Jacqueline Marten – Let the Crags Comb Out Her Dainty Hair (1975)

Review by Justin Tate

A dramatic title and foreboding cover set the tone for this multi-faceted, multi-regional Gothic romance. Set in the early 1800s, it begins as a coming-of-age story with Kynthia, our heroine, reaching womanhood in romantic Greece, land of gods and scholars. Her upbringing consists of sailing and sunshine, exquisite food and perhaps “too much” freedom for a young girl. All is pleasant until her mother grows ill and Kynthia discovers she can foresee the future. Her dreams—and nightmares—consistently come true.

Her most fearsome recurring nightmare involves being thrown off Mount Parnassus as an assailant utters the cruel words “Send her bounding down the cliff ledges, let the crags comb out her dainty hair!” These may or may not be the manic words of a villain, however, since they are also passages from the ancient Greek play Ion by Euripides. What does it all mean? Is her murder imminent?

Family tragedy requires Kynthia to relocate to London, much to her dismay. Rainy gloom is a poor substitute for Mediterranean Greece. But she soon finds herself distracted by a trio of handsome brothers. The youngest appeals to her desire to sail. The middle brother takes her horseback riding and ogles her “bare toes.” The oldest is previously engaged, but that doesn’t stop them from sharing a lingering dance.

Kynthia’s low social status makes her self-conscious around the wealthy brothers, and her pride is often wounded. She’s certain none will ask her hand in marriage since she lacks the dowry and grace of a stately matron. It’s all very Pride & Prejudice with witty bickering and confrontation of the sexes. Kynthia’s refusal to be put in her place just because she’s a girl drives the boys mad.

The second half largely borrows from The Taming of the Shrew, only with extra sex. Things then get creepy as our heroine discovers ominous secrets hidden in a burnt-out old mansion. It seems at last her terrifying dream will come true. Who can she trust and where can she turn to stop it from happening?

A thrilling Jane Eyre-inspired conclusion is what affirms the novel as Gothic. Otherwise it might be considered too tame even for the Romance crowd. Regardless, Marten is too good to complain about. Her writing is compelling, the characters are intriguing, and pacing is a brisk conveyor of micro dramas. There are certainly worse writers to borrow from than Austen, Shakespeare and Bronte. Even when Marten’s plot is familiar, at least she’s utilizing some of the best tropes fiction has to offer.

With some minor adaptation, Crags would make an excellent film. Kynthia’s narration fails to linger on many horrors, such as war, public hangings, sinister debt collectors and imposing mansions. If a camera were to indulge such darkness—and deliver Hollywood’s finest hunks for the male leads—every ingredient would be in place for a memorably sexy Gothic thriller.

Who was Jacqueline Marten?

Jacqueline S. Marten (1923-2013) was the matriarch of a family devoted to art. She began her career as a “True Confessions” magazine writer in the 1940s. After twenty-five years, when magazines “got junky” with pornography, she decided to try novels instead. Crags was her first, but she went on to publish nineteen more. Lifetime sales of her novels are numbered in the millions.

Historical romance was her preferred genre, with noted devotion to researched accuracy. Her routine was to spend a year on research, three months on the first draft and two months to revise. It’s no surprise that elements of Austen appear frequently in her works as she was a lifetime member of the Jane Austen Society of England and regular attendee of the North American chapter.

Her husband, Albert E. Marten, was a legendary film attorney who arranged financing for more than 150 films, including Oscar winners and the cult classic Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Jacqueline’s four sons have gone on to become film executives, producers and writers, assuring that creativity remains the family business.

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