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meAnne Mather’s Melting Fire (Harlequin Presents #306, 1979) is creepy and disturbing, and not in a good way.

Olivia is a naive and virginal nineteen-year-old, returning to the family’s country estate after attending finishing school in Paris. Actually there’s not much family – just a much older stepbrother. She’s looking forward to her usual summer of topless sunbathing, hanging around the pool, playing tennis, and entertaining guests while the staff prepare meals and otherwise cater to her every whim. But things are different this year – she met a guy in Paris, and she’s starting to wonder about her future. She’s adventurous enough to flirt with the chauffeur, and is starting to resent the mothering of the housekeeper. She even wonders about moving to London and getting a job, although the only thing she’s learned at school is how to be the mistress of an estate, so she’s not really sure what she might do.

This is not a historical.

Olivia has always loved her step-brother Richard, and they’ve been very close over the years, but it turns out that he’s spent all that time grooming her to be his wife and mistress of his estate. Richard declares his intentions, reminds her that she owes him everything, and tells her that he’ll kill her if she doesn’t submit. Then he sexually assaults her. Repeatedly. At first she is ashamed of how aroused she finds his pawing, but soon she becomes jealous when other women drool over him. When she confronts him about this, he declares that his devotion for her is so great that he has not bedded another woman since she came home a few weeks earlier. Richard knows, and tells her, that her Parisian boyfriend only wants her money, and that no other man will ever love her like he does. He also gives her a Mercedes sports car, so she can go out whenever she wants, and rapes her. It was actually her fault.

If only she could despise him as she despised herself! It was useless to blame him entirely for what had happened. She had challenged his right to rule her life, and he had subdued her in the most basic way of all – and she had let him…

Even after this, it is hard for her to accept her romantic destiny. Eventually she tries to live on her own, but realizes she cannot look after herself, especially with a precious baby on the way, and Richard needs her. As the housekeeper points out, “can’t you think of anyone else but yourself?”

Was the state of women’s liberation really this bad in 1979? I’m not completely opposed to the guardian-ward or even step-sibling relationship, but combined with the possessive and threatening hero, and set in 1979, it just seems wrong. The incest, the isolated country setting, the friendly servants secretly working with the master, and the failed attempts to escape make this tale a great Gothic horror. Unfortunately and uncomfortably the complete submission of the heroine is presented as a happy ending.

I need a shower.

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