Review: Through a Glass Darkly by Karleen Koen (1986)

Shout out to Tina, an early reader of our blog, for the recommendation! 

Heat Factor: The vast majority of the sex is extremely sordid

Character Chemistry: Distinct power imbalance

Plot: The realities of a May-December romance

Overall: This book is not for the faint of heart

On the surface, Through a Glass Darkly has all the trappings of a romance novel. The plot centers around the relationship between Barabara and Roger, from courtship to marriage, through trials and tribulations and fights and reconciliation. And Barbara loves Roger quite desperately. So far so good. 

However. While the plot centers on a romantic relationship (or at least a marriage), I would argue that the heart of the book is Barbara’s relationship with members of her family – with her grandmother, her mother, and her siblings, especially her older brother Harry. In addition, the whole time I was reading the book, I wasn’t sure whether we were going to see a Happily Ever After for Barbara and Roger – and if we were going to, how it was going to happen. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see a Happily Ever After for these two, because while Barbara loved Roger, I’m not at all positive that he loved her. (No spoilers, but the jury is still out on that question, even after I finished the book.) 

The arc of the story can be divided into three parts, which each make up about a third of the book: the courtship, the early months of marriage, and five years into the marriage. I want to focus in on the courtship, because this portion of the book really highlights the ways in which Through a Glass Darkly is not quite a romance. 

When the book opens, Diana (Barbara’s Terrible Mom) is deeply in debt, so she begins marriage negotiations on behalf of her daughter to Roger – an old friend of the family, who got in good with King George I at just the right time, and therefore has been rewarded with a title and fabulous wealth. Diana expects Barbara to be obstinate about the whole thing, but surprise! Barbara has been in love with Roger for years, so the idea of marrying him is a dream come true. Please note: Barbara is 15. Roger is 45. Roger, not surprisingly, is not in love with Barbara, but the thought of a malleable young bride is appealing, and as a bonus, her dowry includes some land that he desperately wants. 

What follows is a bunch of plotting on the part of various family members. Diana wants more money out of Roger. Barbara’s aunt wants to block the marriage, so that her son will get the land. Barbara has a bunch of hissy fits. Through it all, Roger is focused only on his dream of this land and what he will make of it, rather than on Barbara: 

He never once thought of Barbara, sitting alone in Diana’s Covent Garden lodgings, plodding through Lord Halifax’s advice to his daughter because he had mentioned it in jest.

Eventually Grandma intervenes and pushes the negotiations through, despite some misgivings (Roger is, of course, a libertine), because Barbara loves him soooooo much. Grandma and Barbara have a special bond, you see, because Barbara looks like dear departed Grandpa. 

To give Barbara a tiny modicum of credit, she does realize that Roger doesn’t love her, but she is determined that he will. She will make him. 

As you may have guessed from this description, the “courtship” portion of the story is not really a courtship at all. Barbara has already been won, and her opinion doesn’t matter anyways; marriage is about mutual gain, not about the happiness of the young woman. The parties are all on board, and the drama is not about whether they will get married, but what the precise terms of the marriage will be. 

As you also may have guessed from this courtship, the marriage itself is not what Barbara pictured. Roger has been a bachelor for years, and sees no reason to change his ways now that he happens to be married to a child – he just won’t tell her what’s going on, and once she’s less innocent, she’ll see that this is just the way of the world. Much drama ensues (you know: infidelity, duels, heartache). And honestly, this is probably the fate of a lot of these really young, innocent women who marry older libertines in romance novels; when the book ends at the wedding, we don’t get to see whether this duke or that billionaire actually changed his ways. 

Through a Glass Darkly would therefore probably be better be classified as a coming of age novel, as Barbara puts away childish things and learns to see clearly.

With that said, readers of historical romance might find it interesting because the level of detail is so dense. Koen includes lots of information about architecture and clothing and celebrations and the nitty gritty of day to day life. One result is that her depiction of early 18th century England feels very foreign in a way that the settings of many historical romance novels do not; Koen doesn’t shy away from the fact that people did things like pee in the corners of the room during dinner parties (truth!), which is refreshing change from the anachronistic world of politically correct regency romances.

Readers should note, however, than many of the details may be disturbing to modern sensibilities. Characters shrug off slavery, physical violence and sexual assault as commonplace. People, including children, die horrific deaths; a smallpox epidemic is described in excruciating detail. There is a strong thread of homophobia that runs throughout the text (this is complicated; Roger would today be described as bisexual, but also maintains his position as the primary heterosexual love interest despite his proclivities). 

Would I recommend this book? Well. It was an interesting read. Some bits are thought-provoking, while other bits are distressing. It’s not quite a satisfying romance, but Barbara does definitely grow as a person by embracing love. So… I would recommend this book to a select audience. If you’re interested in gritty historical fiction that has some romantic crossover appeal, then maybe this book is for you.

Buy Now: Amazon

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