Only Beloved is the seventh and final book in Mary Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series about a group of people – six men and one woman – who sustained injuries and trauma, both physical and mental, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve enjoyed all the books and think it’s been one of the strongest and most consistent series around in the historical sub-genre in the last few years. Ms Balogh has created a cast of memorable and engaging characters in the Survivors and their partners, and has not sugar-coated their various ordeals or glossed over the difficulties they have experienced during their recoveries.
The group met when one of their number, George Crabbe, the Duke of Stanbrook, decided to turn his Cornwall home of Penderris into a hospital for wounded combatants who needed more intense and extended care than could be found elsewhere. After several years, most of the patients had returned to their homes and families, but there were six who remained, needing a longer convalescence, and it’s these six whose stories were told in the previous books. George has been a permanent presence in all of them, and his story – or what we know of it so far – is also a tragic one. His son was killed in the war and his wife committed suicide by throwing herself off the cliffs not far from the house, yet he has not shared the whole of the story with the six people he loves most in the world, putting their healing above his own and because he feels those secrets are not his to divulge.
As George waves off Imogen and Percy (from Only a Kiss) after their wedding , he can’t help feeling that perhaps it’s time he made a similar change in his own life. At forty-eight, he has been a widower for twelve years, and admits to himself that he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life alone. He would like to find a mature, like-minded woman to be his friend, his companion and – hopefully – his lover. George doesn’t want love or passion, emotions he associates with the fervor of youth, and with his own, disastrous youthful infatuation for the woman he was more or less pushed into marrying when he was just seventeen – but friendship, affection and physical intimacy… certainly those things are not too much to hope for?
When George considers the prospect of marriage, he is somewhat surprised to discover that the thought brings with it the image of one particular woman, and that somehow the idea of marrying is tied up with his thoughts of her. Dora Debbins is the older sister of Agnes, who is now married to Flavian Arnott, one of the Survivors (Only Enchanting), and who now lives alone in the small village of Inglebrook in Gloucestersuire, close to Middlebury Park (home of Vincent and Sophia from The Arrangement) where she makes her living as a music teacher.
Dora is stunned when the Duke of Stanbrook, whom she met briefly a year ago, turns up unannounced on her doorstep and asks her to marry him. She has not seen him during that year, although she can’t deny that she was just a little smitten with him before, and is as attracted to him now as she was then. George’s proposal is honest and sweet – ”I like the idea of looking at you every day of the rest of my life” – and Dora, who had never thought to marry, and who, like George, can’t deny that she is lonely – accepts.
Only Beloved is a gently moving and poignant story about two more mature people falling in love and discovering that age is no bar to romance or passion. I suspect that some readers may feel it’s too slow, but I certainly didn’t, because the characters are so well drawn and their relationship is so very well developed. It’s not the sort of book where the romance evolves through large gestures or sweeping events; here, it’s the little, everyday things that reveal so much of the depth of feeling that lies between Dora and George, like the pleasure he takes in listening to her play the harp or the piano, or the obvious pleasure they find in each other’s company.
That’s not to say that everything is plain sailing, however. There is an important secondary plotline that was begun in Only Enchanting when it was revealed that Dora and Agnes had been affected by the terrible scandal that ensued when their mother ran off with another man and their father divorced her. This happened as Dora was about to make her début, so she never had her season or the chance to make a good marriage, and instead stayed at home to raise five-year-old Agnes. George senses that Dora is conflicted about her mother and that she needs to find some sort of closure, encouraging her and supporting her through her decisions in a way which shows very clearly what a wonderful support he must have been to the Survivors, too, a man with a huge capacity to love those who need it and to offer comfort and understanding.
Yet he is, as Dora comes to realise, weighed down by troubles of his own that he is reluctant to share. He wants the past to stay in the past and is intent on enjoying his life the way it is now, but not even a duke has the power to prevent the past from intruding on the present in a highly painful way. There is a moment towards the end of the story which smacks of melodrama and is so different in tone to the rest of the book that it jars somewhat; but with that said, it is probably meant to come across that way, given that the person involved is so obviously unhinged. It is also the event that finally shocks George into sharing his deepest secrets and the pain and grief he has kept hidden for so long, and which finally means that he and Dora can face the rest of their lives together unencumbered by sorrowful recollections and can remember the past with fondness rather than with upset.
I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, which has a rather lovely autumnal feel about it. This is no whirlwind romance or heated passion – although George and Dora are certainly physically attracted to each other and enjoy making love together – but a beautifully written romance in which two lonely people come together for the sake of companionship and find much more. There’s a sweet epilogue in which we get to meet all the Survivors and their families – although keeping track of who’s who among all the children is difficult! – which nicely and neatly rounds out the series, and which allows readers a little more time to say goodbye to the members of the Survivor’s Club that we’ve come to know over the past few years.
Only Beloved may not be my favourite book of the series, but it’s close to the top of the list – and anyway, each has been so strong that even a non-favourite rates more highly than the majority of the other books I’ve read recently. I’m sorry to say farewell to the Survivor’s Club, but have enjoyed every entry and am sure I’ll be revisiting some, if not all, of them in the future.