I had mixed reactions to Balogh’s Silent Melody: puzzled, enthralled at what she could do with the genre, dismayed at what she did with the genre, and always aware there was something fearless about what she did in Silent Melody. If we consider the romance from the perspective of today’s romance cognoscenti, it would be in its “representation” of its deaf heroine. On this level, I’m sure Balogh’s representation invites the damning “problematic”. I didn’t find it “problematic”, but I did dislike it for reasons having nothing to do with the heroine’s sensory challenge.
I think Balogh’s purpose was, not realism, but an exploration of a sensory deprivation and how, from it, she could build a character of strength, will, determination, and independence. There are, I believe, two things that stymied her: Balogh equated Emily’s deafness with an ability to commune with nature and she could not avoid, in the telling, that most pernicious romance pitfall, the lapse into plot-centred melodrama.
To start, a little background, since I haven’t said a thing about the hero. Lady Emily Marlowe lives with her sister’s family, Anna and Luke, the Duke of Harndon, and brother to the hero, Lord Ashley Kendrick. She is beloved, privileged, wealthy, and roams the vast estate, dishevelled and barefoot, at her will. She is beautiful, kind, highly intelligent, and a talented artist. The love her of life, Ashley, left seven years ago, to make his fortune with the East India Company. He returns a wealthy, broken man, guilt-ridden and tormented because he was away the night of a fire that killed his wife and infant son. Reunited with his family and Emily, merely fifteen when he left and his then-companion of forest and dell, he feels unworthy of forgiveness and love. Nevertheless, his family loves him and Emily was and is still in love with him.
It was the way in which her differentness showed. Her need for solitude, for the living things of nature that were as content as she to communicate without demanding reciprocity. To give and to receive without obligation. Her contentment. Her happiness. Her loneliness. Why had she to grow up? Why had she to need? Was it Ashley who had taught her unwittingly about loneliness? About the needs of a woman?
Balogh’s characters, male and female, struggle internally to understand themselves. She is no writer of banter. It feels like Balogh would consider banter an impediment to understanding the self, essential to loving another person as an equal.
And yet it was in idleness, she knew, that one touched meaning and peace. Sometimes she put the name God to what it was she touched, but the name was too evocative of rules and restrictions and sin and guilt. In the Bible, which she had tried to read … she had noted with interest how the great meaning and peace behind everything had instructed Moses not to name it. It had called itself merely I AM. Emily liked that. It was in idleness that one came face-to-face with the I AM. With simple, elemental being.
In Emily, Balogh explored a heroine who was still and silent. She wanted her to, because of her inability to communicate, gain the ability to communicate with nature and the mystery of being. Silence is Emily’s strength when she is alone; it gives her insight and connection: “Her hands were flat against the ground, her fingers spread. She could feel the world spinning with her. She could feel the pulse of the universe against her own heartbeat. She lay still and relaxed, feeling the connection.”
While Balogh’s characters try to reach the heart of being, there is one experience that, wordlessly, allows them to achieve that understanding. In this way, Balogh makes the romance novel Lawrencian:
…she had learned that it really was love, that in the physical act, which could be called sin when performed outside marriage, as now, love bonded to love and was a thing of the heart and even of the soul as well as of the body…Not just in the physical masculine-into-feminine sense, but in every way possible. Masculine, feminine, masculine–they did not matter. Each was both, and each was both giver and receive.
Like Lawrence, for Balogh, there is toiling in the constant “voice” that speaks to us of ourselves. But in the physical act of love, that voice is silenced and one taps into a greater, silent mystery. Which is why Balogh wasn’t interested necessarily in the representation of a deaf heroine, but rather in one who would have insight into its possibilities. In this sense, Emily is idealized and the reader can only appreciate her as an abstraction.
And if the novel had ended here, it would have been fine indeed. Instead, a romantic suspense sub-plot intensifies and works towards resolving the hero’s guilt-ridden torment. Melodrama ensues and it all feels pretty romance-ordinary. If Balogh were still writing trads, Silent Melody could have been a tight, intense romance, à la The Notorious Rake. Instead, it’s overblown to a extra third of dubious melodrama, including a sword fight that consisted of a morally ambiguous action on the hero’s part. And yet, despite, all is well and there’s a wedding and a baby …