Well, well, well. I’m not sure there is a greater pleasure than finding that one has so much in common with one’s favorite author. Like Mrs Balogh, I am not a reader of romance. Also like her, I found my reading list had narrowed rather significantly (and alarmingly) as the pandemic raged on, to not just romance books, but historical romances. And not just any historical romances, but Mrs. Balogh’s. I just cannot seem to get enough of the Baloghverse. And oh guys, I am deep into her oeuvre indeed. So deep that I came on to this website in a rage, finding that Secrets of the Heart and Tangled were not even available on Ebook. I’d thought perhaps they could be procured here on direct sale. No such luck, I’m afraid. It is deuced infuriating.
I have a strange and rather mystical relationship with books. I believe that I read them at just the very moment that the author’s message could yield that pure kernel that would strike at the heart of me, always excruciatingly, so that I could be soothed and learn my lesson. Always, the lesson. A book could sit for years on my shelf without my being able to get past the first 15 pages, until just that singular moment when I would be confused, bewildered, in agony over for some dreadful experience, and I would finally pick up that tome and find that after all, someone (fictional) had gone through just that very same dread, that same agony, and had been able to overcome it with more or less some aplomb or at the very least, fortitude. This was how Norwegian Wood helped me come to grips with my best friend’s suicide, or The Idiot showed me that I was not so very alone in being beleaguered by a friendship with an all-too-real Nastassya Filippovna. Early on during the pandemic, I finally read Chuck Pahlaniuk’s Doomed. Then around May, two months into the lockdown, when I began to realize that yes, there is such a thing as too much Netflix and Chilling, I picked up Rushdie’s Quichotte. The timeliness of my reading them (in hard copy, guys, that’s how long I’ve had them) is downright eerie.
So I have been just baffled by this romance binge. I am single and well into my dotage (which I assume is one’s 30s) with not even the dimmest prospect for romance. Why the devil have I been devouring these romances, one after another? I mean yes, these are great books. But what use I could get from them escapes me. The only time I ever remember to be sort of regretful that I am not in a relationship, and indeed haven’t been for a long time, is when someone else points it out. I would then worry and make a resolution (I’ll go on a date, ask x or y out..right away! Tomorrow!) to fix my solitary state, before promptly forgetting again. Vaginismas is not even annual event for me; it is every three years.
When I read Someone to Wed around November last year, and then some time after that, The Proposal, I became extremely uncomfortable. Gwen was assailed by such ineffable loneliness that she would go and visit on the basis of really a very slight acquaintance. Wren was similarly besieged but crystallized her need for companionship, affection, and intimacy a lot better, and so proposed marriage on the basis of, um, no acquaintance. I thought I understood and related to both heroines. This was a frightening thought. Deuce take it, was I lonely?!? Was I reading these romance novels as some sort of escapist fantasy into a world where heroes both stalwart (Oh be still my heart, Adam Kent!) and simple (LOL Gerald Stapleton) persevered to not just win the love of intrepid heroines, but be worthy of them? And whatever happened to the Mystical Power of Lessons From Books? It’s not as if I’m going to step out to the supermarket and meet my Alistair Munro and these books are preparing me for the encounter. Sharing carriages with strangers is forbidden right now. So are balls.
I do not have a ready answer, because I’m really not that smart. Or perhaps I am too cowardly to admit the implications of the same sort of self-awareness with which Lady Mornington came to terms in gracefully dignified fashion. What I can admit, is how much these romances have been adventurous glimpses into possibilities that would have been the reality of love and relationships for me, had I been half as brave as any Balogh heroine.
Reading these novels during this pandemic has, if anything, thrown my solitude into sharp relief. I have been socially distanced for the better part of fifteen years, after a series of betrayals by everyone who claimed to love me. There was a returning lover! There were Lies! A seduced bosom bow ending in death! There was a letter! There was an old friend with a weird obsession! There was a sister who let the side down! It was all a great tragedy to rival any Russian novel. The result was that if anyone starts to talk to me about loving me, my immediate reaction is literally to grit my teeth and grimace against the inevitable onslaught of betrayal, more excruciating pain, and a general disillusionment with Aristotelian justice.
I thus perfected ghosting and emotional and physical distancing before they were even things. I became, rather like Imogen, marble. Well, ok, I am about as far from Nordic marble as Chloe is from sense when she married an heir to a dukedom and expected to not ever return to London (girl, really??), so it’s more accurate to say I became granite. There was one instance in which I quite literally ran from a lovely guy that I met on one of my travels, only realizing some three months later that I had actually fallen in love with him over the course of a day that was just breakfast, a short temple run, and a 4-hour kayak trip deep in the jungles of Laos. I was horrified to be reminded of it when I read Only A Kiss. And of course, the hero was no Percy, running after me and asking, “why are you marble, or rather, granite?”
I had not realized how I’d ended up being quite alone in 2020, by design as well as by pandemic, until I read Heartless. [I couldnt comprehend how everyone was calling Luke “heartless” when to my mind he was behaving perfectly reasonably before his love for Anna started breaking him down.] I thought Anna was insipid and I could not for the life of me relate to her; I had no trouble identifying at all with Lucas Kendrick. I have made myself quite heartless; behind me are enough burnt bridges to span oceans and I am surrounded by scorched earth.
Understand, this is not an indictment of my choices. I am not even convinced I am lonely. But I would hate to be a slowtop and fail to grasp that I might be letting life get the best of me in a way that I definitely never intended if I continually spurn any and all attachments. Damnation, we should go on in quiet dignity like Fleur Hamilton, not Sybil, and refrain from whoring ourselves out as far as possible, and never castigate ourselves too much if it should ever become necessary.
Dash it all, these books might have begun to make me believe that trying to find love again might be worth it. Perish the thought! Although how I can ever entertain any declaration of love that is not “something in me recognized you…my pearl beyond price”, or a proposal that doesn’t go, like, “well, coco, I think you had better marry me”, I really do not know.