Choose the correct answer:
1. The beauteous downstairs maid, impregnated and repudiated by the son of the manor, swears eternal vengeance. With a little help from her friends and her own diverse gifts, she becomes one of the richest women in the world. Finally, she (a) learns that vindictiveness has limited potential as a means of fulfillment, or (b) is crushed to death under a garbage can wielded by a dwarf who's interested in Bach.
2. Our heroine, in the course of her 78 years, has loved at least seven men to varying degrees, and married two of them. (All have sensual mouths.) She concludes that (a) men are horrible beasts or (b) men are equal to women, besides having a certain sentimental value.
3. The women of substance alienates most of her children by her ambition, strong-mindedness and passion. She gets along better with her grandchildren because (a) she's too senile to know them for the monsters they are, or (b) they're nicer than their parents, and there's hope for the old world yet.
If you picked (a), (b) and (b), you're not yet ready for the big leagues of literary paradoxical absurdities, superfeminist exaggerations and psychofictive despairs. What you need is some time in the Little League of romantic novels such as "A Woman of Substance."
Unfortunately, it's about 300 pages too long. Granted, some readers enjoy being pinned to the hammock for days at a time, but really, there is no excuse for the first-novel awkwardness that accomplishes this here.
For example, less tolerant editing would have tightened up the introductory section so that the heroine's life story, where things pick up, could begin before the weary reader poops out. There is stylistic evidence that Barbara Taylor Bradford is a neophyte at the pen, and her informative discourses on matters such as English history and the ready-made clothing industry in Leeds tell most readers at least as much as they want to know and more than they have time to read.
Feisty old women transformed into feisty young women in the twinkling of a flashback are a dime a dozen in romantic novels, and there is some question as to whether our heroine, Emma Harte Lowther Ainsley, is worth the price of her acquaintance. She is requisitely admirable, beautiful, brilliant and courageous, but these ABC's of every romantic heroline's personality are presented as givens. Once she loses her Yorkshire accent, there is little growth in her character and not much sparkle in her conversation either. The "substance" of the title shows primarily in her financial assets, with stubbornness thrown in to make up the weight.
(Perhaps it is too much to require depth from a romantic novel. Certainly, some romantic authors do manage to use characterization and wit to achieve a superior product, but if God had intended romantic novels to be substantive, no doubt he would have arranged for Emily and Charlotte to have been born to the Dostoevskys instead of the Brontes.)
No growth then and no depth and, still worse, no originality. Money, power, passion and revenge are in there, as promised, but they are across-the-board concepts, embodied in characters we have better-met before: people like Arthur Dimmesdale, Rhett Butler, Little Nell. Emma resembles any number of Catherine Cookson heroines.
The obligatory sex scenes impress less as romantic incidents than as moral necessities. Indeed, there are curious moments of innocence throughout the story, but then romantic novels are often rather conventional in matters such as material success, personal honor and civility. Nowadays that's innocence, and one reason such books are enduringly popular.
The truth is that books like "A Woman of Substance" will fill a need until more pretentious authors abandon their preoccupation with the bizarre and grotesque and write about you and me again. Millions of people in this country will never turn into a breast (a la Philip Roth's novel by that name) but most of us will get born, make a living, beget children and die in all the conventional and unoriginal ways.
You can do worse than spend 1979's most inert, unair-conditioned days reading this unexciting but serviceable nod to normalcy.