The Captive by Victoria Holt
Doubleday, 1st edition, 1989
Genre: Gothic romance, historical romance, romantic suspense
Synopsis & Review: Rosetta Cranleigh is of a genteel background; her parents are both respected scholars of the ancient world, her father working for the British Museum, and their research and studies are the mainstay of their existence. In fact, they hardly see to notice they have a child, despite naming her for one of the century’s most important archeological discoveries. (Quick aside: I was so enchanted by the phrase “Rosetta Stone” when I was little that I invented several characters with that name, and would draw them endlessly, making up stories of their adventures to go along with the drawings. NERD ALERT) Rosetta spends most of her time belowstairs with the servants and her nurse, until a governess is hired for her education. Fortunately, Miss Felicity Wills is young and sympathetic, and remains Rosetta’s dearest friend even after she eventually marries and Rosetta goes off to school.
When Rosetta is eighteen, her parents take her on an extended trip, to South Africa and then to America, for a lecture tour, affording her an unusual opportunity to see the world. On board, she befriends two young men, the dashing Lucas Lorimer and a deckhand, John Player. A terrible storm strikes, forcing the passengers to evacuate the ship, and Rosetta is separated from her parents. Fortunately, John Player finds a lifeboat, and the two rescue the injured Lucas Lorimer from a capsized lifeboat. After a few days at sea, the three wash up on a tiny, deserted atoll on the North African coast. Because of their desperate situation, John confesses to Rosetta that he is not who he seems to be: he is actually a fugitive named Simon Perrivale, a bastard from a gentry background, fleeing accusations of his eldest brother’s murder. He claims his innocence, and Rosetta believes him. A ship spots the stranded travelers, and pirates rescue them from certain death. Lucas ransoms himself, but the blonde, blue-eyed Rosetta and strong Simon are too valuable, and are sold into captivity. The ship soon makes Constantinople, where Rosetta enters the pasha’s seraglio and Simon labors as a gardener.
Safe from sexual debasement until she has recovered from her ordeal, Rosetta befriends the French Nicole, mother to the pasha’s eldest son, Samir. This draws her into the harem’s intrigues, and when Rosetta foils a threat to Samir, Nicole takes pity on the English girl. With the help of the chief eunuch, Rosetta and Simon both escape into the city, where she goes to the British embassy, and John disappears, planning to make his way to Australia.
Rosetta discovers that her father is still alive and eager to see her in London, though her mother was lost at sea. Her capable aunt takes over the household, leaving Rosetta at loose ends, until she stays with Felicity, who reunites her with Lucas, now crippled and a shadow of his former self. Upon learning that Lucas hails from the same area of Cornwall as Simon, Rosetta goes there to investigate, hoping to uncover the truth of the Perrivale murders. She takes a position as governess in the Perrivale house, and though Lucas warns her of danger, Rosetta cannot rest until she clears Simon’s name.
Funny how the captivity narrative is one of the most enduring topos in Western popular fiction. In America, the Indian captivity tale—from Mary Rowlandson to The Searchers—has endured, changing thematically to reflect social concerns. In Colonial America, there was often an emphasis on religion, and the captivity functioned as punishment for sin. Only the strong who remained true to their faith could survive to pass the tale on to a receptive audience. Similarly popular is the Barbary captivity narrative, that of white Christians in bondage in North Africa, or even farther East in the Ottoman world. When tales of Barbary captivities took hold of the popular imagination, North America was in the early stages of colonization, and images of North African “barbarian” and North American Indian “savages” were exchanged; description of either Other were interchangeable or comparative. It might be said that the captivity narrative forms an integral part of North American identity in literature, and the understanding of the Other as represented by the indigenous peoples of North America. Worth exploration is also how the descriptions of white captivity in Africa and the Near East might reflect anxieties about black slavery in North America. But that’s a topic for someone’s history paper, not for me and Victoria Holt.
In romantic fiction, the Barbary captivity is particularly popular, forming the basis of countless romance novels from The Sheik (and the Valentino movie based on it) to Catherine Coulter’s Devils’ Daughter and Victoria Holt’s The Captive. The Romatic, Orientalist perception of the harem invites the romance novel, giving license to open sensuality, a place in which a heroine can explore her sexuality in a non-threatening manner. And then there’s Rosetta Cranleigh, whose stay in the seraglio must surely be one of the dullest in romantic fiction. Her sojourn there lasts only thirty-six pages, and hardly seems necessary to the plot, the central focus of which is Rosetta’s investigation of the Perrivale murder and her efforts to prove Simon’s innocence. The entire interlude in the harem seems inserted simply to attract readers seeking that particular sensual Eastern escape. In short, it’s a cheat. Though there is discussion of how the experience of the shipwreck affects both Rosetta and Lucas, their problems are also easily explained by the marooning, with no need for a harem interlude, as once she is out, Rosetta hardly refers to it at all.
Ignoring the problematic harem sequence, the novel is mostly a straightforward romantic suspense of the Gothic type (if that’s not oxymoronic). There is an unsolved murder, additional mysterious deaths, suspect characters, an ingenuous child who provides clues, half-mad elderly women, puzzling character origins, illicit liaisons, and various suspect folk. Lucas is a bit of a change from the usual virile anti-hero; his injuries in the shipwreck leave him physically crippled, as well emotionally troubled. His sense of self, along with Simon’s innocence, are two of the objects Rosetta must recover, and once she finds them, she must decide between the two. Rosetta’s charge Kate is a delightful child character, more believable than Rosetta herself in the earliest portion of the book, and her interactions with Rosetta evoke genuine affection, and part the best scenes in the novel. Other secondary characters are also well-drawn, and Holt doesn’t rely on obvious stereotypes to build her story. Unfortunately, the plot itself is clichéd and banal. It is a quick read, though.
Read also: Kadin by Bertrice Small, Devil’s Daughter by Catherine Coulter (also has a cheat, but I won’t spoil it), The India Fan by Victoria Holt
Cover: A nice painting of a fair woman lounging in romantic, eastern attire. I like the parrot. Too bad it’s basically irrelevant to the plot.
Those days I spent on the island stand out in my memory, never to be forgotten. John turned out to be quite ingenious; he was practical and resourceful and was constantly trying to find ways to help us survive.
We must keep an account of the time, he said. He was going to make notches on a stick for this purpose. He knew we had been at sea three nights and so we had a start. Lucas was now fully aware of what was happening. It was maddening for him to be unable to move but I think his main concern was that he might eb a hindrance.
We tried to assure him that this was not so and we needed someone to be on watch all the time. He could stay in the boat and keep a lookout while John and I were exploring the island, searching for food, or doing any jobs that needed to be done. We had been provided with whistles with our life jackets, and if he spotted a sail or anything unusual happened he could summon us immediately.
It is amazing how very close one can become to another human being in such circumstances. Thus it was with John and me.
23 November – 24 November