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X-posted from my journal.

Although this novella makes an interesting attempt to engage with the social constraints of the time in a more realistic manner than many Victorian-set romances, it founders on inconsistent characterization and on a gender subtext greatly at odds with its surface. Despite some genuinely moving aspects -- particularly the heroine's delayed emotional reaction to traumatic events in her past and the hero's painful relationship with his frail and increasingly senile father -- the story fails for me due to disquieting elements in the central romance.

Cut for length and spoilers; trigger warning for statutory rape
Shortly before leaving his home for medical school, Jonas Grantham accompanies the local physician on a visit to an unwed pregnant teen. Promised the physician's practice after his graduation and uncertain in the face of the older man's authority, Jonas doesn't dare dispute the physician's predictions of doom to the girls' distressed parents ("Once a girl is ruined, her life is over.... One of the moral diseases will shortly find her, and she will perish in ignominy.") or his prescription of prussic acid (cyanide) for morning sickness. Five years later, upon taking up his new practice, Jonas courts Miss Lydia Charingford, not recognizing her as the pregnant girl. She rebuffs his advances angrily:

“I don’t care what you think of my moral decay,” she hissed. “I am still alive, and I intend to remain so. I refuse to be ruined. If you try anything, you’ll be sorry.”


Jonas is attracted by this vigor and self-confidence, rather than put off, and only grows more attracted to Lydia's energy, industriousness, and the cheerful demeanor she shows everyone but him. It uplifts his generally gloomy disposition:

[Jonas] knew he tended toward gloom. It made him consider blood poisoning and heart attacks when someone else might see a touch of indigestion. Those carefully considered worst-case scenarios made him a good doctor, but they also made him feel like a dark little raincloud.

When Lydia Charingford was around, though, he felt like a smiling dark little raincloud.


Sadly, Jonas' courtship seems to consist more of making sarcastic remarks than of reassuring her that he's not just trying to get into her pants. Not unreasonably, Lydia regards his attempts at rapprochement as harassment. He tricks Lydia into a bet: she'll accompany him on his rounds and if she can come up with an optimistic take on the tragic circumstances he shows her, he'll stop speaking to her. If her optimism fails, she'll give him a kiss.

The setup already displays one of the major flaws in the story: the dissonance between what we are told by the characters and what we are actually shown. Yes, the characters may be unreliable -- but both Jonas and Lydia agree that he is blunt to the point of rudeness, and everyone Lydia knows seems to agree that she is cheerful and optimistic.

We do indeed see Jonas's bluntness and disregard for social norms in his conversations with Lydia and with his patients. He has taken a particular interest in how the failures of medicine affect women, from the childbed deaths caused by physicians who do not wash their hands after autopsies to the problems by the failure to disseminate contraceptives and accurate information about sex and conception. This bluntness, however, fails him when it comes to telling Lydia that he didn't initially recognize her as the pregnant teen, and that he would like to court her -- or even simply increase his acquaintance with her -- without having any nefarious intent. The entire plot depends on his contrived silence on this count, and it jars me with every single reference. And there are a lot of references, since these contrary understandings of Jonas' intentions shape all of Jonas and Lydia's interactions for a good two-thirds of the story.

I'm sure other readers find Jonas's silence less contrived than I do: he is defensive in the face of Lydia's anger, and it's difficult to admit an attraction to someone who seems to despise you. His silence nevertheless triggers my impatience with the Big Misunderstandings that often drive romance plots, because in order to clear this up, Jonas doesn't have to admit to love at first third sight; he just has to respond to Lydia's clearly communicated concerns.

The difference between how Lydia is described and how she appears to the reader is harder to explain away. We are told that Lydia generally presents a cheerful and optimistic face to the world, but we do not actually see any evidence of this before page 40 of a 120-page novella. For the first third of the story, we see her distressed, frustrated, angry, and often openly antagonistic -- and yes, this is because we see her interacting with Jonas, who is marked out as an exception to her usual attitude. However, there's no evidence it is an exception because we haven't actually seen her usual behavior in action. Probably her good cheer is established in The Duchess War, a related novel, but romance novellas are generally expected to stand alone.

What I find most frustrating about this story, though, isn't the handling of character, but the way it addresses sexism. Milan frequently depicts men who have a feminist agenda, by which I mean not just that they object to individual cases of sexism but that they do in some way recognize that there is a systemic social disadvantage to women which must be addressed. In this case, Jonas advocates birth control for women and is particularly concerned with the way medical "science" has actually endangered women; in Unclaimed, Mark Turner promotes male chastity as a way to prevent abuse of women. Notably, these "feminists" are always men. In neither of these stories do we hear of or see the women who actually founded and dominated the social movements of the time which were concerned with women's health, including sexual and reproductive issues. In both of these stories, women are able to recognize the injuries done to them -- and to conceptualize them as unjust injuries, rather than random events -- only because of the intervention of men. Sunita makes a similar argument about Milan's treatment of industrialization, democratization, and the expansion of male suffrage in The Duchess War. Milan tends to depict mass social movements solely as the efforts made by individuals privileged by the system to "rescue" people disadvantaged by it, which both misrepresents history and muddles the heroic characterization she clearly intends for the rescuers.

"A Kiss for Midwinter" depends on Jonas perpetually ignoring and disregarding Lydia's repeated indications that she doesn't wish to associate with him -- that is, it depends on his harassment of her. Because he is the hero and because we know that Lydia misinterprets his intentions, the narrative pushes us to favor his desires and to ignore that he is consistently disregarding her expressed desires in favor of satisfying his own. He knows better. He obeys her command not to speak to her only when she satisfies his requirements for base knowledge, and even that he undercuts by physically approaching her -- just without verbal communication. And of course he is right. Of course he wins over Lydia. Of course she recognizes that he knows her history, her psychology, and her desires better than she does herself, and his harassment is justified by her unacknowledged attraction; his behavior is excused by the narrative to the point that Lydia ultimately regrets telling him not to speak to her as much because it hurts his feelings as because it does not reflect her final desires. Early on, in the most ridiculous example of this, after Lydia rejects him by saying she'd rather be dead than have his hands on her, he makes a risque joke, then apologizes:

“In my defense—and I know this is a weak defense—we were talking about death, and that always brings out the worst of my humor. Which, as you have no doubt discovered, is abominable to begin with. I pray that I do not one day watch you bleed to death on the streets.” His voice was solemn, and for once, that twinkle vanished from his eyes. “I hope it is not you. But it will be someone.”


His apology for propositioning her turns into an excuse to display his terrible manpain at the existence of patients he cannot save.

The surface narrative endorses a woman's right to express her own desires and control her own fate, but the subtext consistently subordinates Lydia's desires (both sexual and otherwise) to Jonas's.

The other ways the narrative handles Lydia's desires and reactions are more interesting. We learn early on that Lydia miscarried her child, but only later do we learn the full story of her affair. Her lover, who was ten years her elder, convinced her to agree to a secret engagement:

“Do you know what naïve is? .... Naïve is when you tell [your lover] that you’re willing to do everything but that final act reserved for marriage—because you don’t want to be stupid and become pregnant outside of wedlock. . . . Naïve is when he agrees, and you do everything but that one thing, that one thing that risks pregnancy, that one thing that you’re saving for your wedding night. He tells you that he can’t wait to do that one last thing.” Her eyes smarted—just the cold of the wind; definitely not tears—but she lifted her gloves to her eyes and dashed away the liquid there. “He tells you how much more there is to do over and over as he rogers you senseless. I know what it means to be naïve. It’s believing a man when he says this isn’t how pregnancy occurs. Because you trust him, and nobody has ever told you what to expect. . . . ”


(He was also, of course, already married.) Lydia continues:

“So don’t tell me I’m naïve. Don’t even think it.” Lydia’s voice had a quaver in it, and she hated that sign of weakness, that show of emotion over events that had come and gone. “After…after everything was over, after I realized how foolish I was, how ignorant I had been, I wanted to hate everything and everyone. But if I did, he would have won. He would have ruined me. I wasn’t going to be a bit of rubbish just because he discarded me.” She glared up at Grantham. “And I refused to break. I wouldn’t do him the honor.”


This indicates Lydia's strength of will, but it also indicates her denial of the emotional impact of her lover's betrayal; she has not recovered from her traumatic history, only repressed it. Her misreading of Jonas is partially motivated by her projection onto him of her conflicted feelings about herself and her sexual desires. This is because of her physical attraction to him, not despite it; physical attraction has hurt her before. It's not surprising that the final indication she has reconciled herself to her past is that she propositions Jonas, but this proposition does feel too swift to me, as if all that's needed to heal from trauma is a single great epiphany. It feels like the conventions of romance (and possibly the constraints of length) conflict with the demands of psychological realism.

Milan has frequently combined her romantic plots with social critiques of Victorian gender and class norms--and the gender and class norms of historical romances set in Victorian England, which are not quite the same thing. She has spoken about the opportunities self-publishing offers for pushing the boundaries of romance, particularly in regard to writing non-aristocratic heroes in historical romance. I would love to see these interests and advantages combine successfully with her gift for deep emotional connection. That hasn't happened here.

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