by Mary Balogh
190 pages, Vanguard Press
Review by Melissa Conway
My go-to movie when I’m in need of a little romance in my life is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the one with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen (although I’m also partial to the A&E mini-series with Colin Firth). I love the music; the repeating ‘pianoforte’ tune played by different persons with varying levels of skill. I love the scenery; vast pre-Victorian brick homes surrounded by thriving gardens and farmland. And I love the characters; the perfect Knightley (except, bless her, for the endearing crookedness of her teeth) and the sexy Madfadyen, whose expressive eyes soon won me over, even though I’d rebelled at thinking of him as Darcy after so many viewings of Firth in the part.
Other than my sporadic intimacy with Jane Austen’s work (I’ve read the novel and seen and liked a few Emma’s, etc.), I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Historical Romance as a genre.
I don’t know why I picked up ‘A Matter of Class.’ Maybe I felt a sudden need for my go-to movie while browsing at the bookstore and gravitated to the romance section. I had never read author Mary Balogh before—never even heard of her—but the cover of the book has a single lady standing in one of those feminine Regency high-waisted dresses, wearing white gloves and holding a lace umbrella, and I immediately thought of Pride and Prejudice. Plus, the slim volume looked like a quick read (quick enough to maybe mitigate the guilt of avoiding the pile of books I’m supposed to be reading), so I brought it home.
The story starts out with our hero Reginald putting on a petulant show for his father in a discussion that sets the plot firmly in stone. Reginald is to marry the daughter of his father’s sworn enemy, a young woman who has disgraced herself by attempting to run off with the groomsman. This marriage is being forced upon the foppish Reginald to curb his spending, gambling, womanizing ways.
Lady Annabelle, the disgraced, newly affianced woman in question, is unhappy but resigned to the match. Her cold father, the Earl of Havercroft, can think of no other way to redeem her reputation but to marry her off, even to the son of new, and therefore distastefully crass, money.
Interspersed between Reginald and Annabelle’s points of view of the impending wedding are flashbacks to their childhood friendship. They meet at different stages of childhood along the river that acts as a boundary between the two families’ property. The reader sees that a romantic attachment has formed, so the “twist” at the end isn’t so much a surprise as a happy, “I knew it!”
The story is lighter than P&P, and not in a comedic sort of way. I’m used to Austen’s portrayal of characters whose depth is emphasized through clever insights into the quirks of their personalities. The people who populate Balogh’s Class are exactly what I’d expect to find in a book set in a different era, and a different class, than my own—people whose motivations escape me. Austen wrote her novel prior to 1813 and barring a few phrases that could only be found in the Urban Dictionary of the time, I felt like every word resonated. I wasn’t surprised to find, according to Balogh’s back cover flap, that she’s written, “more than seventy novels and almost thirty novellas” since 1985. Seventy! Balogh must be cranking these babies out in her sleep (which is what it takes to make a decent living as a mid-list author these days, I hear).
I must say, she’s clearly in her groove when writing in this genre. With all her experience, the clothing, architecture, politics, and word usage that set the story in its time-frame must be ingrained in her brain. Some of my favorites are words and phrases that wouldn’t be caught dead in a modern book (but showed up here again and again and again) (and again, I kid you not): various forms of “plucky,” “haughty,” “chit,” “dash it” or “dash it all,” and my personal favorite “vulgar.” The characters purse their lips more than the fish on Finding Nemo. Reggie shudders elegantly, Annabelle gazes disdainfully, and everyone’s eyebrows are in a constant state of raisedness. Oh, and I would be remiss in describing this novel’s true charm if I left out the following, a new take on an old cliché that had me laughing out loud:
“Indignation did marvels for the bosom of a lady wearing stays and a flimsy gown. Hers heaved and looked for a moment as if it might pop free of her bodice. Alas, it did not happen. But it drew Reggie’s eyes, and it heated his blood.”
Please don’t get me wrong. I actually enjoyed this story. It was exactly the quick read I was looking for, and I suspect the author doesn’t take herself too seriously when producing (or mass-producing?) these books, assuming her other works of fiction are in a similar vein. If you read Regency Romance, you might like the light-hearted ‘A Matter of Class.” I don’t, and I did.