In a career spanning almost 30 years to date, Mary Balogh has broken numerous boundaries in romance. Sex in traditional Regencies. A courtesan heroine. An adulterous sex addict hero. A heroine who molested her stepson. An ordinary shlub hero! Amidst her many rule-breaking stories and unusual characterizations, certain themes regularly recur, together creating the sense of a strong moral compass and philosophy of life.
1) Do the right thing, and “fake it til you make it.”
In the historical periods Balogh covers, societal constraints were extremely strong and her characters often find themselves forced to agree to unwanted marriages. Sometimes there is bitterness to work through, and they can be cruel to one another in the grip of despair. But that's no excuse for Eleanor in A Christmas Promise to break her sacred vows, as she tells her former lover point blank: “My feelings for him have nothing to say to anything… The point is that I consented to marry him and did marry him and can no longer indulge my love for you.”
In Dark Angel, Gabriel speaks for many Balogh heroes and heroines when he tells his new bride, “It is a damnable mess I have got you into, but there is only one way out. We can go forward and try to make something workable out of what seems impossible tonight.” And he doesn't intend for them to simply tolerate each other: “We are going to fall in love, Jennifer. We are going to be happy despite the seemingly insuperable odds, I promise you.”
2) Acceptance does not mean settling. Do not compromise your values or sense of self worth.
Personhood and valuing oneself are central themes in Balogh's books, especially for heroines. Jane refuses a man she's loved for years in An Unacceptable Offer, because he wants her primarily to take care of his children: “There is only one of me, I am unique… I am a person, not a commodity, not a footstool.”
Harriet, a secondary character in Dancing With Clara, steadfastly refuses to become the mistress of the man she loves, choosing respectable marriage instead. When she finally gives in in Tempting Harriet, she regrets it:
“I thought that because I was a widow and you were still unmarried, I would have you and no one would be harmed. I was mistaken. I was harmed. It was wrong. That room. What we did there. It was devoid of everything but—itself.”
3) Physical attraction is not always trustworthy.
It's quite possible to be strongly attracted to someone unprincipled and unworthy, as Samantha discovers after the Earl of Rushford basely uses her in his schemes. She initially turns to the less obviously attractive Hartly for safety in Lord Carew's Bride, but discovers true love can grow from tenderness and friendship.
4) Similarly, lack of immediate attraction is not always a barrier to love.
Edmund and Alexandra, in The Gilded Web, have a singularly unpromising beginning: “He did not find her in any way attractive… She was totally untouchable. He tried to picture himself tasting her lips with his mouth and tongue. He could not imagine it… Yet she was to be his wife!” Only when he really gets to know her does Alexandra's true appeal come to light.
5) Your first love may not be your last love.
It's not unusual for a Balogh hero or heroine to have had a previous love—sometimes someone who turned out to be undeserving, sometimes someone whom circumstances took away—and affection and loyalty can lead to a conflicted heart. In Slightly Married, both main characters had dreams for a future with other mates, dreams ruined by their necessary marriage; there is some struggle before they accept that it's not wrong to let go of those feelings, finally creating “something better than a dream” ... “a dynamic, exciting, happy reality that they would work on together every day for as long as they both lived.”
6) People are only human, and can't always live up to our ideals.
It's not that a Balogh hero or heroine has to be perfect: sometimes they're vindictive or scheming or simply make terrible mistakes. But expecting too much of someone is also a fault, and one that can damage a relationship. In The Plumed Bonnet, Stephanie idolizes Alastair and feels unworthy of him, not realizing that she completely misinterpreted his motives in helping her. “I tried so very hard to please you, because I thought you were like a god” she tells him. “I might have better spent the time pleasing myself.” Arabella's disillusionment with her husband in The Obedient Bride, after she discovers he had no respect for his marriage vows, makes it hard for them to try again.
7) Because people aren't perfect, forgiveness is essential.
Forgiveness comes in many forms in Balogh's books. In A Christmas Bride, Gerald's wife urges him to forgive his stepmother for trying to seduce him:
“Here is your chance for final peace. If you forgive her, you may finally forget... For our own sakes we must forgive as much as for the sake of the person we forgive.”
Helena has been suffering for her sin for years: “I would have begged your pardon… if I had felt the offense pardonable. But I did not feel it was... I will take the offense to the grave with me.” Seeing that Gerald is whole and at peace lets Helena finally forgive herself and allow herself some happiness.
In Dancing With Clara, Clara offers her tormented adulterous husband unconditional forgiveness:
“Yes, you have wronged me. But I forgive you. And I will keep on forgiving you as many times as you wrong me. For I love you and I know you will always be sorry if you stray. Don't punish yourself any longer. By punishing yourself you will be punishing me.”
“Can it be done, then,” he asked, “by just trying and trying and trying? Failing and trying again? And so on?”
“I don't think there is any easier way, Freddie,“ she said. ”Just a day-to-day effort.”
8) If forgiveness heals, revenge always hurts.
In Christmas Beau, Max achieves the perfect revenge and discovers he's hurt himself far more than the woman who betrayed him:
“And this was what sweet revenge felt like. He had waited eight years for this. This was what it felt like. So empty, so very very empty that there was pain… She was going away in the morning. He would be as greedy for news of her as he had ever been.”
9) The sexual double standard is wrong.
This is a complicated idea for a historical writer to express, particularly a writer like Balogh, who works hard to maintain an authentic tone. Generally it arises from her characters' strong sense of fairness and justice. In Secrets of the Heart, Sarah asserts her right to make love with her divorced husband: “don't ask me to feel ashamed… I have done with shame.” Later, he apologizes for judging her for her lack of virginity, though still expressing it in the sexist language of the times: “I love you Sarah. It does not matter who possessed you before me.”
Although Harriet has her own personal shame about having an affair, she refuses to be looked down upon for it: “If I am a whore, then so are you. Why should women be considered to have fallen when they give themselves outside marriage, but not men?”
10) A true lover will always want you to be true to yourself.
Just as personhood is a central theme in Balogh, so is acceptance of ones lover's true self and desires. This is particularly well expressed in her ”opposites attract“ romances. The lively Christine initially refuses a very correct and intimidating duke in Slightly Dangerous, telling him, ”I would be consumed by you. You would sap the energy and all the joy from me. You would put out all the fire of my vitality.“ He proves her wrong, so we can believe him when he tells her, ”If you were to agree to be my wife. I would not expect you to shape yourself into your image of what a duchess would be—or into anyone else's image either. If anyone does not like your style of duchess, then to hell with that person.“ And Christine accept him as he is as well:
“I will always be the stern, aloof, rather cold aristocrat you so despise,“ he said. ”I have to be. I—”
“I know,“ she said, looking up quickly. ”I would neither expect nor want you to change. I love the Duke of Bewcastle as he is.”
Alistair redeems himself in The Plumed Bonnet by giving Stephanie back all the freedom she lost through marriage to him:
“I will not hold you against your will,” he said.
“Why not?” Her eyes were closed very tightly.
“Because I would rather live without a dream than with a spoiled one,” he said. And more softly, “Because I love you.”
“Alistair…” she looked up at him, all teary-eyed and wobbly-voiced. “It does not need to be a spoiled dream. I will live in it with you. You will never understand, perhaps, how wonderful it is to know that one may say no. How wonderful it is for a woman. For now I know beyond any doubt that I may say no to you, then I know too that I am free to say yes with all my heart.”
Perhaps the most powerful part of this acceptance is that it allows characters to become their very best selves. Angeline, the heroine of The Secret Mistress has always felt like a “great dark beanpole of a girl.” Looking through her lover's eyes, “suddenly and gloriously she knew that she was beautiful, that she had grown into the tall, dark bloom that was herself, and that she was perfect. Perfectly who she was and who she was meant to be.”
Romances are often criticized, sometimes fairly, for being filled with negative messages about women, men, and relationships. Mary Balogh's work shows that that doesn't have to be true.
My thanks to Janet Webb for her invaluable suggestions and insights.