I miss Signet Regencies. One day when I had a hankering for a quality Regency, I did something I’d been longing to do but never got around to: I went down to the library and parked myself for three hours with an old Mary Balogh I’d never before read.
By page 45 I was panicking. Was I seriously reading about a spoiled, superficial, rebellious eighteen-year-old twit? Who decides her new husband isn’t manly enough for her? And who wants to teach him a lesson on their wedding night by mocking his sexual prowess? In a Mary Balogh?! But this believer kept faith, and on page 46, after the wedding night debacle, I heaved a sigh of relief and happily devoured the next 194 pages.
Ralph, Earl of Chartleigh, is 21, a shy, scholarly young man with no obvious muscles, almost effeminate features, and no romantic or sexual experience whatsoever. As in, he’s never even been kissed. Georgiana Burton has definitely been kissed and considers herself an old hand at it (operative word: “considers”). Theirs is an arranged marriage, and Ralph falls in love with Georgiana almost on sight. Georgiana, practical lass that she is, acquiesces to the marriage even though Ralph doesn’t jive with her idea of masculinity. And she ridicules him and disdains him, even as his gentle sincerity wins her over.
They are both very young people who make mistakes, especially Georgiana (quelle impetuous brat), but this fits the time. Ms. Balogh recycles one of her favorite wife-seducing-the-husband tricks that works miles better here than it did in other books, and there are the usual marital conflicts before the misunderstandings clear and a bona fide love match results. But the book’s real pleasure is watching Georgiana grow up. It’s very difficult, I think, to write a young heroine whose behavior is historically correct and to keep her young while still allowing her to grow – all without alienating any reader over the age of 18. Through their mistakes and life lessons, Ralph and Georgiana grow to love each other, and I never doubted it was genuine.
There is also a secondary love story, between Georgiana’s bluestocking sister and Ralph’s (wait for it) rakish cousin. Short enough not to distract from the main couple and sweet enough to pack a light punch, they were a nice foil to Georgiana and Ralph – and I’m a sucker for the rake and the bluestocking.
Gentle Conquest is not one of Mary Balogh’s great novels, but it illustrates her strengths perfectly: Subtle characterization, smooth writing, and stories that make sense. I hear Dell is reprinting her old Signets, many as two-in-one volumes, and every day I raise my hands to the skies and thank the goddess of Romance ’cause it’s bloody hard to find those Signets. Hallelujah, they’re coming back.