The Falcon Club Explained
SPOILER ALERT: This wonderful piece, written by the reviewer Janga after the publication of the final book in the Falcon Club Series, contains plentiful spoilers.
The Discovery of Self: The Identity Theme in Katharine Ashe’s Falcon Club Series
In When a Scot Loves a Lady, the first book in Katharine Ashe’s Falcon Club series, the hero, Leam Blackwood, says to the heroine Kitty Savege at their first meeting, “But things be not always whit thay seem.” That statement, which Kitty understands all too well and later repeats to herself, introduces a theme that is woven through the Falcon Club books, the original trio of novels and the two books in Ashe’s current Devil’s Duke series. Neither Leam nor Kitty is what they seem to be, and this will hold true for the protagonists of the four novels that follow as identities shift and meld and emerge. The theme reaches its richest complexity in The Earl, Ashe’s most recent novel.
Some of the identity theme is part and parcel of the Falcon Club with its secrets and code names that identify each agent in his or her role within the club and its activities. Another issue connected to the identity theme is parental influence. In The Rogue (Book 4), Colin Gray, the head agent, tells Lady Constance Read that she is her father’s daughter whether the likeness pleases her or not. Lady Emily Vane follows his comment with this statement: “We are all marked with our parents’ stamp … It is the manner in which we cast off those marks that defines us.” Repeatedly in these five books, the reader sees that characters are shaped in significant ways by the presence—or absence—of a parent in their lives.
Leam, Earl of Blackwood, and Kitty Savege, hero and heroine of When a Scot Loves a Lady, first meet at a masquerade ball. When Kitty speaks disparagingly of Leam’s shepherd costume, her mother responds, “The poor man is in costume, as we all are.” Kitty acknowledges to herself that her mother is right and that she herself is wearing a costume that has nothing to do with the scandalous Athenian dress she has chosen to wear to the ball.
Leam has retired as a Falcon Club agent and is eager to put that part of his life behind him. He is conscious that the role he has played has defined him.
Four years at Cambridge. Three years after that at Edinburgh. He spoke seven languages, read two more, had traveled three continents, owned a vast Lowlands estate, was heir to a dukedom possessed of a fortune built on East Indian silks and tea. Yet society imagined him a ruffian and a tease. Because that was the man he showed to the world.
But discarding his identity as Eagle, the person he has been in fulfilling his Falcon Club assignments is not easy: “The habit of years died hard, and he had not yet shaved away the vestiges of his false persona. His costume still clung.” However, even when he strips away all he was as Eagle, Leam will continue to play other roles he has assumed as protective coloring. For him and for Kitty, their journey toward one another and a shared future will require a stripping away of pretenses to recognize, accept, and reveal their authentic selves.
It is not only the primary characters who are cloaked in assumed identities. Leam, observing Constance, his cousin and the only female among the Falcon Club agents, notes that a lock of hair “dangled along her neck in studied artifice so unlike her actual character.” He realizes that Constance “played a part too.” And then he extends this realization to encompass Colin Gray, Jinan Seton, and Wyn Yale. They all played parts.
It is obvious from first sighting that Jinan Seton and Viola Carlyle, hero and heroine of How to Be a Proper Lady (Book 2), are playing parts. Jinan may no longer be Sea Hawk, his code name as a Falcon Club agent, but he is still very much caught up in pretense.
This was what he had come to know, what he had trained himself to for a decade. This game of pretending his past did not exist, the past in which the only identities he owned were slave, murderer, and thief.
Sold into slavery as a child by his step-father, Jin knows only that his father was an Englishman. Jin pretends to be a gentleman at times, he pretends to be a bounty hunter, and he pretends indifference when he is seething with feelings. The name that he made legendary, Pharaoh, a pirate “so brutally successful even Spanish buccaneers feared to cross him,” belongs to his past, but Jin, now a reformed sailor and British privateer who destroys pirate ships, is still known by the name and it is still powerful enough to earn him a hanging he is known by that name in Boston. When Violet asks who he is, Jin avoids answering her question. He can’t answer her; he doesn’t know who he is.
If Jin’s problem is a lack of identity, Violet’s is too many identities. For the first ten years of her life, she was certain that she was Viola Carlyle, daughter of Baron Carlyle and sister of Serena. When she is kidnapped by her biological father, pirate Fionn Daly, she loses that identity and becomes Violet Daly. Later, she claims for herself the identity of privateer Violet La Vile. When Jin reminds her of her years as Viola, she rejects that name, carefully distinguishing between her “identity” as Violet and her “past” as Viola. It is no coincidence that their journey mirrors that of Leam and Kitty. Before Jin and Viola find their HEA, he discovers that he is his father’s son, and she accepts that she is both Viola and Violet.
The identity theme takes a different twist in How a Lady Weds a Rogue (Book 3). First, Wyn Yale is the agent whose identity Lady Justice uncovers. He is known to be Raven. Also, Wyn and Diantha Lucas know their names and their parents, but in both cases the parent with whom they most identified is dead and the remaining parent is abusive. The abusive parent has given them a distorted sense of themselves. Diantha believes she is unattractive and unworthy to be a wife, and Wyn, dependent on alcohol and convinced he is as guilty of the death of an innocent girl as the morally and physically corrupt duke who arranged her murder (the man Wyn plans to kill), believes he is a bad man.
Their encounter on the Mail Coach is simultaneously a misrecognition scene and a recognition scene. Diantha has been forced to admit that she cannot achieve her goal without help from a dependable gentleman. She has been wishing for a hero when she recognizes Wyn as the gentleman who rescued her several years earlier. Of course, she is certain he is the hero sent in response to her wish. Nevertheless, she admits she “barely recognized” him, and he sees her initially as an “unfamiliar girl,” albeit a beautiful one. A bit later, he realizes she is “the young stepsister of a lady he liked quite a lot who was married to a man who had helped him through the worst night of his life” (the former Serena Carlyle now married to Alex, Earl of Savege, Captured by a Rogue Lord, Rogues of the Sea 2). But Diantha is not the uncomplicated “gently bred female” Wyn imagines her to be, and Wyn is far from the embodiment of the mythical hero that Diantha thought she needed.
Even this early in the book, when they still have much to learn about themselves and about one another, the vision each holds of the other corrects the distorted self-perception. Wyn sees Diantha’s beauty and worth, and she sees his goodness and heroism. By the end of their journey, when they have replaced lies with honesty and rescued one another, they can happily accept themselves as “just humble Mr. and Mrs. Yale.”
The Rogue, the first book in the Devil’s Duke series, is the story of Lady Constance Read and Frederick Evan Chevalier de Saint-André Sterling, known as Saint. The two have a history that stretches back before Constance’s years with the Falcon Club as Sparrow. The prologue, which takes place six years before the present time of the novel, shows that history. In the opening lines, Saint is identified by negation: “He was not a lord. Not an heir to a fortune. Not a scion of impressive lineage or a favorite of the prince. He wasn’t even really a gentleman.” When he asks her name, Constance responds, ““I haven’t one.” He, deciding that she must be a maid, agrees to call her “Beauty” and she will call him “Beast.” The opening scene is packed with references to names and identity. He calls her a “lamb” and names her Diana, “the virgin goddess of the hunt who would not allow herself to be captured by any god or mortal man.” She guiltily labels herself a Jezebel, but thinks of herself and Saint as a faery maiden and her prince.
For two weeks, they inhabit an idyll where names are unimportant and class divisions do not exist, but reality shatters the fairy tale, and they are separated. They return to their own worlds, heartbroken, with memories they cannot erase.
When they meet again, Constance is more beautiful and protected by a new aloofness and a sophisticated veneer. Her years as Sparrow have given her practice in playing a role, and even though she has retired from the Falcon Club, the Sparrow persona is part of her as she engages in a self-appointed, dangerous mission. Saint is a battle-weary warrior, the best swordsman in England. They both are chess pieces in the game directed by her father, a man with secrets and a hidden identity of his own, but a marriage, real or for show, between the warrior and the duke’s daughter is not part of his plan.
Even in marriage, Constance and Saint maintain their secrets and protect their most vulnerable selves. When those vulnerable selves are exposed, they are remarkably similar. Constance wants someone to see beyond her beauty: “I wanted someone to look into my heart and to see me, not what he thinks I am, but me, the imperfect girl that is nevertheless worthy of affection.” Saint too wants to be known and valued for himself: “I wanted you to accept me for who I am. For who I have always been. Not because of a pile of gold that someone gave to me.
A witty battle of words in the form of public correspondence between Lady Justice, a radical reform-minded pamphleteer who anonymously writes “scathing condemnations of everything worth condemning in Britain: elitist snobbery, wastes of government funds, inhumane labor conditions the suffering of war veterans and orphans, and anything else that required fixing in England,” and Peregrine, secretary of the Falcon Club, which the world believes to be an elite gentleman’s club, are woven into all five books and are central in the novella The Scoundrel and I. The Earl is the long-awaited story of these characters. Lady Justice and Peregrine are the outer layer of the identity theme is that is carried through the novel, layer upon layer.
Behind these personae are Lady Emily Vane and Colin Gray, now Earl of Egremoor. This is another couple with a history. Their families were friends, such good friends that their fathers arranged a marriage between the Vanes’ infant daughter and the Earl of Egremoor’s five-year-old heir. Both children proved to be misfits: Colin was literally voiceless throughout his childhood, and Emily was a shy, awkward child. Despite the difference in their ages, they are best friends who accept and love one another with whole hearts. That changes when Colin is thirteen and Emily is eight. Colin regains his voice, buries his friendship with young Emily, and moves into a different world, one in which he is shaped into a confident, purposeful young aristocrat by his father and his mentor, the mysterious director of the Falcon Club. He becomes the man they expect him to be. Emily feels betrayed and pretends Colin is a distant acquaintance.
Eighteen years after their friendship ended, Emily has rejected her identity as Lady Emily Vane as much as possible. She insists friends address her by a series of names she “tries on.” Through the five books she is variously called Boadicea, Lysistrata, Athena, Marie Antoine, Cleopatra, Pocahontas, and Zenobia—all famous challengers of male authority. Her income allows her a rare independence, and she lives in her own home with a motley staff who are all fiercely loyal to her and committed to protecting her identity and her work as Lady Justice, although not all of them approve of her determination to never marry.
When Emily’s sister disappears, Lady Justice needs Peregrine’s help to find her. Elated at this turn of events, Peregrine insists on a face-to-face meeting which Emily attends heavily veiled. Her anonymity is protected by her veil and by Colin’s stubborn belief that a woman could not have written the powerful calls for reform that bear the name Lady Justice. Colin’s identity is compromised however. A dismayed Emily recognizes that her nemesis Peregrine and her despised former friend are the same person. She is pleased when new information leads her to believe she can act without his help, but once in Scotland, she finds that Colin has followed his own leads to the same place.
The identity issue becomes even more complicated here because a man who looks startlingly like Colin and who calls himself the Earl of Egremoor, along with his accomplice, a slight, fair man who sometimes disguises himself as a woman, is wanted for robbery and murder. Colin and Emily are forced to go on the run from those who believe they are the wanted men. The journey proves a dangerous one, and Emily is still determined that Colin will know her only as Lady Emily, and even in that role, she struggles not to reveal herself. Each is aware that the other in not what he/she seems to be.
As their relationship changes during their adventure, Colin believes he has reconciled the Emily he once knew well and the adult Emily, but she is frightened by the possibility that he knows her. They argue angrily over the connection between name and identity.
“You don’t have any idea who I am. For pity’s sake, you can’t even call me by my name.”
“Emily is your name. And what in the blazes does it matter what I call you? You are the same woman whatever name you go by.”
They cannot know one another until they know themselves, and self-knowledge comes only after experience and reflection. Colin’s painful epiphany comes first:
He had not gone to the cemetery in London that night in order to silence the man behind the pamphlets, the man who commanded the attention and admiration of Britain. He had gone in search of something to fill the void. Someone. Without the men who had held him to impossible standards, for the first time in eighteen years, he had not known who he was.
Now. Finally. He knew what made a great man. … For the first time in decades, he felt like himself.
Emily’s moment of self-understanding comes as she determines to struggle past heartbreak and loss.
She understood why she had abandoned her name. No one had ever cared what Emily Vane thought or said. Everyone had believed her peculiar and overly fond of solitude. Then the one person in the world who thought her special, extraordinary, left her. It was the easiest thing after that to adopt other names, exalted names, to leave Emily in the past. No one wanted her anyway. … The world cared what Lady Justice said. The world listened to her.
With Colin and Emily having achieved integration of their identities and exulting over their HEA, all the Falcon Club members have found The One and domestic bliss, but Lady Justice will not be silent. And I fully expect that Katharine Ashe will give her readers more characters who have adopted identities for various and sundry reasons as they struggle to discover who they are.