I want to talk about Mary Balogh! I finished An Unlikely Duchess and ooh, I just loved it!
Before delving into An Unlikely Duchess though I quickly want to mention the three other Mary Baloghs that I’ve read and enjoyed in the recent past: A Christmas Bride, The Temporary Wife and A Promise of Spring.
Oh reader! I think I have found my new favorite regency romance author!
(I’m pretty sure I’ve read some of Miss Balogh’s recent works too (I think it might be from the Simply series) but either I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for them or they didn’t hit the sweet spot in the way that her earlier books seem to be doing. I want to go hunt up all her old books now!)
The number one thing that stands out for me across all these four stories is how different their protagonists are from each other! As a lover of historical romance who’s become weary of the sameness that pervades the genre, Balogh’s earlier books seem like a breath of fresh air. Her characters have a story that is uniquely theirs.
I want to talk a little bit about A Promise of Spring which features a heroine who is ten years older than the hero. It’s a marriage of convenience trope and one that is excellently executed (and since this was the third marriage of convenience trope that I read from Balogh I suspect it’s a favorite of hers).
The hero was a friend of the heroine’s brother whose death has left our heroine destitute. Right in the beginning the hero, “who commanded respect entirely through the kindliness and integrity of his character,” realizes that here was a woman “whom, belatedly, he wished to know.” There’s something about that. . . lack of a martyr-ness and “goodliness” despite the offer he makes that made me warm up to him right away.
The heroine is really well rendered. We come to know that she is one who likes to keep herself emotionally aloof from those around her. She has reasons for being and doing so. The interactions that Balogh makes us privy to between the heroine and her family with whom she’s had a fractious past rang true.
That the trajectory of this marriage of convenience mirrors the path that the heroine takes as she comes to terms with who she was, and who she has become is one of my favorite parts about the book. I just love when stories show so clearly that while external circumstances play a role in the shaping of who we are, the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are are equally important too.
Here’s one of my favorite bits from the story:
Marriage was a living, dynamic relationship that must keep growing if it was to survive. They would have to want to be happy if they were to be so.
. . .
There were no certainties when one was married. Because, however close one became to another person, one never became that person.
Ahhhh. Yes, yes, and yes. It’s such a good feeling to read a story from an author who not only understands this but also incorporates it into in her story.
Ok, onto An Unlikely Duchess which is a completely different beast from A Promise of Spring!
In An Unlikely Duchess we have a hero—a duke—of a middling face and physique. Mr. Paul Villiers, Duke of Mitford, is a paragon of propriety and decorum who “had ever been intimate” with only one woman and that too an affair “conducted so discreetly that it was doubtful many people even knew about it.” Like with marriage of convenience, Balogh does “beta” heroes really, really well too.
Villiers is on his way to offer for our heroine, Josephine Middleton, who is perhaps the most brainless heroine I have ever had the good fortune to read about. Normally I would be up in arms about a female being characterized and referred to as brainless again, and again. But in this case—I join the chorus of characters in calling out Jo as incapable of using her head! In my defense, our heroine’s displays of brainlessness lead to such hilarious capers that I couldn’t help being glad that she was who she was!
At the very start of the story she declares, “I can’t marry this duke . . . A duke! . . . A duke, Sukey. Can you honestly see me marrying a duke? . . . I can’t marry a duke.” The marriage has been arranged by the duke’s family who are laboring under the misapprehension that our heroine is an upstanding young lady who crosses all her t-s and dots all her i-s.
Our unsure hero intercepts our heroine on his way to her home while she’s in the middle of extricating herself from the clutches of an evil villain who was supposed to help her extricate herself from the clutches of the duke in the first place. Yes, dear reader, the story stars a villain too—one who unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the reader, is brainless too! He doesn’t realize Josephine’s true mettle. Because while she may be lacking in sense, she’s full of sensibility! And spunk! And a joie de vivre which was surprisingly fun to read about.
The poor duke being the actual upstanding citizen in this farce offers to help our heroine recover the jewels that she discovers have been stolen by the villainous personage, and as you can imagine, hilarity and romance ensue! It’s a romance of the very unobtrusive variety, the kind where the fact that two people are falling in love is announced not by trumpets or choruses but by the kind of small observations that you know two people who only have eyes for each other would notice:
Mr. Villiers looked surprised. He also looked very nice indeed, with his curls all about his face and down over the collar of his coat. He had brushed them upstairs in their room, but really he was wasting his time doing so. His hair, thank goodness, did what it wanted to do.
Or when our hero realizes that despite all his notions of propriety he still hasn’t returned our heroine back to the safety of her family:
“I think,” the Duke of Mitford said mildly, “I am a very mad gentleman, ma’am.”
Oh there is no end to the scenes which set me laughing. I don’t want to list them here—I would rather you try getting hold of a copy of the book and read it for yourself! I can say with some confidence that this is most likely going to become one of my all time favorite regency romances! It is THAT good!