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REVIEW: The Famous Heroine by Mary Balogh

Dear Ms. Balogh,

Who knew you could be this funny?

Cora Downes is the titular heroine of this 1996 book, now being rereleased in a 2-in-1 volume with The Plumed Bonnet, as well as (to borrow a phrase from the back cover copy on my old Signet edition) a fish out of water in London society.

The Famous Heroine Mary BaloghCora is the daughter of a very wealthy merchant, and when she saves a duke’s young heir from drowning, the child’s grateful grandmother, the Duchess of Bridgewater, asks Cora to allow her to convey her thanks by bringing Cora to London for a season. The duchess wants to help Cora snag a gentleman for a husband, and Cora, excited by the prospect of hobnobbing with the ton, agrees.

Trouble is that farce is Cora’s close companion. The child she “saved” from drowning, for example, was perfectly capable of swimming on his own. At her first London ball, Cora, at the insistence of one of the duchess’s daughters, wears slippers a size too small. Just when she is about to be introduced to Lord Francis Kneller, Cora trips over her pinched feet so that Francis has to catch her in his arms. Thus begins an unlikely friendship.

Lord Francis Kneller was the main reason I wanted to read this book. Francis appeared in the prequel, Lord Carew’s Bride, where he was one of society beauty Samantha Newman’s many male friends. Elegant and dapper, Francis was stunned when Samantha, who had chosen to remain unmarried for years, announced that she was marrying the plain Marquess of Carew. That was the only occasion on which Francis blurted out his feelings for Samantha. But when he realized she loved Carew, he not only pretended to have feigned his upset, but acted as Carew’s second when Carew defended his wife’s honor.

Now Samantha is expecting a child with Carew, and the lovelorn Francis is depressed. When his friend the Duke of Bridgewater asks Francis to dance with Miss Cora Downes in order to aid her acceptance by society, Francis, who is considered a discerning trend-setter for the courting of society beauties, agrees.

But Cora does not realize how sought-after a suitor Francis is. And because he wears a turquoise coat, Cora thinks of him as a peacock. She quickly comes to like Francis, but his love of wearing colors like lavender, lemon, puce and pink, and something that her brother once told her about men who dress this way, cause Cora to jump to the conclusion that Francis must be gay.

This then, is a friends-to-lovers story with a twist. Francis and Cora each delight in the other’s company, but neither of them believes there could ever be anything romantic between them, and not just because Francis’s birth is higher than that of any man whom Cora could hope to marry. Francis believes himself in love with Samantha, and Cora thinks of Francis as a man who doesn’t swing that way.

And yet, even as they believe that they could never do so, they both fall in love. It is a delight to watch their friendship bloom because these two know how to be honest with each other and how to make one another laugh, and because it is clear that they are both good for each other.

Whether Cora is unable to dance any more due to her too-small slippers, whether she’s jumping out of Francis’s phaeton to try and save poodles from being trampled by a horse, or whether she fears she will pass out on being introduced to Prinny, Lord Francis is always there in the nick of time.

And whether Francis is feeling down in the doldrums due to his loss of Samantha or merely bored with the fashionable world, Miss Downes and her latest escapade is always the best medicine for his melancholy or ennui. Whether it’s poodles being saved or a child’s hat being chased, how can Francis resist Cora any better than he can a turquoise coat?

Both characters are charming. Francis is an interesting mixture of cynical and gallant, perceptive and able to laugh at Cora’s foibles. His bright coats signal that he is secure enough in himself to thumb his nose at what others think, which makes him perfect for the quirky Cora.

Cora is klutzy and occasionally clueless, but her impulse toward heroism stems from empathy and she is self-aware and able to laugh at herself. She is terrified of dukes and royalty, but is the kind of person who would not hesitate to throw herself in the path of a carriage to save a kitten. Her bravery and her gallantry, misguided though they are, along with her ability to see the humor in her mistakes, make her loveable and delightful.

The theme that appearances can be deceiving, a central one to many of your books, lends The Famous Heroine both humor and heart. When Cora learns that gay men can just as easily dress in sober colors and be big and brawny, she is embarrassed by her thoughtless stereotyping. But Cora herself is in danger of being stereotyped for her own tall, voluptuous appearance. And Francis, whose first thought on seeing her was that she belongs in a green room, greeting would-be “protectors,” grows genuinely protective of Cora.

There is also an entertaining role-reversal in that Cora is, in her way, just as protective of her friend Francis. If someone wants to impugn the way he dresses, Cora thinks, “just let them” and she will show that person a thing or two. And Francis has much the same thoughts about anyone who would in any way trespass against Cora.

There is a deliberate silliness to this book, with elements of farce, screwball comedy and even a little slapstick. Occasionally the balance tips in the wrong direction and it is hard to take Cora and Francis seriously as a romantic couple, especially since it takes Francis too long to realize that he is over Samantha. And yet, at other times, there is an underlying poignancy to this story of two vulnerable people who shelter each other from harm, and it is easy to see why Cora and Francis charm one another so much.

As I was reading The Famous Heroine, I thought about the nature of bravery and heroism, about the way appearances and quick judgments can mislead, and about the role that loyalty and friendship play in romantic relationships. I also laughed my head off several times. B+ for The Famous Heroine.

Sincerely,

Janine Ballard

Note: The Famous Heroine was reprinted in a duet with The Plumed Bonnet which is not a recommended read. The buy links are for the book that is widely available. The Famous Heroine was originally published by Signet in 1996 and it’s 10 digit ISBN is 0451187733.

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Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. 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.

39 Comments

  1. sarah mayberry
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 14:52:23

    Yayyyyy! A “new” Balogh. Am off to buy. She’s such a consistently good writer, and so emotional. The Secret Pearl is one of my favourite re-reads.

  2. DM
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 15:00:09

    This is one of my old favorites. Glad to see it available again. Balogh’s best stuff reminds me why we became so addicted to Regencies in the first place.

  3. Janet W
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 15:10:12

    Why is The Plumed Bonnet not a recommended read? I adore it — and think the quiet revelation of the heroine’s emergence into the woman she was meant to be is one of Balogh’s best portraits. Also, the reader’s ability to “think along” with the duke’s first impression of the ladybird he picks up at the side of the road is a real treat. My opinion of course. I agree with you, Cora and Francis are quite delightful and Balogh allows you to fall in love with them all over again in Christmas Bride (Gerald and Priscilla are in that one too).

    Balogh’s humour is a quiet theme throughout her books — say in a book like The Ungrateful Governess or more overtly, in An Unlikely Duchess. It’s usually subtle rather than slapstick. She can be quite surprising.

  4. Janine
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 15:52:36

    @sarah mayberry: I enjoy her older books especially. Even the flawed ones are so thought-provoking.

    @DM: I only read The Famous Heroine recently, but I agree, it’s wonderful to see those older books made available.

    @Janet W: I didn’t recommend The Plumed Bonnet because I haven’t read it yet (had to skim your post to avoid spoilers). We can’t recommend books we haven’t read!

    I believe Sunita has read The Plumed Bonnet though and while I think she liked it, she didn’t like it quite enough to recommend it for DA Recommends. I don’t know her criteria, but for me, a book has to be at least a B+ to get that rating.

  5. Mandi
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 16:25:51

    I’m going to have to pull this one out again. I adore this book and haven’t thought about it in a long time. Nice to see they are rereleasing it :)

  6. Janine
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 17:04:05

    @Mandi: Glad to hear you enjoyed it too. I hope all her out of print books are rereleased.

  7. Manda Collins
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 17:04:42

    This is one of my all time favorite romances–not just by Balogh but by anyone. The humor is one of the things I miss most about Regency trads. I wish she would employ her sense of humor more often.

  8. Janine
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 17:07:00

    @Manda Collins: Agreed. I think Balogh has a great touch with humor (the scene with the poodles was a riot) and while I also love her angsty books, it would be great to see more funnier reads from her.

  9. Sunita
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 17:21:50

    @Janet W: I’ve read The Plumed Bonnet a couple of times, but the last was quite a while ago, and while I liked it, it was my least favorite of the series. I thought it was too reminiscent of bits of other, better Balogh novels. I liked it better the second time than the first, but I didn’t have time to read it again to evaluate it as a recommended read.

    So Janine’s comment isn’t intended to suggest that it couldn’t be a recommended read, but that we weren’t sure enough that it was to give it that designation.

  10. Janine
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 17:31:37

    @Sunita: Thanks for clarifying.

    So Janine’s comment isn’t intended to suggest that it couldn’t be a recommended read, but that we weren’t sure enough that it was to give it that designation.

    It was actually Jane who added that note at the bottom of my post.

  11. Sunita
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 17:39:28

    @Janine: Oops, thanks for the clarification.

  12. Kim
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 18:24:12

    I’ve read all her full-length books, but only a few of her early Signets. At first it was becausr the were OOP, but with the reissues, I’ll have to purchase a few.

  13. DM
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 18:35:48

    @Janine

    I can’t claim to have read it when it first came out, but I glommed Balogh’s backlist a couple of years ago when I started to feel real Regency fatigue, and it was a revelation. A lot of single title Regencies feel padded to me, but these old category books usually feel like they are just the right length for their story. And because the situations and settings are familiar, the story can focus tightly on the characters and the romance–which works in a read around 50K words.

    It’s when those familiar situations are stretched to 80k to 100k that I feel like the Regency setting starts to look a little thin. I begin to scratch my head and say: what exactly is so fascinating about this world? When we’re tight on the characters’ very personal struggle to find happiness, the Regency world is a great, familiar, fade into the background setting–but the obstacles to happiness in that setting–particularly the “scandal” and “society” stuff can feel slight to me after a while–especially when it’s drawn out over a longer read. At some point I’ll say: really, get over yourself. There are millions of people on the planet who are not part of the ton and among whom you could make a meaningful life with your unconventional partner.

    But Balogh has a real knack for making this stuff work!

  14. Ros
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 18:37:12

    Oh, this sounds adorable. Thanks for the recommendation.

  15. Ros
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 18:40:55

    Oh, poo, it’s not on Kindle. No instant gratification for me.

  16. GrowlyCub
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 18:50:09

    Janine, whatever you do, do not read The Christmas Bride, because you’d hate the depiction of Cora in that one. At least I did…

  17. Sunita
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 18:52:20

    @GrowlyCub How funny, this is really a case of horses for courses. I love The Christmas Bride. Granted, Cora is a bit caricatured in it, but she’s still Cora. And Francis is sweet.

  18. Janet W
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 19:06:21

    Aren’t you funny Sunita: “horses for courses” since of course I agree with you — I thought Christmas Bride was a lovely ending to the series and it really wrapped up two separate sets of united books. But we’re all different in our tastes, aren’t we?

    For folks who aren’t sure whether or not The Plumed Bonnet is a worthy read, Rosario gave it a B+ a while back: she’s quite a Balogh expert, both her back-back list and her more recent standalones.
    http://rosario.blogspot.com/2005/03/plumed-bonnet-by-mary-balogh.html

  19. GrowlyCub
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 19:15:30

    @Ros:

    There is a kindle edition of the combo Plumed Bonnet/Famous Heroine for $7.99 on Amazon

    ETA: If you are in the US, that is…

  20. Susan/DC
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 20:34:55

    If you are looking for humor in a Mary Balogh, I recommend “Lady with a Black Umbrella”. I liked Daisy, especially after she gives her impression of “The Merchant of Venice” (the first Shakespeare play she’s ever seen) during the intermission.

  21. Ros
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 20:52:38

    @GrowlyCub: Sadly, there isn’t a UK one.

  22. GrowlyCub
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 21:09:43

    @Sunita: You thought Francis is sweet in it? Wow, really different strokes! Cora is portrayed as a shrill clown and Francis as condescending and long-suffering and I *hated* the ending because it ruined ‘A Precious Jewel’ with its fake ‘oh, we welcome her in society because she just did what she had to’ rainbow coming out of a unicorn’s ass implausibility.

    Ehm, yes, I *do* indeed feel rather strongly about that book. Which is extra sad because I loved Edgar and Helena as characters.

  23. Sunita
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 21:31:29

    @GrowlyCub I can totally see why the ending was so unsatisfactory and annoying to you, because it is quite implausible. I swallowed it as part of the Christmas setting make-believe, but yes, it goes against the implicit message of Precious Jewel.

    I still liked Francis in it; I read his long-suffering aspect as old-married-spouse rather than condescending.

    There are a few Balogh Christmas stories which have this OTT holiday feel. Sometimes they work for me, sometimes not.

  24. GrowlyCub
    Nov 09, 2011 @ 22:09:48

    @Sunita: Yeah, I’ve learned to stay away from the Christmas themed books because I just can’t stand the over the top sweetness, in hers or other authors’ books (with the possible exception of the novella The Wassail Bowl, maybe :).

    I felt really insulted on Cora’s behalf and that may very well have bled into how I see Francis’ behavior. I just couldn’t figure out why Balogh would turn Cora from klutzy and loud, but lovable, into a horrid, clownish caricature whom nobody in their sane mind could love or tolerate.

  25. Kaetrin
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 00:39:21

    I loved this one and The Christmas Bride too. I actually read TCB first so it was nice to read TFH and get a more sympathetic view of Cora. I haven’t read all of the older Baloghs – so far the ones they’ve reprinted are ones I already have, but I figure that eventually they will all be available again (hooray!).

    My favourite of her Regencies is still The Notorious Rake but there are many that are very very good IMO.

  26. Junne
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 03:21:46

    I love this one but my fave in the series is still Lord Carew’s bride.

    LCB has, in my opinion, the best hero evah: he’s sweet, open-minded, caring,doesn’t keep a grudge, and actually grovels when he does something wrong ( even though his behaviour was a bit justified).
    And Samantha, his heroine, is perfect for him, not shrewish or disagreeable ( I often find that beta heroes are paired with unlikeable heroines, which is not the case at all here).

    Sorry for the digression about another book but I wanted to convey my love for this one :/

  27. GrowlyCub
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 06:15:07

    @Kaetrin: @Junne: I love The Notorious Rake and Lord Carew’s Bride, as well as A Precious Jewel and The Secret Pearl and Snow Angel and The Counterfeit Betrothal.

    When she’s good, she just fab… :)

  28. Janine
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 12:33:08

    @Sunita: No problem.

    @Kim: I prefer her Signets to her more recent work, but I find that those earlier works are usually more angsty and emotional. The Famous Heroine is something of an exception.

    @DM: Interesting comment. Some longer regencies do feel slight, but I can think of others that feel fleshed out at over 80K. For example Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. So I suspect it’s not just a setting issue.

    @Ros: What a shame!

    @GrowlyCub: I expect I will read Christmas Bride eventually because after A Precious Jewel, I’m curious about Helena, but I’ll keep your warning in mind and try to lower my expectations going into it.

    @Susan/DC: I have Lady with a Black Umbrella TBR and will look forward to reading it when I have the opportunity. I think someone else commented (on one of our older Balogh threads) that Lady with a Black Umbrella was her favorite.

    @Sunita & @GrowlyCub: I haven’t gotten around to Christmas Bride yet but I have read Christmas Belle, Christmas Beau and Christmas Promise, and my favorite of these is Christmas Promise. For me the focus on death and grieving helps to counterbalance the Holiday sentiment.

    @Kaetrin: Sorry to hear (from you and Growly) that Cora is less sympathetic in TCB. I liked her so much in The Famous Heroine.

    @Junne: I haven’t finished the series yet but my favorite among the first three is Dark Angel.

    I recently reread Lord Carew’s Bride and enjoyed it a bit better than I did the first time. I’m not entirely comfortable with Carew’s initial view of himself, especially in light of his disability. But this time around, it seemed like it had a lot to do with the way his father had viewed him as a child. I’m not sure how much I picked up on that the first time.

    Samantha is a wonderful character, one of my favorite Balogh heroines. My all time favorite though is Elizabeth from A Chance Encounter.

    @GrowlyCub: I think I must be the only fan of Balogh’s trads who doesn’t adore The Notorious Rake.

  29. GrowlyCub
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 13:06:35

    @Janine: Janine, TNR had to grow on me, same as Snow Angel. They weren’t on my original list of gotta-have Baloghs, but somehow, sneakily they inveigled their way in. :)

  30. etv13
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 17:23:17

    @GrowlyCub & Sunita: My problem with the Gerald/Priscilla parts of Christmas Bride wasn’t so much their acceptance at the party, but the way they talk. They don’t sound like themselves, or like any reasonable development of the characters they were in Precious Jewel. Also, they sound anachronistic in a way they didn’t in Precious Jewel.

    Plus, I don’t actually buy that she really had to do it to survive. I think it just seemed like a better choice at the time than being a shop girl, kitchen maid, or living on her former governess’s charity. (Even if she couldn’t get a job in somebody else’s household, surely she could have worked for the governess as a maid or cook.)

    But I digress. I eagerly awaited this re-release of The Famous Heroine and The Plumed Bonnet, and I enjoyed them both. I do wonder how likely anyone in Cora’s position was in the early nineteenth century to assume that anyone was gay, however colorfully he dressed. And imagining some of Francis’s coats took me back to my high school days, when my then-boyfriend-now-husband wore a sky blue tux with black trim, and a ruffled shirt.

  31. Janine
    Nov 10, 2011 @ 22:43:54

    @GrowlyCub: I’ve read TNR twice, years apart. The first time, I really disliked it, but as I’ve stated before, Balogh’s writing was an acquired taste for me and that was before I had grown to appreciate it. The second time, I liked it better, but still only mildly — it was maybe a B- for me. I’ll probably reread it again eventually — maybe when it is reprinted.

    @etv13: I sort of agree with you in that when I read A Precious Jewel I felt that Priss didn’t try that hard to find other work, and I would have liked to see her try at least a little before coming to the decision she made.

    Re. Francis’s coats and the gay stereotype, I wondered about that too, but since I didn’t have a handy way of getting at the answer, I didn’t mention it in my review.

  32. etv13
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 01:38:23

    @Janine: I didn’t notice it so much in A Precious Jewel, because she’s already a prostitute when we meet her, but the tone of the I-Did-It-to-Survive self-justification in Christmas Bride annoyed me (largely because it seemed anachronistic and out of character), and once I was annoyed it occurred to me that she didn’t really try to do anything else. And you know, just being literate and well-spoken she should have been able to get some job in a shop or as a seamstress or lady’s maid or something. Not that I think she deserves to be a pariah for having chosen prostitution, and not that she wouldn’t have faced social ruin just from living in a brothel, whatever her occupation happened to be.

  33. GrowlyCub
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 08:29:32

    @etv13: I don’t consider the ‘I had to do it to survive’ anachronistic once she lived at the brothel, but the ‘we welcome her with open arms because she had to do it to survive’, that part is anachronistic to me in the extreme considering that any time she’d step foot into society she’d come across a guy she’d serviced. And I totally agree, the downtrodden ‘oh woe, we are pariahs’ tone totally did not fit with their earlier characterization.

    Gerald and Priss were appropriated to expiate Helena’s guilt and it damaged the message of A Precious Jewel and really ruined The Christmas Bride for me, which is such a shame as Edgar and Helena are a great couple.

  34. Janine
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 15:41:09

    @GrowlyCub:

    Gerald and Priss were appropriated to expiate Helena’s guilt

    That is sometimes a problem with sequels — characters don’t always stay consistent from book to book. I had some similar (though not as strong) feelings about Lord Carew’s Bride, that a few of the characters and their choices weren’t 100% consistent with the way they had been portrayed in Dark Angel.

  35. Janet W
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 17:01:24

    @growlycub makes a number of excellent points about The Christmas Bride. It sells for $7.00 at AMZ (used): unfortunately, other than libraries, that’s a reader’s best bet to read it.

    As I thought over why I felt comfortable with Balogh’s rather low key integration of Priscilla and Gerald into the Christmas house party, I was reminded of a quote from Euripides (which I had to track down): “The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” A consistent theme throughout all of Balogh’s book is forgiveness, in all its manifestations. Edgar knew that Helena needed Gerald’s forgiveness before she could truly be happy in her new life.

    My quote about children goes to the crux of why Gerald and Priscilla accepted Edgar’s impetuous invitation to join the house party: their son Peter had no friends and they wanted a better life for him. I thought their aims were so modest: just to have a slightly enlarged social scene for the benefit of their children, born and unborn. Also, only Edgar could have put this train of events in motion. He was a Cit, albeit phenomenally wealthy and powerful, but he was not constrained by aristocratic notions of how things were done. He was a born fixer and as a businessman, he took risks all the time.

    I’m a sucker for the HEA, especially in Christmas stories and this modestly happy ending didn’t seem that untoward.

  36. Kaetrin
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 19:57:48

    @Janine: When I said “less sympathetic” I was saying (badly) that she comes across as a bit of a caricature. I guess when I read this one, I had that in my mind and it somewhat coloured my enjoyment of this story, as I already had that picture of her in my head when I started. I liked it fine but didn’t love it.

  37. Janine
    Nov 11, 2011 @ 21:12:07

    @Kaetrin: I see. I am glad I’ve read The Famous Heroine first, then.

  38. etv13
    Nov 12, 2011 @ 04:51:32

    Having thought about it some more, I’m not sure the Gerald/Priscilla ending of Christmas Bride, and also the ending of No Man’s Mistress, which similarly has members of high society rallying around a former prostitute who had “no choice” in the matter, are so much anachronistic as they are pure fantasy. Is middle-class 21st century American society all that much more willing to welcome a former prostitute with open arms than the 19th century ton would have been?

  39. What Janine is Reading 11/1/11-11/15/11 - Dear Author
    Nov 17, 2011 @ 15:00:44

    [...] REVIEW: The Famous Heroine by Mary Balogh [...]

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