Today, I'm reprising one of my favorite blogs. While it's been more than three years since I wrote this for Romance Novel TV, and I've been introduced to many remarkable romance heroines since then, Lady Johanna still remains one of my favorites and her book, Saving Grace, continues to be my all-time favorite comfort read. Hope you enjoy! ~PJ
She Was Their Saving Grace
I began reading romances more than 40 years ago but Julie Garwood’s wonderful medieval romance,Saving Grace is the first story I can remember reading that featured a heroine who was a victim of domestic abuse. Wed to an English baron at a young age, Lady Johanna entered her marriage filled with all the hopes and dreams of any young bride, hopes and dreams that were shattered by the words and fists of her handsome, evil-hearted husband and his equally evil priest. Isolated from her family and friends, Johanna eventually became resigned to her fate. As she explains later in the book;
“I was much, much younger then. The beating didn’t start right after we were wed. He set about destroying my confidence first. I was naïve, and frightened, too, and when you are called ignorant and unworthy over and over again by someone who is supposed to love and protect you, well, in time a part of you will begin to believe some of the nonsense.”
Even though a part of Johanna withered during her three year marriage to a monster and she was understandably frightened of men, she never completely lost her inner core of strength. Knowing that to fight back verbally or physically would mean severe beatings and possibly death at her husband’s hands she chose, instead, what the book’s hero describes as “acts of quiet defiance”, such as secretly learning to read and write after being told by her husband that women were not capable of learning such skills. And, even though she’s sure she’ll go to Hell, she refuses to believe Bishop Hallwick’s hierarchy that says women are “last in God’s love, even below dull-witted oxen.” There’s that quiet defiance again.
I asked Julie Garwood about her inspiration for the character of Johanna and she graciously responded;
“I remember at the time I wrote that book there was a great deal in the news about domestic abuse. I had done some work for a local abuse center and saw how frightened abuse victims could be. They were my inspiration for Johanna. Since I wanted to set the story in medieval times, I did some research in medieval history. I already knew that medieval women were often treated as second class citizens, but I vaguely remembered reading or hearing about a medieval church hierarchy where women were placed beneath even the lowest of animals. I set out to find it. With the help of a reference librarian at the university I found what I was looking for. Unfortunately, it was written in Latin. I knew enough Latin to tell that it was the hierarchy but not enough to translate the entire passage, so I found a Latin teacher who did it for me. You’ll find a variation of what was translated at the beginning of Saving Grace.”
After the death of her first husband, Johanna is finally freed from her hellish marriage and, understandably, has no desire to wed again but King John orders her to marry another of his favored barons, a man just as despicable as her dead husband. That inner core of strength again rises to the surface with Johanna using cunning and intelligence to delay the wedding until she can find a way out of the union. The solution, proposed by her brother, is to marry her to Laird Gabriel MacBain and send her to Scotland where she will be out of the reach of King John and his devious friends. You can imagine her fear when, after having been a human punching bag for three long years, she first sees the huge warrior to whom she is to be married.
“Her mind raced from one worry to another…Dear God, could she survive purgatory again? The possibility that she could be marrying another monster made her weep with self-pity. She was immediately ashamed of herself. Was she really such a coward after all? Had Raulf been right to ridicule her?”
“No, no, she was a strong woman. She could handle anything that came her way. She would not give in to the fear or allow herself to have such low thoughts about herself. She had value, damn it…didn’t she?”
This is where her long journey back to a confident, strong, trusting and loving woman begins. As is often the case with someone who has been abused, there are steps forward and steps back and I was glad Garwood didn’t try to rush the process but I liked that Johanna had the resolve to try to take control of her life, even while dealing with her fear, beginning with her and Gabriel’s wedding ceremony, and continuing to move forward, sometimes one small step at a time, even in the face of inevitable set-backs.
“The ceremony was going along quite nicely until Father MacKechnie asked her to promise to love, honor, and obey her husband. She considered his request a long minute. Then she shook her head and turned to the groom. She motioned for him to lean down and stretched up on tiptoe so that she could whisper in his ear. “I will try to love you, m’lord, and I’ll certainly honor you because you’ll be my husband, but I don’t believe I’ll obey you much. I’ve found that total submissiveness doesn’t agree with me.”
“She was wringing the petals off the stems of her flowers while she was explaining her position. She couldn’t look him in the eye either but stared at his chin while she waited for his reaction.”
I also liked that she hadn’t lost her kindness or her belief that there might be good men in the world – that they weren’t all monsters like her dead husband. She had learned through hard experience to be cautious but she hadn’t completely closed her heart to the possibility of love. She hadn’t lost her ability to laugh either and, as she becomes more secure and more confident, her quirky sense of humor becomes more evident in her interactions with Gabriel and the members of his clan. She’s small, blonde and beautiful, with a bruised spirit, leading her new husband to initially believe that she’s fragile and weak though he never doubts her intelligence or determination. But, as her heart and spirit gradually heal, her confidence grows and when she’s tested we see that she is strong and courageous, with the heart of a lion. It’s a pure pleasure to see her come into her own by the end of the book. She not only wins the heart of her hero but also the hearts of his clan, as well as the heart of this reader. Gabriel says it best toward the end of the book.
“She was telling Alex the truth. It was a fact that maidens could rescue mighty, arrogant warriors. Johanna had certainly rescued him from a bleak, cold existence. She’d given him a family and a home. She was his love, his joy, his companion. She was his saving grace.”
Saving Grace is my go-to comfort read. I’ve read the book so many times since its 1994 release that I am now on my third paperback copy and this one is starting to look a little ragged around the edges. I hope that you will enjoy Saving Grace as much as I do each time I read it and that you will like Johanna and be as proud of her as I am.
If you have read Saving Grace, what did you think of Johanna? Who is your favorite Julie Garwood heroine? What makes her special?
Who is your favorite romance heroine? Have you added any new heroines to the list this year? Tell me about them!