Spoilers are present in this review
All Through The Night by Connie Brockway will remain one of the yardsticks by which I would gauge historical romances I read. In fact I have three copies of this book, no thanks to the fact that I've worn out the binding of the first two copies. But it's more than worth its price, for this story combines obsession, darkness, and two vividly tormented characters into one potent concoction that manages to be poignant, utterly romantic, and devastatingly erotic at the same time.
The story also never cuts corners or make cheesy concessions to the increasingly inane formulaic guidelines many romances are increasingly adhering to. Colonel Henry "Jack" Seward isn't a nobleman, but he is one of the most effective and lethal secret agents in 1817 England. He has toppled, betrayed, and destroyed men perceived as a threat to the country by his superiors.
His first encounter with the thief Wrexhall's Wraith leads to a nasty surprise - the Wraith is a woman. The Wraith plays on his sexual instincts, drawing out a seduction that climaxes with her knees at a very sensitive and tender part of his body. Ouchie. She escapes, hide and pride intact, and he vows to take her down.
The Wraith is Anne Wilder, a low aristocrat by way of marriage to a man who loved her and haunts her. When Jack encounters her again in the ballrooms of the Ton, he in his disguise to ferret out the Wraith, and she in her disguise as a demure chaperone to her niece, sparks really fly.
Be prepared for a ride to the darkside if you read All Through The Night. The romance between Jack and Anne isn't pretty - it's a compelling mix of obsession, a need to dominate and conquer (him), and a desperate need to indulge in hedonistic and suicidal antics to forget the past (her). Both characters are raw and face emotional baggages enough to make anyone consider lobotomy as the way to live.
Jack is haunted by the fact that he isn't who he is, and he has probably driven the real person whose identity he assumed to a painful life or even death. He is a product of the horrific conditions of the poorhouse. He feels no emotion, nothing beyond resignation and wry sardony. In short, the perfect agent you can send to do dirty deeds effectively. Yet with Anne, he becomes cognizant with the need to love and be loved, and with her, he starts to hope.
He hesitated and then set himself before her, his stance wide, his hands crossed in military fashion behind his back. "Mrs Wilder?"
"May I make an incredibly bold request?"
Her gaze lifted to his. She felt emptied from within. "Ask, Colonel."
"Would you," he said, "do me the kindness of speaking my Christian name?"
He petitioned her for more than a few syllables. He requested an intimacy greater than a lover's verbal caress. He asked her for acknowledgement, for recognition.
A gust of cold wind teased an errant strand of hair across her mouth. The hard line of Jack's mouth abruptly softened, his eyes grew gentle. Carefully hr reached up and brushed her hair away. He'd moved closer. A matter of inches separated them. She could feel his warmth and she longed to lean into it, become enveloped by it.
"It is John, is it not?" she asked in a hushed voice.
"No," he replied with quiet intensity, "Jack."
Anne is the perfect match for Jack, his other half when it comes to suicidal tendencies. She is trained by her father who was the premiere cat burglar that played an important role in government espionage, and now she is putting her training in good use, robbing the aristocrats who reneged on their pledge of donations to her Charitable Society for Soldier's Relief. She runs the charity as a way to make amends for her husband's incompetent captaining of a military ship that resulted in the death or incapacitation of many men.
Her husband loved her, and that is her worst hell. Matthew Wilder was a man who was so entranced by the notion of love that he places too high a standard for Anne to reciprocate. He is in love with an ideal, and when Anne couldn't measure up, he ruthlessly punishes her using guilt trips and emotional blackmail. Eventually, she starts believing that she cannot love. Bereft of that, she seizes the opportunity to climb roofs and challenge lightning. She wants to teach the nobles a lesson, or so she says, but Jack sees right through her - she is flirting with death in a desperate need to escape the loneliness and the emptiness in her. The only emotion she feels is the exhilaration of cheating death.
Hence, here are two people who are barely functional as human beings, who realize almost immediately that the other would make him or her whole. Two halves of a damaged coin, if you will. But it's a hard and long journey getting there.
"Anne, m'dear, Colonel Seward," her uncle introduced them. "Sir, my niece, Mrs Anne Wilder."
She swallowed, willing herself to act. She turned her head up, half expecting Seward to seize her wrist and drag her bodily from the ballroom. "How very pleased I am to make your acquaintance, Colonel Seward."
At her utterance of those few syllables, Colonel Seward's head snapped up from making a low, formal bow. His eyes narrowed on her.
She was caught.
This is a fascinating duality in All Through The Night: in their proper guises, Jack and Anne are perfect and well-mannered people slowly skirting around their attraction to each other. But in the darkness of the backlanes, rooftops, and in his sparse, spartan bedroom, the Wrexhall's Wraith and the Whitehall's Hound (Jack's nickname) cross each other in erotic interplays that blur pain with pleasure. Which is why I keep reading - Jack and Annie's contradictory behaviors in their guises are fascinating, compelling, yet so right.
They fit each other perfectly. I won't exactly call their relationship healthy, it's more of a symbiosis where Jack and Anne need each other to feel whole and complete. Their feelings for each other as well as their codependency give them a mean to let go of their past and maybe try, for the first time, to grasp for the elusive happy ever after.
Do I doubt that Jack and Anne are good for each other? No. Here is where the author demonstrates her exquisite skill: All Through The Night is dark and full of emotional torment, but the darkness never overwhelms me. Instead, the darkness becomes the story, blending it so perfectly with Jack and Anne's character that their torments never come off as forced. These are people I wouldn't want to meet in real life, but I end up caring for them. I hurt, I cry, and I really weep for them at the end.
"But there'll be a day I retire to a house in the country. My kitchen door shall stand open all summer and hiunds and cats will trespass at will."
"And what will you be doing while the wildlife makes free with your cupboards?"
"I'll be watching them, Mrs Wilder." The gray cat batted at his chin with a velvet paw. He covered his head with his big hand and stroked her. The cat purred. Envy pricked Anne, envy of a cat.
She peeled off one glove and tentatively reached toward the cat. Her hand brushed against Jack's crippled fingers. She did not look up; he could not look away. Sensual awareness shot through his ruined hand.
The Hound wants the Wraith because the Wraith is supposed to have stolen a document that could threaten England's political stability. Yet nothing is what it seems. The political intrigue in All Through The Night never overwhelms the romance, and it is in fact a vital part of the story that fits perfectly (it's not just a token Who killed Mr Dumb Dumb thing to catalyze a rushed grand rescue at the end.) And the resolution of this problem is dazzlingly simple yet moving at the same time.
There's also a secondary romance between Lord Strand and Anne's charge, unapologetic and defiant Sophia. An equally dysfunctional romance that serves as a perfect foil for Anne and Jack's codependency. There's no doubt that Strand and Sophia can survive without each other, in fact he wants Anne and she wants Jack, but since they have a snowball's chance in hell of getting what they want, heck, let's get married instead! The author uses Sophia and Strand's point of view to highlight the relationship between Jack and Anne perfectly. Reading about how Strand watched Anne make Jack laugh (fancy that!) or how Sophia stared daggers at Jack whose attention was always for Anne, only Anne, make some humorous as well as sigh-worthy moments.
Driving home the fact that Jack and Anne are made for each other is the fact that both are willing to slay dragons and die for the other. It is heartbreaking to read of Jack's uncertain attempts to make Anne love him, the way he - for the first time - becomes ashamed of his past because of Anne, and the way he runs through the streets of London at night, frantically in search of a missing Anne.
He'd returned to his address and scoured the streets, asking vendors and shopkeepers, the street sweepers and the watchman, if they'd seen... None had. But then their eyes were earthbound and she, she flew.
Dear God, let her be safe. The prayer rose from the center of his soul, where his heart had always remained constant to itself. Please God. Please.
He heard the door open.
He swung around. Anne stood in the open door, staring at him with huge, fervent eyes and - blessed Lord. A tear. "Jack, you're all right?" she whispered.
"Yes." His voice was hoarser than usual. Now I am.
And she, she finally learned to love her enemy, the very man who is supposed to kill her but ends up loving and protecting her.
Yes, I love him, she thought fiercely. Yes and yes. She loved Jack. And she would fight for his life and soul.
How could such a romance be wrong?
All Through The Night doesn't offer an easy read, or even a clear resolution of happily-ever-after. Jack and Anne are just healing slowly by the end, and their journey has only begun. Yet for the magical 388 pages of wonder, magic, and breathtaking romance, I feel for the characters. I found myself crying and laughing, and sometimes I have no idea what I am feeling - relief and joy for Anne and Jack for fighting for their chance at happiness, or disappointment because I won't be there to see them on the rest of their journey.
I always feel reading is an activity that should engage my emotions. And I should feel as if I'm in the story, and I want the main characters to succeed and triumph. And All Through The Night more than meets these requirements. It's catharsis as well as a vicarious joyride. I feel. And I find myself wanting to scream at the end because I want to be there when Jack finally finds a cat-infested cottage somewhere in the country. But the ending is such that I won't have it any other way - it's a happy ending, but it makes clear that for Anne and Jack, their life is just starting.
All Through The Night will always be reread. It stands the test of time - I still feel some of the initial intensity of the first reading during subsequent rereadings. Jack and Anne remain one of the most romantic and mesmerizingly compelling characters I've ever read in a book, and yes, I consider this a classic.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
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