One of Miss Bates’ dearest friends is an artist. She once told Miss B. that visual artists fall into one of two categories: those whose primary focus is colour, or those whose primary focus is line. Maybe we can say the same about romance writers? Those who use line make use of strongly delineated roles for their characters; they rely on convention to build a narrative. Their characters, such as in PNR romance, do not deviate from their prescribed roles: mates are fated; there may be some negotiation and manoeuvring to reach the HEA, but, overall, the reader can see exactly where this is going. Deviations occur in plot rather than characterization. We may also see this in romantic suspense, which is not to say that subversions of the conventions don’t occur. Then, there are colorists, whose primary focus is in the development and transformation, over the course of a simple narrative, of character, in particular the heroine and hero. Mary Balogh is a colorist; her interest lies in characters in transition, caught in a moment when they have to do serious thinking and decision-making about where they’re going. She is also interested in how desire and love can insert themselves into people’s lives at the most inconvenient, unlikely, and often unwelcome moments. Hero and heroine have to work out the impetus towards love/commitment and pulling away from the bonds of engagement, a yearning for connection and longing, at the same time, solitude and independence. These conflicting and conflicted impulses are evident in both her male and female characters.
Balogh paints her characters in greys: strong, but not overbearing; in love and seeking connection, but pulling away from it as well. There are no alphas, there is no fate: these characters have choice and agency. Yet, she cannot escape the evils of coincidence. She has to bring them together; she has to let chance reign. That is one of her weaknesses. But in giving her heroines and heroes possibility and choice, even though she writes in the constraints of the historical day is a strength … or not. Balogh is a tour de force in the genre; romance readers have to decide whether she is for them … or not. She is not one to ignore, but she’s not easy to love either. All of these concerns and themes that we’ve come to associate with Balogh are present in her latest historical romance, The Escape, fourth in the Survivors’ Club series. Miss Bates read it in one sitting: it’s devoid of exciting or interesting events, but the journey hero and heroine undertake and the theme of escape and when and how escape is genuine yearning for freedom or a running away, kept Miss B. turning pages. In the end, however, there were also disappointments. A certain fatigue has set in in Balogh’s writing.
The opening of Balogh’s The Escape is rife with the members of the Survivors’ Club at their annual meeting at the Duke of Stanbrook’s estate, Penderris, in Cornwall. It is NOT an auspicious opening to someone, like Miss Bates, unfamiliar with the series. It is difficult to figure out who’s who, or follow the stilted dialogue. Thankfully, it is short, as the party breaks up and we follow our hero, Sir Benedict Harper, crippled in his legs from the war and walking with the aid of canes, to his sister’s home in County Durham. We also meet her neighbour, Samantha McKay, recent widow of Captain Matthew McKay, beset by her sister-in-law, Matilda, dour, and a stickler for following a harsh and unfeeling mourning period. Samantha nursed the peevish, difficult Matthew for five years before he succumbed to injuries sustained in the Napoleanic Wars. She did her duty by the cheating, heartless ass; she mourns his youth and suffering, but she does not miss him. After he died, she was listless, exhausted, and depressed. She’s recovered somewhat and yearns to take exercise and hold her face to the sun. Matilda will have none of it. Samantha’s only companion is a loveable mutt, Tramp.
Samantha escapes Matilda to walk Tramp and is upended and near-injured by a rider, Sir Ben Harper. Miss Bates loved their initial curse-filled and volatile encounter because she loves any scene that pays homage to the not-meet-cute of her beloved Jane Eyre. Even though their encounter is antagonistic, Balogh cannot help but revert to decent type. When Ben’s sister, Beatrice, pays a neighbourly call on Samantha and Matilda, he goes along to apologize. Their subsequent encounters are pleasant and polite; they converse with ease and humour. They like each other and there is a burgeoning attraction. When Samantha’s father-in-law sends goons to bully her into returning to his home where he can better control her outlandish behaviour (such as taking a walk, calling on neighbouring families, and visiting the poor), Samantha resolves to escape, to travel to a small Cornish home she inherited from her mother. Ben’s gentlemanly bent cannot allow her to travel unprotected and unescorted. They travel together and grow closer in friendship and desire. Cornwall presents many surprises for Samantha: an inheritance she never knew of and loving family. A swimming hole and beach are where Samantha and Ben become lovers, agreeing to a short affair before Ben leaves to figure out his future and Samantha concludes her mourning period while she makes a home and gets to know her newly-found maternal grand-father.
One aspect of The Escape that Miss Bates particularly enjoyed was the theme of “escape”. It served to cement characterization and to point to their strengths and weaknesses, motivations and aspirations. The obvious connection is to Samantha who, in effect, escapes from the clutches of her overbearing sister-in-law and a miserable life as a penniless household drudge at her father-in-law’s. Her Gypsy blood, from her grand-mother, ensured that her father-in-law hated her from the moment Matthew presented her as his future bride. Now, she’s an unwanted obligation to be “taken care of” in order to keep up appearances. Samantha’s escape from this future is only one of the many ways she seeks to break free. By leaving, she seeks to escape her identity as Matthew’s wife and the naïve self who married the selfish, cheating creep. She wants to escape the sadness of those years and recover some of her joy, or, as she tells Ben, she wants to “dance.” Ben too yearns for escape: for one thing, his determination to live and walk has ensured not only his survival, but his self-respect. Ben too, however, is unhappy; his depression stems from his inability to do what he felt he was meant to: lead men in battle, be a soldier. Now that he can no longer, he yearns to escape what he feels he has become: a man purposeless, no longer able to fulfill his mission, no longer attractive to women, no longer able to “dance.” When Ben and Samantha are at their lowest, they share a lovely fantasy of being able to soar above the clouds in a balloon, to leave everything behind.
When Samantha and Ben embark on their journey to Cornwall, escape becomes something different. To escape, to take tangible action to change one’s life, is the first step to renewing it. Like all travelers, they are, for that glorious interim of not yet arriving, set free to be whomever they want, to shed the old and not take on any identity. Liminal is best. When they arrive at Samantha’s Cornish house, which turns out to be beautiful and affluent, they realize, separately, how difficult it will be for them to part. They have deep feelings for each other, but in another form of escape, a negative one, they avoid them. They do not speak what is in their hearts. Instead, they agree to a brief love affair of one week. They swim, talk, laugh, and make love. This escape is a respite from reality, a full and beautiful thing, but, ironically, it is also running away from their commitment and love.
Even though The Escape had this lovely theme running through it, Miss Bates didn’t love it. The novel was truncated in places and dragged in others. One of the things that never works for Miss Bates in Balogh’s books are the lame reasons why hero and heroine don’t wish to be together, when everything is pointing to why they should. Including obvious social pressures, conventions, and expectations. Balogh consistently gives her heroine and hero a halcyon week or so swimming and making love. It’s paradisiacal and finite, as paradisiacal tends to be. She does so in this case as well. Reality dashes the magical feelings and hero and heroine separate, except there doesn’t seem any rhyme or reason they should, except their own vague, mulish, and melancholic dispositions. They say to themselves they’re not in love, or they’re not ready; they have a lot of doubts, but nothing bolsters them. The narrative, as a result, slows down, lapses into soulful looks and despondent thinking. Miss Bates wanted to shake them and say, “Look, you’ve been doing like bunnies; you’re friends. You care about each other. What do you think love is?” Maybe Miss B. doth protest too much, but so do Balogh’s heroine and hero.
It adds insult to injury, however, in leaving out one of the most important moments of the romance novel. It is Miss B’s favourite moment ever since she read Pamela Regis’ A Natural History of the Romance Novel, the “dark night of the soul” moment. It is the point in the narrative when it looks as if heroine and hero’s obstacles to the HEA are insurmountable, the moment of greatest tension and agony for the reader. It is, an “agon,” a struggle involving pain and suffering. It needs a reversal, a profound transformation in the characters, for the HEA to be possible and believable. It is the Holy Friday moment in the romance narrative, as it is for the romance writer. She must get this right, or her house of cards collapses, the moment where she may experience her greatest failure, or greatest triumph. Well, THAT is what The Escape leaves out. Miss Bates cannot pardon this. Maybe Balogh wanted the relationship to develop organically, to arise out of two people having quiet realizations. Nevertheless, it didn’t work for Miss B. It felt tired, as if Balogh couldn’t be bothered to run the gamut of the romance narrative’s emotions.
The Escape kept her interest; she liked Ben and Samantha. She liked the secondary characters. As a romance narrative, however, Miss Bates, along with Jane Austen, says it provides “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
The Escape, released by Dell Books on July 1st, is available in paper and e-format at the usual vendors. Please note that The Escape includes a novella, The Suitor.
Miss Bates is grateful to Dell Books (Random House) for an e-ARC they provided, via Netgalley, for her review consideration.
Here is Miss B’s delicious question for you, dear reader? What “dark moments” are your favourites in the romance narratives you’ve read? Who the author and title and what made them powerful?