Before the demise of my inner self, I’d been thinking a lot lately about my personal canon—I don’t know what else to call it, haha, so that lofty phrase will have to do for now. It naturally spans genres; for romance novels, the book that immediately comes to mind is Jude Deveraux’s The Duchess, which holds the dubious honor of being the first romance novel I ever read. There’s also Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Kiss An Angel, which I read in high school and after a very long break from reading the genre. (I’d reread that so many times, my borrowed copy fell apart on me.) But there’s definitely a lot more historical romance novels in my canon—it is, after all, the subgenre I love the best, the subgenre I read more than any other. (Fine: It’s pretty much all I read.) So it’s all just, I think, a matter of figuring out which books those are. And I might as well start on it, right?
Mary Balogh is one of my go-to authors, pretty much an auto-buy. I’ve been reading a lot of the more recent books in her backlist, and then some of the reissues from the eighties and early nineties, as well as keeping an eye out for her new releases. [Sidenote: Local bookstores had been very diligent re stocking her books, but I’ve noticed that her most recent ones haven’t shown up at all. No, I haven’t spent the past couple of months panicking about this, nope.] I just really like how she writes. I like the grace with which she tells her stories. I like how they can seem so calm and quiet, even when emotions are running high. I like how volatile they can be, if she lets them.
And I’ve thought back to the first Baloghs I ever read, the Bedwyn saga—six books about high society misfits, with lots of brooding and lots of angst and lots of marrying beneath their station. I read those books in the span of a week, and I think it was during a break in my freshman year in college. They were bootleg copies, and I would spend the afternoons lounging on my bed back at home, my belly uncomfortably warm from my prehistoric hand-me-down laptop. Those books, unbeknownst to me then, would establish my deep (and obviously lasting) ardor for historical romances. They helped me realize that Regencies, that the ballgowns and the cravats, the stifling social conventions—they were my jam.
In the first six books, Wulfric Bedwyn, the head of the family as the Duke of Bewcastle, was a constant presence. He was forbidding, he was cold, he took his duty seriously. Every Bedwyn spouse had to pass his muster; a good portion of the Bedwyns themselves butted heads with Wulfric. And Balogh always seemed to have a keener fous on him whenever he came on the page—it effectively built up the anticipation, it made sure that we were invested in Wulfric long before his own book ever made it to the shelves. It was genius, really—it was my first (and, so far, the strongest) wanting of a-book-of-their-own.
Wulfric’s story, Slightly Dangerous, features a heroine that manages to both make the least amount of sense and seem like the best choice of heroine, ever. Christine Derrick is a widower, plain and provincial, comfortable with herself, careless and comfortable with how her manners don’t quite jive with the ton. She’s warm and she’s bubbly, without ever becoming saccharine. She’s got a good head on her shoulders, she’s sensible—without ever becoming dour or boring. She pokes fun at Wulfric, too, how dare she. I absolutely loved her.
It’s also got one of my favorite tropes—one that, sadly, I haven’t encountered much: The hero and the heroine understand their attraction for each other, but set it aside in favor of a tense friendship. Good lord, the tension—the unsaid!—in certain scenes. I kept making embarrassing noises, as they were called for.
Also: Rereading recalls the good bits of hurt, too. Because these two are so in denial—so willfully with it!—when they relent a little, it bowls you over. I love how Wulfric, without dropping his cold demeanor, lets loose a baldly stated compliment, a word of affection. And I loved how Wulfric lets himself go. There was this scene that I kept returning to, over and over—when Wulfric tells Christine, “I am a man as well as a duke, Mrs. Derrick.”
She wished she had not said that. She felt as if a giant fist had caught her a blow in her abdomen, robbing her of all breath and strength in her legs.
“I know.” She was whispering. She cleared her throat. “I know.”
Slightly Dangerous is of two very sensible adults, very much attracted to each other, very much aware of how far they’re willing to satiate their wanting. They’re two adults, too, with the necessary barricades around their hearts—and seeing them ease up, seeing them let a little of their control go—it’s so satisfying.
Also: Wulfric is often described as cold, and often very nearly heartlessly to his face— on the assumption, of course, that he won’t feel emotionally slighted. What I’ve realized in the reread—and having read my fair share of unfeeling and ruthless heroes—is that Wulfric’s coldness is just that: He’s a little too formal, a little too forbidding, rather unapproachable. He appears cold, fine, and he has such superior control over himself that the coldness runs a little deeper than it should. But that’s it. I’ve read so many menacing alpha heroes, all broody and schemey and dangerous underneath their coldness, that a hero who’s just cold, a hero who just isn’t that expressive or even sympathetic because of the burden of his station—it was so simple, so refreshing.
So, there. Balogh, in my personal canon—this book, most especially. Wulfric Bedwyn in my pantheon (hah) of fictional males—that terse and tense confession scene among the most memorable knocking about in my noggin. It was bound to happen, really. (And is it odd that I can’t wait to reread this?)