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Linda Hilton

Reader, Writer, Merciless Reviewer and Incurable Romantic

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Lord Johnnie -- part 3

Don't forget:  spoilers abound!


Lord Johnnie and his crew of would-be pirates are now on their way to New York.  I had hoped to finish the book last night, but by midnight had only reached page 246.  Realizing I couldn't finish and still get a decent night's sleep, I reached for the bookmark.


But it was a satisfying read, and I knew I'd finish in one more session.


Because I knew the story well enough after all these years, I was looking for the extra, deeper elements, and there were three of them in this section.


The first was the character arc of Johnnie himself.


In striking contrast to the character of Connie Goodwin in Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Johnnie behaves exactly as one would expect him to: sometimes impulsively but always with a clear awareness of what he's doing and why, and always in a way that makes sense to the reader.  He knows the risks he takes, knows the potential outcomes.  He even knows when he does things that are slightly out of his own character.


He is also very much aware of the changes in his behavior and his attitudes as he takes on new responsibilities.  All his life he had only been responsible for himself; he never trusted or relied on anyone else.  Even when plotting his escape from hanging and his companions were essential, he knew they could not be completely trusted.  After the escape, when he has gone to Leanna's home, he confesses to her that he has never been able to trust anyone.


Nor has he ever let himself become responsible for anyone else, requiring that someone else trust him.  That changes when he and Ames are taken by the press gang: It's his fault the old man, who had sailed with his father, has been forced into service.  It changes even more then the crew mutinies and Johnnie becomes captain, because now he is responsible for all of them.  When faced with opportunities to save himself and let the rest fend for themselves, he consciously chooses not to.


Part of his growth can be understood as his reaction to people around him, people who do things he has never experienced before.  In his own dog-eat-dog existence, the idea that others would come to his assistance is totally foreign.  When Mrs. Bloodsmythe comes to his rescue in a most amusing way, he's slightly astonished, but certainly grateful.


And that's the second of the three incidents in this part of the book that stand out.


The Eagle is boarded by a Lt. Ayers from another English ship, the Tiger.  Ayers is suspicious that a much younger man is claiming to be Capt. Bloodsmythe, because he had met the captain and his wife at a social event in England.  When Mrs. Bloodsmythe comes on deck, links her arm through Johnnie's, and claims him as her husband, Ayers is thrown off course (pun intended).  The captain's widow explains that the older man she was with in London was in fact her husband's cousin and scolds the lieutenant. (p. 166)


"Why, Lieutenant Ayers -- I'm furious with you!  Did you think that fat old walrus was my husband  For shame!"


Ayers reacted as if he wished the deck would suddenly give way beneath him.  "No, no, my lady!  Only --"


"You did! You really did!"


"Forgive me!" pleaded Ayers confusedly.  "I really must be getting back."  He scribbled furiously across a paper and shoved it toward Johnnie.  "There's your clearance, Captain.  I acted hastily."


After Ayers leaves the ship and returns to his own, Johnnie confronts the widow over her performance.


"By my troth, madame, you amaze me!"


"I fear you underestimated me, sir."


"Aye, I fear I did.  I'm indebted --"


She stiffened her spine.  "You're indebted for nothing!" she cut him off.  "The debt was mine.  If it is paid, then I am relieved. for I don't wish to be obligated to you further!"  With that she swept out of the cabin.


She has, in a sense, mirrored much of Johnnie's own experience, in which he thinks he's been independent, but in fact there are always others around who have their parts to play.


What's surprising, however, is that Johnnie doesn't question her sense of indebtedness, nor her ability to have cancelled the debt.  She was Bloodsmythe's victim, but he did not strip her of her humanity or her agency.  Neither did author White.


Thus saved from discovery, Johnnie captains the crew to New York, where he faces another potential mutiny when they learn they're not going to the tropical islands.  In order to dispose of the ship and acquire another better suited to his plans, he soon learns there is only one person in the burgeoning city of some sixteen thousand souls  who can help him.  One person controls the trade in ships, some directly and some indirectly, but there is no route to buying a vessel but through the hands of Reggie, the Duchess of Tallentyre.


She's a more than a little scandalous businesswoman in her fifties, and as it turns out she has just the ship Johnnie needs, the Able Lady.  She also knows everyone who is anyone in the city and has connections to everyone else.


It never occurred to me, back in 1961 or '62, to question that a woman would control the shipping trade in colonial New York.  Almost exactly two hundred years after the story's setting, women faced all kinds of obstacles in their everyday lies that I also wasn't aware of.  The inability of a married woman to get credit in her own name, for example. 


The women in the popular culture of my time weren't like the Duchess of Tallentyre.  Laura Petrie, Harriet Nelson, Donna Stone, and Lucy Ricardo were not assertive and strong like Reggie.  If they managed their families -- and their men -- it was more through manipulation than partnership or independent agency.  In contrast to wife and mother Laura Petrie, Sally Rogers was less the successful working woman and more the frustrated husband-hunter, because wife-and motherhood were the desired ends.


But I had abandoned television for the world of books, so I was much more impressed, even subconsciously, by someone like the Duchess than by Laura Petrie.  Women, even imaginary women created in a man's mind in 1949, could do things.


Of course, since Reggie knows everyone, Johnnie can't resist asking her about Leanna, whom he knows left Portsmouth the same time as he, headed also for New York.  Well, Reggie doesn't know her, but she knows how to find out. 


The reunion of husband and reluctant wife doesn't go well, and it is complicated further by revelations of Johnnie's true identity.  Another of his risky plans, made this time with the assistance of the Duchess of Tallentyre and unwitting collusion of Lord Chauncey Eden, the Governor of New York, results in his springing his crew from prison and escaping New York harbor in the Able Lady just a cannonball's breadth ahead of the pursuing English.  But the more complex his life becomes, the more easily it's further complicated by the actions of others over whom he has no control -- and that includes himself.


Having found Leanna again he's determined not to lose her again, so he kidnaps her on the justification that she is, after all, his lawful wife.  But once aboard the Able Lady, he also discovers he is once more saddled with the competent but just a little to righteous Lt. Rodney Yew.  Though his scheme to release the crew included freedom for Yew, the lieutenant himself didn't trust Johnnie.  (p. 245)


"Be good enough to explain why you did not go ashore when I so ordered?"


"I considered it an ill-timed jest," Yew snapped.


Johnnie's smile was cold.  "Jest, eh?"  Then he detailed exactly what had happened between  the Governor and himself relative to Yew.  "Does that still strike you as a jest, Mr. Yew?" he concluded.


Yew stared at him incredulously.  "By the powers, sir, I owe you an apology!"


"That doesn't better your plight," Johnnie said dryly.


To his amazement, Rodney Yew laughed, albeit a trifle bitterly.


"Aye, true enough.  'Twould seem the jest was one of Fate's.  Yet, I think you'll grant I cannot be censured for not anticipating such magnanimity from a man of your reputation, sir!"


Johnnie had to grin.  "In a word -- you didn't expect fairness from the Devil?"


Yew shrugged.  "I repeat what I said once before, sir.  You pass all understanding."



With a loyal crew, a sleek ship, and a fair wind, Johnnie should have it made.  Leanna is in her cabin, probably not too happy, but he's confident she'll come 'round. 


He just doesn't know there are 62 more pages. . .