The Secret Mistress, by Mary Balogh

>> Saturday, February 09, 2013

TITLE: The Secret Mistress
AUTHOR: Mary Balogh

COPYRIGHT: 2011
PAGES: 432
PUBLISHER: Dell

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Prequel to More Than a Mistress and No Man's Mistress.

While Lady Angeline Dudley’s pedigree dictates that she must land a titled gentleman, the irrepressible beauty longs for a simple, ordinary suitor. So when Edward Ailsbury, the new Earl of Heyward, defends her honor with unmatched civility, Angeline thinks that she has found true love. Persuading the earl is another matter entirely. From her unconventional fashion sense to her hoydenish antics, Angeline is the last woman on earth for Edward. And yet a stolen kiss awakens something primal within him. Naturally, being a gentleman, he does the right thing after compromising a lady: He offers marriage. The proposal is born of duty, but will Angeline cause Edward to forget about decorum behind closed doors, where sensuality and seduction play wicked games? For a proper wife by day can become a husband’s secret mistress by night, when delicious desire rules.

It's a common plot in historical romance. A nobleman hero, whose family have determined he needs to get married as soon as possible, so he can start producing an heir. The perfect candidate, whom his family all champion, a young, highborn d├ębutante without much common sense. Another, older young woman, sensible and easy to talk to, whom he would prefer to marry, but whose social status is not quite high enough to please his family.

Another common (if slightly less so) plot is the vivacious, lively heroine, whose family decides the perfect man to court her is a boring stick-in-the-mud.

Balogh writes both these stories, but with a little twist. The heroine is not the older, sensible woman, but the young, perfect candidate, and the stick-in-the-mud suitor is exactly who the lively young woman wants from the start. She's done it before, in A Summer To Remember, and she does it just as well here.

The hero is Edward Ailsbury, who's just inherited an earldom on his brother's death. His brother was this charming ne'er-do'well, whom everyone loved, and serious, conscientious Edward always felt very ordinary and boring next to him.

Now that the period of mourning is over, Edward is resigned to doing his duty and setting up his nursery. His family, all of whom he loves, and all of whom love him, are determined to help him make a splendid match, to marry someone just as elegible as he is. Edward is not too happy about this, as he's always thought that, if he had to, he'd quite like to marry his old friend Eunice, the daughter of his old don and mentor. Eunice is just as serious-minded and sensible as he is, and he thinks they'll do very well together. However, even if she's a gentlewoman, what would have been an ok match for Mr. Ailsbury is not quite grand enough for an earl.

On his way to London for the Season, Edward comes across a young woman, clearly a lady, behaving ever-so-slightly indiscreetly. He defends her from the impertinent advances of a rake, and then leaves, shaking his head at the woman's risky behaviour.

The woman turns out to be Lady Angeline Dudley, the year's most elegible d├ębutante, and the very lady his family insist he court. They keep engineering situations in which they have to interact. Edward is not happy about this. He disapproves of Angeline and thinks they would never suit, even if he thinks she's the most beautiful lady he's ever set eyes on. Even if, as he gets to know her better, he realises she's nowhere near as silly and airheaded as he first thought.

I loved both these characters. Angeline is a delight. She's got a really charming joie-de-vivre, and is determined to enjoy life. She's also not at all stupid. She hasn't had a great deal of education, and she's interested in non-stereotypical-bluestocking things (such as shopping, especially for over-the-top bonnets!), but she's intelligent, and she's sensible, and never, ever behaves in a TSTL way.

I really liked the way the romance progressed. I would have expected it to be a reluctant thing on both sides, with Angeline having to realise Edward is not a boring old stick, just as Edward has to realise she's perfect for him, but that's not the case. Angeline, vivacious, lively Angeline, sees from the start how wonderful this man, so ordinary and seemingly boring, really is. She sees the honour and the caring and the humour behind his staid behaviour, and as he gets to know her, all that shines through more and more.

It was all very romantic, without being soppy, and I loved every minute of it. It's a purely character-driven romance. There are no villains (in fact, there aren't even real antagonists), and yet it held my interest throughout. The secondary characters are also great fun (I especially loved the secondary romance, which kind of mirrors Edward and Angeline's, in reverse). Just lovely.

I should also say something about the writing. Balogh's voice is perfect for this story. She's got a way of showing us the action from a deep point of view, one in which the characters are sometimes sometimes unreliable. They'll tell themselves things about their own feelings that aren't quite true, or they'll try to convince themselves of what they think they should be feeling. It works beautifully.

MY GRADE: An A-.

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