the sources of Christian’s wealth. In some ways, it is a stereotypical narrative in which the heroine loses sexual inhibition and gains access to capitalist comforts via her romantic relationship to a wealthy man. And I think the narrative very much wants us to see this as a fair exchange, perhaps even one worth celebrating.
This dynamic is actually rather revelatory about romance as a genre, and the way it balances (or doesn’t) individual narratives of personal and sexual freedom with the overarching social structures in which the characters operate. On some level, I think romance is relatable because it prioritizes the affective experience of the individual actor within the system, which is, ultimately, the way we experience the world. Very few of us, as readers, are in a position to make institutional change, and there’s an allure to narratives where the trajectory of the individual can feel revolutionary despite their actions taking place in an unchanging system. An uncharitable reading is that romance reassures readers that getting to have good sex with a duke while still calling him “thou” is worth giving up a broader anti-capitalist fight. But I do think there’s something more complex going on than just “the individual” and “the real-world” in this book – in part because romance as a whole constructs a universe where the individual is particularly meaningful, and in part because of the way this book in particular imagines language as both an individually and socially determined system of power.
No Rule but Love
I think this reading comes through most clearly in the final scene, which is one of the most iconic I’ve ever read, and it centers around two competing linguistic acts. Maddy has been told that in order to re-enter the church, she has to publish a letter in which she condemns her own actions in marrying Jervaulx. The way she frames this – the way the book does – is primarily as a social censure of sexual liberation. Maddy is meant, essentially, to repent for having given in to her desires and had a sexual relationship with Jervaulx. We watch her struggle to write the letter, in part because doing so is asking her to lie. Christian comes to the meeting house where her letter is to be read, and gives an impassioned speech where he confronts her with her words, and how they run contrary to what he knows to be the truth of her feelings for him:
Turning his back, he lifted the paper toward the solemn men in the gallery. “Who wrote this? You?” He brandished it at the sober faces. “Or you? Not her. Not her… say I’m – enemy” Christian shook his head and made a disbelieving groan. “Maddy… ‘fornication’?” He was halfway between laugh and tears. “I called it… love for you. Before God… love… honor… my wife… cherish all my days. I said it. Still truth, Maddy. Still the truth… in me, and always.”
Linguistically, this speech is noteworthy because the markers of Christian’s aphasia are closer to what they were halfway through the book. Both realistically and diegetically this makes sense, because we’ve seen that in moments of great stress or particularly high stakes, Christian struggles with mastery over his own speech patterns. Thematically, though, it also represents a manner of speaking that is socially devalued and personally vulnerable: Christian has often refused to speak in front of people if he can’t do it “correctly.” It’s immensely exposing and truthful, and it represents what he’s asking Maddy to do, which is to renounce the type of speech in which society wishes her to engage (in her case, lies about her physical desire) and join him in the intimacy of the way they speak to each other.
The moment where she choses Christian – choses individual union over social censure – takes place not in the meetinghouse but just outside it. The couple exchanges vows of love that echo the ones given at their initial wedding, of “no rule but love between us.” It’s an ending that prioritizes the individual and the sexual over the institutional and social, but one that attempts to use language as the tie that binds all of those together. That can make for a confounding reading: I find that at the end of this book it’s not necessarily easy to figure out how to weigh, in particular, what Maddy has lost and what she’s gained. What somewhat reconciles the fractured reading of this book, for me, is the way Kinsale treats language. Language is the material of individual desire and of social power in her work, and her writing resists separation of the two. Maddy and Christian arrive at a place where they can fully command and understand language as an expression of their desire – sexual desire, certainly, but more importantly a fully-expressed desire to come together and love each other. Part of what I find most challenging, and most exciting, about this book is the way it asks the reader to think about both the value and the limits of that act.