Longing, by Mary Balogh

>> Friday, September 30, 2005

Random pick from the deepest depths of my TBR: Longing, by Mary Balogh, which has been there ever since it arrived on March 1st, 2001.

Sian Jones is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy English mine owner and a Welsh coalminer's daughter. She was educated in a fine English school. But she turned her back on her English heritage, married a coalminer, and went to work in the mines herself after his death. Now she is engaged to another Welshman, leader of the revolutionary movement of the workers against the tyranny of the English owners. But one of those owners, the Marquess of Craille, has just inherited and come to live in Wales. And he seems sympathetic to his workers. When Sian becomes his daughter's governess, she gets caught very firmly between two worlds--and two loves.
This time my random pick was a great one. I loved this book! An A-.

This one's a rec for those of you who dislike wallpaper historicals. We have here characters who felt more authentic than usual, and a historical background that really did play a big part in the plot, one that was fascinating and vividly done.

But on top of that, we have a just wonderful love story, a love story between two truly good people who are caught at a time when their choices were not wholly their own.

I especially loved Alexander. If you require all your heroes to be alpha and masterful and dominating and excessively confident, this would not be the book for you. Alex is a wonderful beta, a man trying to do his best but stuck in circumstances in which he sometimes can't even do what his conscience tells him he must.

I suppose his enlightened attitude towards his workers and their plight might feel a bit too good to be true, but I loved the way went about improving things. This is not simplified to make it sound easy. His first instinct is to go ahead and change things according to what he feels is fair and just, but he gets battered from every side.

His agent and the other owners insist that he knows nothing about business, that his decisions improving the lot of his own workers will either run his business into the ground and cause every single one of his workers to lose their jobs, or create chaos in other valleys, because everyone will want the same.

His workers, meanwhile, don't seem particularly interested in his help. They seem to see him as the enemy, someone whose overtures can only be a trap and who can't care about them at all. Some of them would even prefer for him to want to exploit them, because otherwise this might make people less likely to join the Chartist associations.

Since it's true that Alex knows little about business and he realizes that (see what I said about him not being an alpha?), he allows their pronouncements to dampen his resolve and decides to study like crazy until he knows what he's doing, and then act. That was a bit frustrating, because what he wanted to do was so obviously right, from a modern perspective, but his actions made excellent sense for the person he was.

Sian was also a wonderful character. Even when some of her choices were also frustrating, I felt I completely understood her. As the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman, whose mother had been ostracized by her community for her choice of becoming this man's mistress, she spent all her childhood "stranded between two worlds", as she described it. Her fondest wish is to belong completely to one of those worlds, so, as belonging to the upper classes would be impossible, she makes every effort to belong to the miners' community, even to the extreme of going down into the mines, to do the hardest, dirtiest work, instead of looking for something easier or even not working, as her late husband's family insists she can do.

Getting involved with Alex is the last thing she wants, both because her intention is to marry this ironworker, Owen, which will finally make her a full part of the community, as she wants, and because she knows there's absolutely no future with Alex, other than as his mistress, and she refuses to follow her mother's footsteps.

As for Alex, while he wants Sian from the beginning, he's a honorable man. Once he knows why she doesn't feel she can be his mistress, he doesn't force the issue or try to seduce her. At least, not fully consciously. Balogh did well in portraying the way these two people were drawn together even against their wishes, how their attraction and their need for each other was completely overpowering. Alex's feelings were just wonderful, especially his loneliness and how being with Sian makes him feel happy.

Something I found interesting is that he doesn't even consider marrying at first, even when he realizes he's falling in love with her. I never got the feeling that he was a snob himself, but just that he knew it was something that simply wasn't done, so it took quite a while for the possibility to even cross his mind. And even once they've decided to marry, Balogh doesn't tie it up in a big shiny bow, but makes it clear that everyone in Alex's world will disapprove and that even their children might experience some snobbery because of who their mother was.

The same refusal to make things simplistic characterized her description of the miners. These are not Disney cartoons. I liked how Balogh portrayed the complexity of the issues. I sympathized 100% with the miners' demands, but hated some of their methods. The way people who dissented were punished until they conformed, how people who didn't join their protest organizations were visited by the "enforcers", the "Scotch Cattle" and whipped, how the men who didn't want to participate in the march on Newport were forced to do so and taken as prisoners if necessary... I hated all that, even as I understood why they felt they had to do it.

As I said, there's a lot of historical detail. I've learned the hard way not to take what I read in my romance novels as fact, even when it's a usually trustworthy author like Balogh, but I love it when a book inspires me to research something I knew little about. I closed this book and went right on to read about Chartism, the same way I researched the issue of Reapportionment after reading Madeline Hunter's The Charmer. I did know the basics, enough to think "uh-oh" when the word "Newport" is mentioned, but I was interested enough to try and learn more details.

Wonderful book, I highly recommend it!


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