Valentine’s Day is not a day that is anticipated with unalloyed pleasure if there’s no Valentine to love and cherish. Without a beau or a loving husband, it can be a very lonely day indeed. Mary Balogh is the mistress of stiff upper-lip loneliness and despair, but her heroines never wear their hearts on their sleeves, no matter the circumstances. While Balogh is justly celebrated for her holiday stories, she also has penned a fair number of Valentine's Day tales.
“Golden Rose,” A Regency Valentine, 1991
Miss Emily Richmond, with her heart-shaped face and shining, smooth golden hair, is noticed immediately by her employer’s nephew, the Honorable Mr. Roger Bradshaw. Lady Copeland is a neighbor of Emily’s father, Sir Henry Richmond, and, as Lady Copeland gracefully explains, “They have such a large family that they were able to spare Emily to bear me company.” Two perennial themes of Balogh emerge—first, the poverty that would induce a gentlewoman to become someone’s companion and second, class differences. It’s all very well for Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet to say she’s a “gentleman’s daughter” and therefore worthy to marry anyone, but the gulf between the heir to a viscount and a poor eldest daughter is not insignificant. For fans of foreshadowing an author’s future books, Slightly Wicked has a similar plot. Emily had earlier refused two respectable offers of marriage and naively, had not realized that her large family lacked the resources to “send her anyplace where she was likely to meet a suitor to her liking.” It is a chastened and sensible young woman, who faces her circumstances forthrightly, that Roger meets:
She had come to Bath determined to find herself a husband just as soon as possible. And she was not going to be as foolish as she had used to be, looking for love, that special something that all girls dreamed of. Respectability would be enough.
Not surprisingly, Roger steals a kiss from his aunt’s beautiful companion while twelve year-old Jasper, an unlikely cupid, watches from the shadows. Jasper is Roger’s cousin and he is convalescing at Lady Copeland’s house. He chastises Roger for his stolen embrace, but Roger brushes off the advice, saying, “She’s of a breed known as virtuous women. She’s not worth the energy expended on wooing her.” Emily may have put Roger in his place, telling him that although her family is impoverished, she has chosen respectable employment, but the death of dreams doesn’t come easy. Emily is excited by the prospect of a masked ball to be held at Bath’s Upper Assembly Rooms on St. Valentine’s Day, especially with the inducement of anonymous valentines and reciprocal favors.
As in The Incurable Matchmaker (1990), our protagonists are lovingly manipulated by two matchmakers who make it possible for Roger and Emily to see beyond the stereotypes of poor-but-beautiful companion and handsome-but-frivolous rake. Jasper inveigles them into taking him for cakes, helpfully pointing out to Em that she has a crumb on her chin. He watches Roger brush the crumb away and thinks, “Poor Emmy…If there were a brighter color than scarlet, she would be it.” (Raise your glasses Balogh fans, this phrase has a starring role in a Balogh drinking game). Lady Copeland rather distractedly, it seems, throws the pair together again and again. The inevitable happens. Roger, watching Emily listen to a concert with “total concentration” admits to himself that “he was quite in love with her” although “he did not believe in love.” Clever Jasper arranges for Emily to wear Roger’s token of love at the ball, forcing the two lovers to come together in public. They dance together in blissful harmony although neither can quite believe in love beyond that magical night. However, Roger offers Emily his hand in marriage, saying only his money and position can wipe out his wasted, debauched youth.
“Is there nothing else?” she asked. “Nothing else you can offer me?”
He smiled, a look of mockery on his face. “Only my love,” he said, “for what it is worth, Emmy. I have never given it before. That at least is untarnished.”
At the end Roger and Emily love as equals, even reclaiming, in Roger’s words “their ghastly first encounter.” Emily, similarly honest to a fault, tells him she “spent days dreaming of it.”
“A Waltz Among the Stars," A Regency Valentine II, 1992
Our protagonists are a widower and a single mother. Caleb White, Viscount Brandon, has finally decided to set aside his grief, two years after the death of his wife. Lady Barbara Hanover, the mother of a seven year-old boy conceived on Valentine’s Day eight years earlier, wonders if life holds anything more for her than her secluded life on her father’s ducal estate. Two people waking up to the realization that
…Valentine’s Day was different. It was a day for lovers, a day for two people, a day when relatives and friends counted for very little. Just that one other. That one dearly beloved other.
What Caleb and Barbara have in common is they’ve both lost love and endured years of empty loneliness. Other than that, however, they could scarcely be more different. Caleb is visiting the Duke of Durham’s primary seat in order to court Lady Eve Hanover, the duke’s youngest daughter. Barbara is mourning the loss of her memories of her soldier-lover, the father of her son Zachery, a casualty of the Battle of Talavera, Spain, 1809.
She was forgetting Zach, and she was restless and longing for something to which she could not—or dared not—put a name. And Valentine’s Day was always the worst day of all. She dreaded it and wished it past already.
As so often happens in Balogh’s stories, a child is the bridge that joins a couple and so it is here. Caleb is delighted by Zachery’s boyish enthusiasms, teaching him how to sail a boat and train his first puppy but he’s certainly not unmindful of Barbara’s serene blonde beauty, even though,
“I am the skeleton in the family closet,” she said.
He looked steadily at her. “Are you?” he said. “But you have a lovely son.”
When Barbara shares that she is not sorry, because her son is all she has of her fallen love, Caleb not only understands, he says, “I have no such memento of my wife. I envy you.” Caleb’s family is warm and demonstrative, quite a contrast to Barbara’s life on the outside of her family circle. Again and again, Balogh writes of the tension between Barbara’s single-minded devotion to her son and her yearning to love and be loved, as when she says, almost in shock after Caleb rescues her son from a dunking, “I have nothing else in the world. Only him.” Barbara believes that her status as an unwed mother is the only measure defining her, dooming “her to living on the fringes of life.” She thinks poignantly that there was “no end to her disgrace, as there was an end to his grief.” She confides to Caleb that she wishes she could dance “among the stars.”
Balogh has an unerring ability to extract the true nature of love between a man and a woman, often delineating it as it unfolds. Attracted to Barbara’s mature loveliness, Caleb captures what caused it:
Eight years before, she had probably been exceedingly pretty, as her sister was now. But in those eight years, suffering and love had etched character into her face, and calmness and knowledge of life into her eyes. And she was beautiful as a result.
Barbara has her dance with Caleb—he visits her home one evening and teaches her how to waltz. When he kisses her as one might “kiss a dear sister,” Barbara throws herself into his arms and returns his kiss with yearning and passion. Readers of Balogh know that in her stories physical intimacy often presages a meeting of hearts and minds. It’s a bellwether of what’s to come. Of course Barbara is embarrassed and Caleb is not quite ready to step across the threshold and leave conventionality behind. When Caleb visits Barbara on Valentine’s Day, bringing a gift for her young son, she smiles and says nothing. Her heart is too full.
She smiled again as he turned to leave the house. She said nothing. She could not. She was waging too fierce a battle against tears. She did not believe that she had ever felt more lonely in her life.
But Balogh, with consummate skill, lightens the scene. Barbara’s heart may be breaking, again, but the new puppy has widdled and life goes on. True love cannot be denied, though, and Caleb comes back to her house to offer Barbara his hand and his heart. She turns him down quite definitely, reminding him once again of her circumstances and saying that it is impossible for her to rejoin respectable society or for her son to become Caleb’s stepson. Caleb is a man in love and he will not be denied, not if Barbara loves him.
He caught her by the shoulders and spun her around to face him. “You are a woman who loved unconditionally,” he said. “Zach is a product of that love.”
Barbara tells Caleb she loves him and she takes her place beside him, her betrothed, at her parents’ Valentine’s Day ball, coming full circle to her earlier wish to take a star out of her pocket and waltz under it. As Caleb tells her, stars “are meant to be danced among,” not hidden in pockets.
Janet Webb, Blogger