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REVIEW: The Wood Nymph by Mary Balogh

WARNING: This review of The Wood Nymph contains major spoilers for that book’s prequel, A Chance Encounter. If you plan to read A Chance Encounter and do not like spoilers, you may prefer not to read this review.

The Wood NymphDear Ms. Balogh,

Recently I reviewed one of your older traditional regencies, A Chance Encounter. I enjoyed that book immensely, especially considering that it is a quarter century old, so much so that shortly after finishing it, I dug up its sequel, which had been lingering on my TBR shelf for a few years.

The Wood Nymph was published by the Signet Regency line back in January of 1987. It is a hard-to-find, out-of-print book, and now that some of your older books are being reprinted, I hope that it will find its way back to print as well.

The novel opens with a scene in which the Countess of Claymore is discussing with her three daughters the arrival of an eligible bachelor in the neighborhood. Emily, the oldest daughter, is haughty and dignified, focused on the “superior tone” that Mr. William Mainwaring’s presence will add to the neighborhood. Melissa, the middle daughter, is superficial, and therefore more concerned with Mr. Mainwaring’s wealth and appearance. But Helen, the youngest daughter, isn’t concerned with Mr. Mainwaring at all. Instead, she is daydreaming and longing to return to her special place in the woods.

She had not been to her private place there for three whole days, and she was beginning to chafe against the restrictions of home. She knew that Emily was right. She was a grown woman now, and she should be taking an interest in the activities of womanhood. She should be interested in her appearance and in visiting and attending all the social activities that rural living could not offer. She should be interested in finding an eligible husband. She should be joining wholeheartedly in the feminine chatter of her mother and her older sisters. But, oh, she could not.

Her own world, the one she had built up through the years of her girlhood, was still far more attractive to her than she could imagine the real world ever being. Reading and painting and writing could still inspire her with more passion than the prospect of a new gown or ball. And sitting and gazing at nature around her was infinitely more exciting than sitting in the drawing room listening to the polite conversation of her family and the current visitors. She found it all painfully boring and unsatisfying. If matters were left to her, they would never either visit or entertain.

And that is Helen in a nutshell, at least in the beginning of the book. An idealistic and artistic girl, she is viewed as a little strange by some in her community. When William Mainwaring comes to call on her family, she sneaks away to her spot in the woods, which happens to be just over the boundary between her father’s property and William’s. And so William doesn’t meet Lady Helen Wade that day.

William is still suffering over the loss of Elizabeth in A Chance Encounter, and he does not believe he can ever love anyone else. But one day, after receiving a letter from Robert and Elizabeth in which they attempt to renew their friendship with him, and feeling the need for solitude as a consequence, he walks to a corner of his woods and discovers Helen. She is barefoot and dressed in an old, shapeless, too-short dress that she has changed into for comfort, so William does not realize who she is. Helen is startled when she becomes aware of his presence:

A man was leaning one shoulder against a tree some distance away, arms folded, watching her. She knew at a glance that he was Mr. Mainwaring. This was his land, after all, and one could hardly expect to find another strange and fashionable young man wandering in this particular area, especially when the young man was tall and dark. Yes, and handsome. Melly had been quite right. Helen did not move. She just continued to look.

Helen could feel her face flushing. She felt horribly embarrassed to be caught thus, in this position and in these clothes. She, Lady Helen Wade!

“Is it a wood nymph?” he asked. “Or is it human?”

“Oh,” she said, and rolled over onto her knees. “you did startle me. I thought you were a wild boar at the very least.” In self-protection, almost without realizing she did so, she used the North Country accent that the servants always used, instead of talking in her own voice.

When William assumes she is a commoner and then asks her name, in her shyness, Helen introduces herself as Nell. The conversation that follows is a novelty for both Helen and William; Helen because instead of dismissing her imaginative musings on nature, William shares her feelings about it, and William because the pretty little “wood nymph” distracts him from his broken heart. He makes “Nell” a gift of a nearby little hut on his property, and agrees not to go inside it. Little does he know that this is the place where Helen keeps her regular clothing and poetry books.

William and Helen meet again in the same place, and from their intuitive understanding of each other, an attraction blossoms. They begin to express their feelings sexually. Although Helen is nineteen and William thirty-one, both are virgins, and neither entirely realizes what it is that is happening between them.

Afterward, William feels guilty for having taken advantage of a poor village girl, and Helen for concealing her true identity from William. Helen’s sister, Melissa, has meanwhile maneuvered William into the beginnings of a courtship. William, in his ignorance of Helen’s real status in society, is both guilt-ridden and grateful for the respite “Nell” has given him from his broken heart, and sees their connection as one of physical affection. Helen though, recognizes that she has deeper feelings.

I don’t want to give away where things go from there, but suffice to say that both Helen and William make some very unwise choices, and in the case of Helen, she continues to make them almost until the last page. The two spend more time apart than together, and the relationship gets into a holding pattern in the middle of the book. The plot calls for Helen to make decisions that might have been difficult for me to comprehend in a girl of her background and era, if not for the way her character is established early on in the story.

And in the end, that is what makes this book work for me despite all the aforementioned flaws: character. It is especially interesting to compare Helen with Elizabeth, the heroine of A Chance Encounter, who also plays a signficant role in this book. Where Elizabeth was mature, self-contained, socially adept, wry and observant, Helen is much younger, idealistic and dreamy, sometimes given to forgetting her surroundings, often socially inept, passionate and occasionally prone to misjudging others.

Had Helen been a few years older, I would have been less forgiving of some of her bad decisions, but her youth and her painful experience of first love made it possible for me to understand her and in some parts of the story, even to empathize deeply.

William is more mature, but he too has a kind of innocence that, combined with his focus on his loss of Elizabeth, leads him to make some serious mistakes. I would strongly recommend reading A Chance Encounter first, since I think without reading that book, one of William’s choices would be harder to understand and sympathize with. Nevertheless, I loved the way you portrayed William’s confusion over his feelings for both Elizabeth and Helen, and later, his determination to make up for his errors. I also enjoyed seeing Robert and Elizabeth again.

Finally, this is not a book about two idealized characters, but rather, about real people with real blind spots and weaknesses, people who have to go through some growing pains before they can resolve their problems. Like many of your books, The Wood Nymph requires tolerance on the reader’s part. In the end, I was left with some doubts about Helen’s maturity, but I felt that she and William suited each other well and that I could envision them continuing their growth together. B- for The Wood Nymph.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

20 Comments

  1. Jennie
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 17:35:51

    You know, if I’ve read this one, I really don’t remember it. I may have to seek it out – it sounds good!

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  2. Janine
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 17:40:05

    @Jennie: I enjoyed it, but it’s definitely not one that everyone loves. You have to have some tolerance for the heroine’s immaturity. If she had been 29, it wouldn’t have worked for me but it did because she was only 19.

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  3. Kaetrin
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 20:10:26

    I don’t remember reading this one. I thought I had managed to pick up most of Mary Balogh’s backlist but I think I missed this one. Tragedy! I will be eagerly searching for this one to add to my collection – the first part especially, sounds delightful.

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  4. Susan/DC
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 20:12:16

    When I first tried to read this book, it was a DNF. When compared to Elizabeth, Helen came up short in every way. I made myself finish the book in time for this review (thank you very much for providing the incentive) and found myself more forgiving. However, those things that made one forgive Helen’s mistakes — her youth and her dreaminess — also were the factors that caused me problems. It’s just not romantic when I find myself impatient with the heroine and identifying more with the her mother (even realizing that her parents most definitely did not understand her). I know we are supposed to view Helen’s otherworldliness as part of her artistic nature, but sometimes it bordered on the kind of egotism that is found in the very young. One of the main jobs parents have is to help their children overcome this natural tendency toward self-centeredness. Having seen it in my own children and been very happy (and grateful) when they outgrew it, I did not find it attractive. Helen’s inability to even play the part of a grown-up, as when she is so rude to Elizabeth at the party, was rather offputting to me.

    William too, although 31, has had so little life experience that he exhibits a certain immaturity and he runs away from his problems rather than confront them. When he becomes self-aware enough to realize that he must mend his ways, he exhibits believable growth. As you mention, Balogh created significant character arcs for both Helen and William, but (again) it works against the romance that they are together for so little of this journey. Helen especially has so far to go and we see her as an adult for such a short time. I want to believe in the HEA for them, I have no reason to believe they won’t achieve it, I wish them well, but Helen still falls far short of Elizabeth as a heroine.

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  5. Janine
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 20:14:58

    @Kaetrin: The first part was probably my favorite section of the book. I definitely think it is worth reading, but since not everyone I know loves it, I wouldn’t advise paying the $35 it runs for on Amazon unless you are a die hard Balogh fan. I hope it is reprinted eventually.

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  6. Janine
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 20:39:14

    @Susan/DC: I agree that Helen doesn’t match Elizabeth as a heroine. I loved Elizabeth, whereas Helen was a character I enjoyed reading about but didn’t necessarily love the same way.

    For me, Elizabeth is one of Balogh’s best heroines. Helen doesn’t stand out as being equally sympathetic or charming, but I was still riveted by her story, perhaps because I wanted to see how such a challenging conflict could possibly be resolved.

    I also agree that William, too, has some immaturity issues, yet strangely, that was what gave me hope for the two of them as a couple. He had insight into Helen’s thought process because of his own lack of life experience, and I could imagine that commonality assisting in a mutual growth process.

    As I said, it’s definitely not a book about two idealized characters. It’s more of a “warts and all” story. I understand why not everyone loves it, even though it worked for me. And I agree that A Chance Encounter is a better book.

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  7. dick
    Apr 02, 2010 @ 08:46:59

    When I first stumbled into reading romance, I read many times about Balogh’s trads being the sine qua non of what a trad and a romance should be. Eventually, I read them and had great difficulty understanding why they were considered romances, even though they follow the recipe. As this reviewer suggested, they are more like character studies than romances; when a reader should be convinced that the HEA has been justified, there is often great doubt. In fact, it is as if the author steps in and forces the HEA on the h/h, simply ignoring everything that has gone before. They’re worth reading, because the insight and compassion of the author towards otherwise rather unlikeable characters compels one to read to the end to see the finished portrait. Sometimes that protrait remains disappointing.

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  8. Ariel/Sycorax Pine
    Apr 02, 2010 @ 09:56:52

    This is so intriguing, especially since just yesterday I was teaching my students about the concept of a “green world,” a zone to which literary characters flee from the orderly oppressions of city, family, and law; usually it is represented as woods, a natural world in which you can play games with your identity, experiment, toy with chaos, undermine all the normal rules of human behavior. But the crucial thing about a “green zone” is this: no one can live there forever. It is a place of transformation; after you are transformed, you bring those changes back into the “real world” of law, order, family, society. (“Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the classic case; we were studying the green world of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant new play, “Jerusalem”). So your description of this novel *absolutely* resonated with this. I am going to have to rustle up a copy of “A Change Encounter.”

    (I also love dick’s point about the uncomfortable way Balogh’s work sometimes fits within the romance genre – I have only read three of her novels so far, I think, but I can definitely see that at work.)

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  9. Susan/DC
    Apr 02, 2010 @ 11:01:19

    Ariel, what an interesting construct! Do you teach it as an aspect or subset of bildungsroman or as something entirely separate? May I come to your class (far more interesting than what I’m working on today at my office).

    I think dick has a point about how Balogh’s work sometimes subverts the standard romance tropes, but where he finds that undermines the romance I often find that it is exactly why her books are favorites and why I do believe in the possibility of the happily ever after. He finds many, if not most, of her characters unpleasant and/or depressing. I, OTOH, count a number of Balogh’s works among my favorites and my most frequent rereads. A definite example of different tastes, although we probably agree about “The Wood Nymph”. I could accept that Helen was young, it was when she acted like a spoiled 6 year-old (13, if I’m generous) that I had problems with the book and with her.

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  10. Ariel/Sycorax Pine
    Apr 02, 2010 @ 11:31:19

    Alas, I almost never get a chance to teach novels, so I hadn’t even considered it as a facet of the bildungsroman. Fascinating. From a drama/theatre scholar’s point-of-view it tends to come up in the context of ritual performances of identity, rites of passages, and theatre’s role in standing in for those social moments of performance. So in other words, the theatre itself is a bit of a “green zone.”

    But it is also (and this is what seems to tie “The Wood Nymph” and a play like “Jerusalem” together in one long literary tradition) key to the idea of pastoral Englishness. Cosmopolitan restraint and self-control is only one half of our conception of what it means to be English. The other half is a sort of rural wildness that is the antithesis of restraint. Hence all those great house parties in romances. What happens in the country (or at the country house), stays in the country. Or so everyone would like to believe. Green worlds never leave you completely unscathed.

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  11. Susan/DC
    Apr 02, 2010 @ 13:26:29

    @Ariel, When I think of the contrasting traditions of restraint and wildness I think of “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” in Wind in the Willows. Rat and Mole are such civilized English gentlemen, but every so often the “green world” breaks through, as it does in this chapter.

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  12. Janine
    Apr 02, 2010 @ 14:49:58

    @dick: I don’t necessarily agree that it’s true of most of Balogh’s regencies, but in this case, and even in A Chance Encounter, I enjoyed the character development aspect more than the development of the romantic relationship. I think the romance was secondary to the exploration of character in both books, but as you say, that doesn’t mean these books aren’t worth reading. For me, they were both satisfying although A Chance Encounter was more so.

    @Ariel/Sycorax Pine: The idea of the “green world” is fascinating. I think The Wood Nymph probably portrays it more than many of Balogh’s other books, but it is noteworthy, I think, that even in her others she often has the characters making love outdoors, in the natural world, and then being returned to reality when they enter drawing rooms again. Slightly Dangerous is a good example of that, and one of her most popular books, too.

    @Susan/DC: Agree with you that Balogh’s subversion of romance tropes is part of what makes her books satisfying to me.

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  13. dick
    Apr 04, 2010 @ 09:55:16

    Not all of the trads, certainly, but a number of them are records of misery in my opinion. I’m thinking particularly of those often named favorites, such as “Dancing with Clara,” “Tempting Harriet,” of the extended treatments such as “The Web of Love” and “The Gilded Web” all of which leave a reader–this one at least–both doubtful and a bit depressed, which subverts one of the most appealing aspects of romance fiction.

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  14. Janine
    Apr 04, 2010 @ 12:30:34

    @dick: I haven’t read the Web books, and Tempting Harriet was problematic for me, but I loved Dancing with Clara. The fact that the happy ending was so hard-won in that book was part of what made the story so moving and satisfying for me.

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  15. Janet W
    Apr 04, 2010 @ 15:11:22

    I was so lucky (I am so lucky!) … a member of the MaryBalogh yahoo group lent me Wood Nymph. I gobbled it and now have to re-read it more slowly to accompany your review.

    But I have to ask: why was Tempting Harriet problematic for you? Was it because like The Snow Angel and Christmas Belle, it took the bravery of the “other” woman (or should I say putative fiancee) to end one relationship to allow way to open for the true romance? Because I am crazy about Tempting Harriet: one of my top ten Baloghs I think!

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  16. Janine
    Apr 04, 2010 @ 16:31:27

    @Janet W:

    But I have to ask: why was Tempting Harriet problematic for you? Was it because like The Snow Angel and Christmas Belle, it took the bravery of the “other” woman (or should I say putative fiancee) to end one relationship to allow way to open for the true romance?

    No, that wasn’t the reason. I didn’t even get that far in the story. My problem was that there was so much shame around the premarital sex, especially for Harriet. Balogh did such an effective job of conveying Harriet’s anguish that it was difficult to keep reading and I finally put the book down. Maybe someday I will try it again, though.

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  17. Janet W
    Apr 05, 2010 @ 12:20:23

    Me again. Are we talking about the same book? Harriet did anguish — and ultimately rejected — the duke’s invitation to become his mistress back when she was Clara’s companion. In “her” book though, I wouldn’t describe what she was doing as “premarital sex”: she was a wealthy widow, the duke was unmarried as well: they choose to have an affair. The guilt, I thought, was over the fact that their bodies were joining but neither would allow their hearts to come into play and I think guilt is not the right word. Love to hear what others think.

    By the way, have you read Snow Angel and/or Christmas Belle and how did you like how Balogh resolved things? I felt there was perhaps a tad too much deus machina (if that’s the spelling but I know what I mean!)

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  18. Janine
    Apr 05, 2010 @ 14:16:05

    @Janet W: YMMV, but I felt that the reason Harriet and Archie’s hearts were not in it at first was because they both felt there was something wrong in what they were doing.

    Re. Christmas Belle it’s been a long time since I read it and I don’t remember how it was resolved anymore.

    Was Snow Angel the one where the woman the hero was supposed to marry fell in love with another guy? If so, I didn’t mind that too much, because, although it was a bit convenient, it allowed the hero to keep his honor. I loved the conflict between duty and romantic love in that book, though again, it’s been several years since I’ve read it. I would love to reread it sometime, but I always feel compelled to read newer books because of reviewing for DA.

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  19. tara
    Apr 14, 2010 @ 06:25:54

    Too often the heroine becomes best friends with the heroine of the previous book in a series.One of the best things that I liked about the book is that Helen and Elizabeth did not become friends immediately .And I could understand why Helen was rude to Elizabeth.Elizabeth comes across as a bit too perfect.She’s beautiful,married to a loving husband and a success in society.Helen does not know her story.It is described that Helen was not looking her best at the party.She had put on weight,her mom had dressed her in an unbecoming frock and there was William the cause of all her troubles admiring Elizabeth.She was obviously feeling jealous.Forgivable given the circumstances.

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  20. Janine
    Apr 14, 2010 @ 12:53:47

    @tara: You make a good point, Tara. Characters from one book are almost always friends with those from the sequel. Helen’s rudeness to Elizabeth was prompted by feelings of insecurity and I understood it but I thought it was also a sign of immaturity. I was more sympathetic to Elizabeth, because I had liked her so much in A Chance Encounter. But still, I agree that the tension between Elizabeth and Helen was refreshing.

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