The Heart of a Story: The Madness of Miss Grey by Julia Bennet

Heart of the Story
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What an exquisite story of torment — the torment of doing the right thing and the torment of being right and unable to do anything about it. I read about the struggles and victories of the people in Julia Bennet’s story, The Madness of Miss Grey, with an aching heart. The sensitivity and strength of purpose that Bennet brings to the tale is at once elegant and harrowing, and the ultimate achievement of the happily ever after feels just as much a triumph for the characters as for the reader.

Helen Grey is the by-blow of a very influential duke who has a reputation for always walking the straight and narrow. But he did have a moment of weakness. When Helen’s mother, an actress, passes away, the duke is eager to hide his past misstep before it becomes known and brings irreparable harm to his honor. So he has Helen imprisoned in a madhouse for the wealthy that is hidden away in the countryside of the frozen north.

The conditions Helen lives in under the thumb of a barbarous doctor and a sadistic nurse and the mental and physical tortures they inflict on her are unnerving to read. And yet…her indomitable spirit and constant struggle to rise above her situation and not succumb to the insistent pull of depression command the reader’s respect and opens the reader’s mind up to the life force in Helen’s soul.

Helen’s saving grace is newly-arrived Dr. William “Will” Carter. At first, she meets his innate decency and desire to truly understand her situation and frame of mind with distrust and constant vigilance and assessment. She has learned to be cunning and to use every advantage to manipulate situations to suit herself with the ultimate goal being to run away from her prison.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, for her, Will is a highly principled and brilliant doctor, who is awake on all suits. He knows he’s being manipulated and uses her machinations to further his understanding of her. On one hand, he has his superior’s detailed notes, and on the other hand, he has his perception of the workings of Helen’s mind and diagnoses. He becomes convinced that she is completely sane but her life and mind are in danger of being destroyed by her cruel caretakers.

Helen had been loved as a child by her mother, but ten years of incarceration devoid of any warmth have destroyed her ability to love or to know when she is loved. She trusts no one — one betrayal after another have eroded her sense of self-worth and faith in mankind.

Will has lived in the light of the love of his mother and benefactor. While he has experienced sorrow, it has not blighted his life. As he gets to know Helen better he inevitably falls in love with her. But to him, Helen is delicately beautiful, while his is a simple, coarse-featured face. Despite the fact that he had been married once, and his wife has supposedly loved him, her extreme circumspection and the distaste of his fellowmen have convinced him that he is not attractive and there is no way a woman like Helen would look twice at him, much less, fall in love with him. His struggles with insecurity dog his waking moments.

Thus you have two wounded people, one in love, one struggling to understand what love is, neither trusting that the other loves them, and neither believing that they are lovable.

At the same time, Will has been mightily resisting in embroiling her in his feelings, because he takes his Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm to his patient seriously. As her doctor, and especially as a psychiatrist, the power is all on his side in their relationship, and he is ever cognizant of that fact. He is but a man and has fallen in lust and love with her, but he is first and foremost a professional. I greatly admired Bennet’s ability to carefully and thoughtfully navigate his emotional landscape and to craft a romance that allows the balance of power to equalize and for love to triumph.

If you are a reader of historical romance, this unusual and powerful story — by turns stark and tender — is a must addition to your home library.

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