Openings: “Flowers from the Storm”

A Writing Craft Review

In the opening scene of Flowers from the Storm Laura Kinsale combines the standard task of introducing one of the novel’s main characters with the less standard task for genre novelists of establishing themes that will be revisited in later passages. Traditionally, arguments in women’s adventure novels, if mentioned at all, are confined to the rights of women, children, or the poor in socially repressive hierarchies. Though Kinsale supports these protests she demonstrates in this prologue that her story will primarily struggle with the limitations of linguistic and mathematical signage as well as speculate about the link between the mind and the body.

As a general rule the focus in this genre is almost exclusively upon the development of a relationship between the two central characters. It is not surprising then that a few writers in the last quarter of the 20th century began to push hard against the limits of such claustrophobic stories. Few challenged those boundaries with the deftness of Laura Kinsale. The obstacles to her couples’ happiness are primarily their personal frailties rather than artifacts of their social class or the machinations of demonic, moustache twirling villains. Chaste kisses lead to overtly sexual couplings that occasionally go so far as to reveal the aftershocks of sexual predators. Pretty flowers and Fabio covers camouflage a writer willing to go where even scandal-hungry caste novelists writing during the same period often feared to tread.

Kinsale opens Flowers from the Storm with a standard move: Tall-Dark-and-Handsome in the throes of his Mistress-of-the-Month. A subtle change, however, alerts us that some new plot development is in the works: neither the social rank or physical attributes of the man are described.

We are then somewhat prepared when the story reveals that he has seduced an aristocrat’s young bride before she has presented her husband with his traditional heir-and-a-spare that would free her to take other lovers. Very unsportsmanlike. Worse still, when he suspects she is pregnant our “hero” encourages her to palm off his little coo-coo on her unsuspecting husband. Readers of this genre expect their bad-boy heroes to be hounds but never really venal.

In the next scene Kinsale divides the reader’s attention between an external view of Christian’s [even a goldfish can’t miss the irony of using this name] actions and a brief view of his radically different internal experience. As he prepares to depart from the evening’s pleasures his sight falls upon a statue partially lit by the light of “a single candle guttered at the basket of the stairwell, illuminating the left arm and draperies of a marble copy of Ceres gazing down with an excess of sentimentality upon a sheaf of wheat.”

Initially this statue of Ceres, the goddess of fertility, seems to be only a further reference to Christian’s willingness to flaunt the rules of nature by abandoning his seed. As we read further, however, we begin to realize that the far less obvious words “left” and by inference its antonym “right” quietly dominate this prologue.

Over and over they’ll be repeated in a variety of guises throughout the whole novel and with each repetition we gain a greater awareness that the word “right” has a variety of  dance partners including “right & left,” “right & wrong,” and perhaps most importantly for this story “right & light”. This type of embedding a complex series of meanings in a few superficially simple words can effectively draw readers through the construction of a complex argument when the use of detailed logic and lavish descriptions can often simply congest that same path.

Time and Language are other interrelated elements that Kinsale  introduces in this opening. When Christian and the husband first see each other time slows. While they share a moment of silent recognition at what this confrontation means time stops. There is no “five”. While they both search for the right response time slowly starts again until Christian begins to feel the wrongness of his right hand. Only then does the husband issue his death threat and time returns to normal:

There was a clock ticking in the hall. Christian had never noticed it before, but at that moment of silence it was like brazen, irrevocable tally. One . . two . . . three . . . four . . .

At four it happened. The half-smile faded from Sutherland’s face. His lips parted. Christian expected nothing to come out, and nothing did: only silence, and Sutherland’s face going whiter and whiter, until his mouth clamped shut and color rushed up everywhere but in the carved line beside his nose and around his lips.

Six . . . seven . . . eight . . .

Christian thought of several things to say, all facetious and directed at himself, except for the classic Home early, aren’t you?

He kept them between his teeth. Sutherland still looked in a state of shock. An unpleasant tingling numbness in Christian’s right hand-made him realize how hard he was gripping the stair rail through his glove.

The persistent failure of language to adequately communicate meaning is a third theme that Kinsale only briefly introduces in this opening but eventually develops into the source of the story’s primary conflict. Though this is an expansive topic she limits language here to it’s most basic task, differentiating one person from another. Sutherland, the betrayed husband, bungles Christian’s last name, Jervaulx:

He [the husband] even got the pronunciation wrong, the bumped-up Cit; too much J and X. In the eerie imbalance of the moment, Christian’s mind absurdly revolved over the proper sounds of his own title, Shervoh-Shervoh-Shervoh . . .

In these thirty-six very simple words Kinsale lays the groundwork for an examination of the capacity of words to reveal both a person’s individuality and their class. The husband is a “bumped-up cit” slang for someone from the merchant class who only recently managed to acquire a peerage. Christian’s own title, Jervaulx, is a French name that suggests his peerage dates to the Norman Conquest. Within these same words Kinsale also manages to teach us how to pronounce her hero’s otherwise unpronounceable title.

All very nice but what demonstrates expert crafting is when Kinsale nestled one little word, imbalance, exactly in the middle of this seemingly straight-forward paragraph that is itself at the center of the prologue. Given this degree of staging we suspect it is important to the book as a whole. All we can know now is that it marks the moment when the confrontation moves from past action (the adultery) into future action (the duel). We will soon come to recognize this as the moment when the Duke of Jervaulx began to quickly loose every definition of that title.

There are basically three ways to construct such a passage. You can make the transition without acknowledgement.

For instance—Annie put out all the chips and the  chive dip, opened up a couple of beers for her guests and drank them herself while she was waiting to put away the chips and the dip and shower before going to bed.

You can overtly acknowledge the transition – Annie gave a party but nobody came.

Or you can use a fulcrum word that acts both as an acknowledgment and a transition—After she had laid out the appetizers Annie decided to make them look more inviting and then remembered she hadn’t phoned any of her friends.

Kinsale pivots her prologue upon a single word “imbalance” at the point when everything begins to change for Christian. Then she really shows off her crafting skills when she follows that passage with another in which she literally shifts the narrator’s position back and forth between being inside and outside and inside and outside of Christian as he struggles to walk from the house to the carriage. Without any change of tense or personal pronoun Kinsale gives us our own a parallel experience to Christian’s contradictory recognition of his hat as his hat and alternately as an entirely foreign object. By focusing the readers’ attention upon that hat Kinsale restrains any tendency for this complexly emotional material to become excessively sentimental, something she has stated is a negative quality in art.

No where in this opening are there any overt suggestions that Christian is punishing himself for a sin that he cannot bring himself to acknowledge—the child; yet Kinsale has laid out many of the game pieces that she will use to tell us a story that is not about the crime but about self-punishment. She has also demonstrated that she is up to the task of not going soft during the construction of this perilous love story between a deeply flawed man and a dissident woman.