Comfort and Joy
By Mary Balogh
Only Beloved, Mary Balogh’s tender tale of second chances, is the last volume in her Survivors’ Club septet. The survivors in question, all wounded in the Napoleonic Wars, were taken in by George Crabbe, the Duke of Stanbrook, who brought them to his home, Penderris Hall in Cornwall, and provided the support they needed to recuperate from their physical and emotional traumas and begin living again. Each of the previous six books followed one survivor’s story of recovery, which in every case is brought about in part through the healing power of love.
In The Arrangement, for instance, Vincent Hunt, Viscount Darleigh, who was blinded by a cannon blast, marries mousy Sophia Fry initially as a convenience, to save her from poverty and himself from his well-meaning but meddlesome relatives. As they get to know each other, however, they find first laughter, then affection, and ultimately happiness. In The Escape, Sir Benedict Harper has with great effort regained the use of his crushed legs, but it’s his relationship with Samantha McKay (herself a war widow) that enables him to face his future with hope and joy, not just grim determination. In Only a Kiss, the love and support of the very charming Percy Hayes, Earl of Hardford, helps Imogen, Lady Barclay, recover from the psychological trauma of having been with her husband when he was captured by the French and then tortured and killed as a spy; Percy, in his turn, through his involvement with Imogen, discovers new purpose in his previously indolent life.
If you didn’t already know, you will probably have figured out by now that Only Beloved and the rest of the Survivors’ Club series are romance novels — they belong, that is, to what scholars Eric Murphy Selinger and Sarah S. G. Frantz aptly describe as “the most despised and rejected of genres.” The widespread disdain for romance novels is typically founded on the assumption that they are all the same, and not in a good way — that, as William Giraldi put it recently in a dyspeptic piece in the New Republic, they are “all uniformly awful and awfully uniform.”
As my précis of the Survivors’ Club novels illustrates, there is indeed a sense in which romance novels are all the same — in which they are, as the charge often has it, formulaic. “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel,” explains the Romance Writers of America’s website: “a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Every romance novel does have the same basic plot: people fall in love, overcome impediments, and eventually find happiness together. But then, every murder mystery also has the same basic plot: someone dies, there’s an investigation, and eventually we find out whodunit. The RWA’s definition of romance tells you everything you need to know about the genre but nothing at all about any particular example of it, just as knowing that mysteries are about crime-solving does nothing to illuminate the differences between Agatha Christie and Sara Paretsky, or Arthur Conan Doyle and Henning Mankell. As devotees of both genres are well aware, the formula provides only a skeletal structure; for both reader and writer, the interest lies in the endlessly variable details that flesh it out.
Mystery fiction has its detractors — Edmund Wilson’s 1945 essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd” is one famous example. But romance attracts a unique degree of contempt, and not just for the books themselves. “Few people realize how much courage it takes for a woman to open a romance novel on a plane,” writes Jayne Ann Krentz, herself a bestselling romance novelist:
She knows what everyone around her will think about both her and her choice of reading material. When it comes to romance novels, society has always felt free to sit in judgment not only on the literature but on the reader herself. . . . It labels the books as trash and the readers as unintelligent, unsophisticated, or neurotic.
What is it about romance novels that provokes such scorn? Many have argued that it’s the same features that also make it extraordinarily popular (romance is a billion dollar business, and according to the RWA’s statistics it accounts for 13% of the entire adult fiction market): romance is a genre written by, for, and about women. Romance portrays women as absolutely central to their own stories but also to wider narratives, in ways that, novelist Jennifer Crusie argues, challenge
traditional patriarchal beliefs by saying that women are equal to men and that they should be as sexually knowledgeable as men, and then compounds that sin by showing that love is a powerful force that should be taken seriously.
Skeptics dismiss romance as “unrealistic” and thus (in a disconcerting echo of 19th-century prescriptions against women’s novel-reading more generally) bad for its readers; advocates like Maya Rodale defend romance as “fantasy” (and after all, she points out, aren’t “science fiction, fantasy, murder mysteries or comic books” also “obviously unrealistic”?) but also note that its imagined world is an empowering and inspiring one that may lead women to “hold out for a reality that delivers what they want.” Perhaps romance provokes anxiety not because its fantasy is unrealistic but because it sets high standards: “with every romance a person reads,” as Rodale argues, “she learns how damn good it feels to be nurtured, loved, pleasured, and respected.”
It’s not hard to understand the appeal of indulging in a fantasy like that. “We are bombarded,” Susan Elizabeth Phillips points out, “with reminders that the world is a violent, uncertain place and that women are frequently its victims.” The romance formula does not rule out conflict or suffering, but as Krentz says, “there is a deep-rooted optimism inherent in the romance novel.” The happy ending is fundamental to the genre: it’s what readers expect and what they know the books will deliver. But such positivity, especially when presented in an unapologetically feminized form of popular fiction, does not get taken seriously. At least since the heyday of Modernism in the early 20th century, with its credo “make it new,” more literary value has attached to writing that upsets, rather than satisfies, expectations; more prestige has belonged to unfamiliarity and its discontents than to the pleasures of getting, even vicariously, exactly what you want.
It’s no wonder, then, that Mary Balogh — who, with over 60 novels published since 1985, is surely one of Canada’s most prolific as well as best-selling novelists — has no standing as a literary figure. (I’m not talking Giller Prize nominations here: she does not even show up on Wikipedia’s vast alphabetical “List of Canadian Writers.”) Unlike Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies, Balogh writes books that sit squarely in the comfort zone: they are all love stories with a predictable pattern, both formally and emotionally.
Balogh was inspired to write romances by her reading of Georgette Heyer, who is sometimes credited with founding the modern popular romance, at least in its Regency variation. “I cannot adequately explain,” Balogh says,
how enchanted I was, how transported into a world I had experienced before only through Jane Austen. I knew that if ever I wrote, it was that romantic world of Regency England that I wanted to recreate.
Balogh’s Regency world, however, is neither Austen’s nor Heyer’s, and not just because she incorporates a degree of explicit sexiness that goes beyond the veiled hints of her predecessors (though their novels hum with erotic undercurrents). Balogh also differs from many other contemporary writers of “historicals.” Her novels have a characteristic gentleness, almost placidity, that’s quite unlike what we find in, say, Loretta Chase, Eloisa James, or Sarah MacLean, all of whom pack their novels with humor, intrigue, and melodrama, not to mention sex a lot more graphic than anything you’ll find in Balogh. Giraldi’s expostulations notwithstanding, there is actually little uniformity even among these examples of one specific subgenre of romance writing.
Balogh typically uses her romance plots as a path to healing for her main characters. Explaining how she develops them, Balogh says
I end up asking them where their deepest pain is. There always is something. Once I know it, then I can set about bringing that character to some sort of healing so that he/she can come to the point of being able to love and accept love and settle to a lasting, meaningful love relationship. This must happen for both main characters, and they must both be involved in the revelations and the healing. They bring each other to healing and love.
The Survivors’ Club novels, with their traumatized protagonists, offer particularly literal versions of this story: the heroes (or, in one case, the heroine) must first recover from their war wounds and then reinvent themselves as people ready to engage fully with the world around them. Their romantic relationships become vehicles for this transformation.
For this reason, in Balogh’s novels the sex scenes (which typically earn romance fiction the most derision —even though novels of many other kinds include them, often in much more exploitative or voyeuristic form) are particularly crucial for character development: with intimacy comes vulnerability; with reciprocated love comes renewed courage. In The Escape, for example, the first time Benedict and Samantha make love he puts out the lamp before undressing, much to Samantha’s disappointment: “she wanted to watch.” He can’t bear to “to have her see him as he was.” Only after their trust and his confidence have strengthened, in part through their lovemaking itself (“Thank you,” he says to her, “for making me feel like a man again”; “you always seem very much like one to me,” she replies) can he bare himself to her completely. The nakedness of his scarred and twisted legs is far more meaningful to them both than the caresses they have already shared, the sex that follows is even more passionate than before, because the last barrier between them has fallen:
His legs were not quite helpless . . . Before she knew it, she was on her back and he was on top of her, his legs between hers, and his lips were on hers, his tongue deep in her mouth, and his hands were fierce on her and then beneath her buttocks and holding her firm while he thrust deep into her.
She lifted her legs from the bed and wrapped them about his lean hips, and they loved each other long and hard until they were both panting and slick with sweat and they broke together into glory and collapsed into the world beyond.
The first six books in the Survivors’ Club series saw each of the Earl of Stanbrook’s rescued casualties of war through to their happy endings. Fittingly, Only Beloved concludes the series with George’s own story, filling in the bare outline provided in the earlier books to explain his motivations for turning his home into a convalescent sanctuary. After her son’s death in the war, George’s wife committed suicide by throwing herself off a cliff; George’s grief at these losses inspired him to do what he could to help others. Reserved but compassionate, he has been both friend and father-figure to his protégées, to whom he has devoted years of his life. He rejoices at their recoveries:
It was all thoroughly heartwarming to the man who had opened his home and his heart to men — and one woman — who had been broken by war and might have remained forever on the fringes of their own lives if he had not done so.
Yet with the last of them happily launched, he finds himself alone and somewhat adrift: “was it downright contrary of him to be feeling every so slightly depressed”? “Perhaps,” it occurs to him, “he ought to marry.” But who? At nearly fifty he considers himself too old for “any of the young beauties who crowded fashionable ballrooms,” but a different kind of marriage “might bring him companionship, possibly a real friendship.” With this idea comes “the image of a particular woman,” one he has met only briefly but who now is “vivid in his mind’s eye”: “she would be the perfect — the only — choice.”
That woman is Dora Debbins, older sister of Agnes, the heroine of Only Enchanting (and now the happy wife of Flavian, Viscount Ponsonby). When Only Beloved begins, Dora is “thirty-nine years old and a spinster,” a music teacher mostly contented with her quiet, independent, though occasionally lonely life. “No, not lonely,” she corrects herself: “solitary.” She has no expectation of any dramatic change in her circumstances, and particularly no dreams of love or marriage; though the Earl of Stanbrook made a powerful impression on her during their brief previous acquaintance, he belonged — she assumed — to a world remote from her own. She’s taken aback, then, when he turns up at her cottage, looking every bit the “fashionable, aloof aristocrat,” and even more shocked when he asks her to marry him. The offer he makes her is tempered by his lowered expectations, but also well-suited to her cautious realism:
It is a companion I want. A friend. A woman friend. A wife, in fact. I do not have grand romance or romantic passion to offer, I am afraid. I am past the age of such flights of fancy. But though I do not know you well or you me, I believe we would deal well together. I admire your talent as a musician and the beauty of soul it suggests. I admire your modesty and dignity, your devotion to your sister. I like your appearance. I like the idea of looking at you every day for the rest of my life.
Thus begins what George later characterizes as “a romance of middle age.”
Except for a flash of melodrama at its climax, Only Beloved is a quiet book, with none of the fire or urgency we usually associate with a love story. Balogh is well aware that she is recalibrating her readers’ expectations along with her characters’. “But now at last she is to have her happily-ever-after? With you of all men, George?” asks Agnes tearfully when she learns of her sister’s betrothal; “Happily-ever-after? The term made George a bit uneasy.” Can an HEA result from such deliberate, and deliberately unromantic, beginnings? But Balogh carries us along as these two fundamentally kind, generous people find that comfort and companionship can indeed lead to happiness as deep and sustaining as “hot, youthful passion” — that, as George himself comes to see, their love is “quieter and less demonstrative, but nevertheless . . . well, romantic.”
The constructive mutuality of George and Dora’s relationship is typical of Balogh’s books, which confound the pejorative stereotype of historical romances as “bodice rippers.” There’s no place in them even for the domineering or “alpha” hero, who still figures largely across the genre (though not unselfconsciously, as, for instance, Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels brilliantly illustrates). Balogh’s heroes do often have wealth and rank, and often physical beauty, too — another of the fantasy aspects of romance fiction. Their conspicuous privilege, however, is usually offset by their underlying insecurities. The members of the Survivors’ Club all have specific injuries that, like Mr. Rochester’s in Jane Eyre, directly undermine their superior social and economic power; it’s their emotional needs, though, that really make their partners their equals. “I am glad I’m not the only needy one in our marriage,” Sophia says to Vincent in The Arrangement when she learns that in addition to his blindness he suffers from debilitating panic attacks:
I do not mean I am glad you are blind or glad that you have these attacks. But I am glad you are not some sort of superhuman pillar of strength. I would not be able to prevail against it. I am too weak, too fragile. In each other’s weaknesses, perhaps we can both find strength.
Balogh never trivializes her characters’ suffering, whether its cause is a lost child, lost sight, or lost love. The structure — the formula — of the romance, though, frames their pain with hope. Like the haunting song Dora plays to George on her harp, art is often “beautiful, and tragic” — but, as she reflects, “life did not need to be tragic. Did it?” Limbs don’t magically grow back, but as life goes on, new opportunities do sometimes arise for love, hope, and happiness. What’s wrong with making room for that possibility in our fiction too?
Balogh’s gentle optimism does put limits on what her novels can do, and the results can sometimes seem anodyne. That’s not a knock against romance fiction as a whole, though: if you don’t want to play it quite so safe, you have plenty of other options both in and out of the genre, just as you can read something else if what you’re after is aesthetic complexity or formal innovation. There’s nothing challenging about Balogh’s sentences — but (for better and for worse) we have Henry James for that! It’s true that when you pick up one of Balogh’s novels to read you do have a pretty good general idea what the experience will be like, but reading doesn’t always have to resemble white water rafting: as Balogh’s characters often quite literally demonstrate, there’s plenty of joy to be found in a decorous paddle around a tranquil lake.
Of course, a sympathetic look at Balogh is also not a defense of romance fiction as a whole — but why does it need to be? “Hasty generalization,” scholar Pamela Regis comments, “has become something of a habit among critics of the romance novel. Out of this error arises condemnation.” No other genre is held hostage to the assumption that if you’ve read one — or just sneered at its cover — you are qualified to pronounce on them all. That romance novels are superficially “uniform” seems insufficient to explain why Nora Roberts deserves reflexive dismissal but not Robert B. Parker. As others have eloquently argued, the real explanation must lie elsewhere, in deep-seated prejudices or anxieties about the social and literary values romance embodies. It’s hard to know how (or even whether) to try to tackle the larger problem. But one thing we can do — those of us who want a better conversation about romance — is, bit by bit, to correct the “error” Regis identifies: to meet sweeping generalizations with specifics, looking not at “the romance novel,” but at particular romance novels.
I know that’s what worked for me: I assumed the worst about romance novels until I read enough to learn to differentiate between them, which isn’t something the general discourse about the genre (positive or negative) makes very easy. Now I know that Mary Balogh’s novels don’t typify romance any more than E. L. James’s do: like love and desire, romance fiction comes in many guises. As it happens, Balogh isn’t my own favorite romance novelist, but I have often found comfort and pleasure in her books. (Of the modest two dozen or so that I’ve read, my favorites are A Summer to Remember and Simply Perfect — meet me in the comments if you want to trade notes and recommendations!) Balogh’s novels offer a vision (a fantasy?) of imperfect people coming to terms with their own hearts and ending up together in marriages founded on respect, acceptance, and abiding affection. There’s nothing awful about that.
Rohan Maitzen’s favorite romance novel is Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible. Rohan teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University; she is also an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.