Untie My Heart (2002) was Judith Ivory’s final romance novel, and I’d like to tell you about the hero’s fur coat. Well, that and the infamous “chair scene.”
The heroine of Untie My Heart, Emma Hotchkiss, is a former con artist who’s become a sheep farmer in Yorkshire. The hero is Stuart Aysgarth, Viscount Mount Villars, who’s just arriving at his new property when his carriage accidentally kills one of Emma’s valuable lambs. Emma is eventually forced to enact a con on him to be reimbursed for her lamb, and when Stuart discovers this, they end up having sex on a chair. Keep in mind they’ve barely met before that.
Emma’s first mental descriptions of Stuart, even before she and he have sex, are very sensual, and beautifully set up the chair scene, subtly preparing the reader for what’s to, umm, come.
…she couldn’t see him; he was a tangle of coat, a play of shadows under the brim of a hat. Though she could smell him, a warm, suede-soft odor so distinct it was like walking into a subtle, spicy cocoon of it, exotic: foreign.
Note Stuart’s physical form is here almost indistinguishable from his coat. He’s been living in Russia and his coat is suited for Russian winters. Emma’s luscious, almost sexual thoughts about the coat make it a metonym for Stuart himself. Compare these descriptions of the coat to her description of the man I just quoted.
Ooh, la, his coat was fine. And, in point of fact, its hem, cuffs, and lapel—silvery white fur mottled with light and dark gray–weren’t trim exactly. They were overflow. The coat was lined with the stuff: lined through and through with the softest, thickest, silvery, speckled fur she’d ever set eyes or fingertips upon. She couldn’t get over the extravagance…They stood up, and his coat dropped back down around him with a waft of that warm, faintly Eastern scent. The fabric held a rich, spicy fragrance; frankincense, myrrh…At this unlikely moment, the word vicuna came to Emma. It was the name of the wool of his coat. While the fur inside it, which invisibly composed most of the garment, was chinchilla…meant, dear God, his coat cost more than the average piece of English real estate. And was so thick and double-bunny-smooth, where it brushed against her hand.
Mount Villiars swung it up off the chair and down onto his arms in a single movement–she wouldn’t have minded building a wee cottage on it, moving in, living there. If only she could have gotten him out of it first…His greatcoat had all the excess and drama of a Russian novel: As he buttoned it about him, tight and fitted, it showed the line of his shoulders, narrowing down his broad chest to a slim waist, after which it billowed to the floor. Then he tugged on a silvery cuff, ran a hand down a wide lapel. A coat Karenin would have worn in St. Petersburg. Emma had never been there, but she had read of the book. A coat out of a Tolstoy novel.
Soon after, Emma enters a room and finds Stuart there waiting for her…with his coat. She mentions the coat first.
The Viscount Mount Villiars’s coat lay on her bed, the viscount himself on it…on his coat’s fur lining, a silver white run so dense it crowded in on itself there in the shadows, fur so thick it wrinkled in places.
But as she gets to know him better and he reveals he’s recognized her con game, he is in turn further revealed to Emma. The personality revelations are represented by layers of clothing removed.
It’s only after this she begins to become aware of his flaws, and to be intrigued by them; every aspect of the future beloved becomes worthy of attention, from outer garments to inner self. Her attention to detail teaches her about him.
The small shifts. The protracted vowels. Emma would think she heard them, then not. They remained missing long enough that, each time one came up, it seemed new, unexpected. His speech flowed over them…she stood there, hand to mouth, heart in throat, hanging on the possibility of more words out this peculiar human being’s mouth, wanting the cadence of them: The strange poetry–the personal song–of an adept, quick-witted adult in control of a stutter.
Only after Emma observes all of those personal characteristics does she pay close attention to his face, the usual starting place for romantic observations. Then it’s back to clothing, rich with erotic possibilities.
…he reached to his neck and unknotted his cravat. It slipped easily against itself, then a little zizz of foulard silk as he yanked, pulling it through the fold of his white, starchy collar. It jerked free, loose in his hand…Round and round, he wrapped her wrists to the chair with silk.
I don’t want to go through this scene line by line, though it’s rich enough to do so! Suffice it to say that even after Emma is tied to a chair with a piece of Stuart’s clothing, the revelations–both his and hers–continue. Gradually, each learns the true situation of the other, which led to their original conflict, and they’re newly and more closely entangled.
When they finally do have sex, with Emma still tied to the chair, they don’t fully undress, and after they’ve finished having sex, both rapidly replace any disarranged clothing amid dialogue. The clothing is directly representative of the characters. Though the truths of their respective situations have been revealed to each other, many other truths–most importantly, their emotional truths–remain hidden, symbolized by their clothing, only temporarily disarranged.
[This post was originally written for the Heroes and Heartbreakers blog but, in its original version, is no longer online. I make it available here, slightly edited, for posterity.]