JOINT REVIEW:  A Christmas Bride by Mary Balogh

JOINT REVIEW: A Christmas Bride by Mary Balogh

Janine: We’ve all read Christmas stories which feature cynics whose hardened hearts soften during the holiday season. From Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, such figures are not uncommon in holiday stories in or out of the romance genre. But they are almost always male. What makes Balogh’s 1997 traditional regency A Christmas Bride (now reissued in a 2-in-1 edition with Christmas Beau) unusual is that its Scrooge/Grinch is Helena, its (anti-)heroine.
Sunita: I have reread this book more than once, and not just at Christmastime. But it is definitely a Christmas fairytale, or at least a fable. What I like about it is that while the heroine is the Scrooge figure, the hero is not the innocent or beta hero that shows her the way to happiness through his virtue. Edgar is prickly and stubborn and more than a match for Helena.

Janine: Good point. A Christmas Bride opens with the line “Mr. Edgar Downes had decided to take a bride.” Edgar Downes, readers of The Famous Heroine may remember, is brother to Cora, the titular heroine of that book. In A Christmas Bride we discover that Edgar’s father, though hale and hearty at age sixty, has, like many a parent in one of Balogh’s traditional regencies, extracted a promise from Edgar to choose a bride (in this case by Christmastime). And not just any bride, but a woman of the nobility.

Edgar, like his father before him, is a successful and prosperous Bristol businessman and merchant. Nonetheless, Edgar has a chance to associate with and even marry into the ton because his sister Cora married into high society.

Although fewer aristocrats are in town in the autumn, Cora and her husband Francis help Edgar gain entry to some of London’s excusive parties. There Edgar meets some eligible if down on their luck young women. It is also where he meets Helena.

Unlike the ladies Edgar courts, Helena is neither young nor impoverished. At thirty-six, she is the same age as Edgar, and her previous marriage to a much older man has left her quite well off. Since her late husband’s passing, Helena has spent much of the time traveling abroad, coming to England only occasionally. There is a painful event in her past which she has been running away from.

Edgar’s first sight of Helena is described this way (ellipses mine):

And then he glanced across the doorway, where another new arrival stood. A woman alone, dressed fashionably and elegantly in a high-waisted, low bosomed dress of pure scarlet silk. A woman whose magnificent bosom more than did justice to the gown. […] She looked about her with bold eyes in a handsome face, a half smile on her lips, which might denote confidence or contempt or mere mocking irony. It was difficult to tell which.

Before Edgar could realize he was staring and proving himself to be indeed less than a gentleman[…]the woman’s eyes alit on him for a moment, and then moved deliberately down his body and back up again. She lifted one mocking eyebrow as her eyes met his once more[….]

If he had not been standing in the Earl of Greenwald’s drawing room, he would have been convinced that he was surely in the presence of one of London’s most experienced and celebrated courtesans.

In another book written in this same time frame (1990s), Helena might have been the villainess. Indeed, she was something of an offstage villainess in an earlier Balogh novel. My very favorite thing about A Christmas Bride might be this—that Helena comes across as the kind of woman who could eat a lot of men for breakfast.

Sunita: I definitely saw her as the villainess in A Precious Jewel. But even there, Balogh didn’t make her a monster. I appreciate that rather than redeeming her by rewriting the backstory here, Balogh has Helena take responsibility for what she did and very effectively conveys her anguish.

Janine: Yes, her remorse for those actions is is palpable and her path to redemption painful.

Helena ends up taking Edgar home the very night they meet and although she only thinks to offer him a drink, she finds herself taking him upstairs, to her bedroom. The sex they have is a struggle for mastery, and while Edgar gives Helena pleasure, she loses the upper hand in the process and ends up feeling violated as a result.

But Edgar feels just as violated. He does not understand his actions or Helena’s, and the next day, he calls on her to apologize. Helena rejects his apology but makes him an offer of platonic friendship. During this conversation, Helena reveals to Edgar that Miss Grainger, the woman he was most interested in courting, is in love with another man, one too poor to be acceptable to her parents as a marriage prospect.

Because he plans to court and marry a younger woman with many childbearing years ahead of her and fears he might end up in Helena’s bed once more, Edgar rebuffs Helena’s suggestion that they could be friends. A wounded Helena responds with scorn, telling Edgar that his friendship would have been less satisfying than his lovemaking, and pretending to have habit of using men sexually and then discarding them. Edgar swallows her lie and leaves feeling deeply ambivalent about her.

Sunita: I loved this part of the book. Helena and Edgar are physically so drawn to each other, and even as they each fight for mastery, that attraction never wanes.

Janine: I loved that both of them still wished they could have that friendship even after they each concluded they didn’t like the other. Talk about conflicted feelings!

For a while it seems like this is the end of Edgar and Helena’s relationship. But this being a romance, circumstances force them back together. By this time, Edgar has gotten tangled up in a commitment to the aforementioned Miss Grainger, so he wants to help that young lady find a way to be reunited with her beau. He invites Miss Grainger and her parents, as well as her young man, to the Christmas party he and Helena, Helena’s aunt, Cora, Francis, and several of their friends will be attending at his father’s home.

Christmas miracles only happen to other people, Helena believes. She does not think the heartache in her past can be outdistanced, and the more Edgar, who is falling for her, tries to convince her that happiness is possible for them, the more she resists the Christmas spirit. Her refusal to allow herself happiness leads Edgar to begin digging in her past.

Will Edgar discover the root causes of Helena’s cynicism? Will he reunite Miss Fanny Grainger and her suitor, Mr. Jack Sperling? Will he present his father with a Christmas Bride? Will Edgar’s father find happiness? And what about Helena? Will she allow a holiday miracle to take place in her life?

There’s a lot to like in A Christmas Bride. I’ve quoted from Helena’s introduction and I can’t resist quoting some of her “Bah, humbug!” moments as well. Here are her thoughts about the Christmas house party:

There was such an air of eager anticipation in the house and of domestic contentment. One would have thought that in such a sizable house party there would be some quarreling and bickering, some jealousies or simple dislikes. There were virtually none, apart from a few minor squabbles among the children.

It was just too good to be true. It was cloying

And here is Helena talking about the nativity story:

The stable at Bethlehem must have been drafty and uncomfortable and smelly and downright humiliating. How dare we make beatific images of it. It was nasty. That was the whole point of it.

This portrayal works because beneath her wonderful grouchiness and verbal ripostes are underlying loneliness and melancholy. I also got the feeling that when George Carlin said “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist,” he was talking about Helena. With her character, Balogh gets across the toll that being isolated from the rest of humanity takes.

Sunita: Yes, I agree. It’s clear that Helena is a very unhappy woman, even though she has managed to create a stable, even pleasant everyday life. She presents a strong, assured façade to the world, but through her internal monologues and especially through her interactions with Edgar we see what is behind that façade.

Janine: The one criticism I have with Helena’s character has to do with the painful events in her past. These were weighty, and I therefore wanted to have a better understanding of her state of mind at the time these events took place. My reading experience could have benefited from a better grasp of the younger Helena’s motives.

Then there’s Edgar. He’s not as unusual a character as Helena, but he’s a good match for her — just strong enough that she can’t easily walk all over him, but tender and caring once he gets to know her.

Sunita: I thought Edgar was a terrific match for her. He’s an unusual Balogh hero (has she had any other rich merchant heroes?). He’s not gentry or nobility, but he’s very comfortable in his own skin and he is self-confident to the point of arrogance.

Janine: True, and that’s a good thing here because he needs every bit of that self-confidence as he comes up against Helena’s belief that there is no getting over her past.

Sunita: He’s also sensitive enough to think about who Helena is as a person and take seriously her desires and fears.

Janine: I loved that about him.

The class difference between Edgar and Helena doesn’t come to play as strongly in this novel as in some other Balogh novels like A Christmas Promise or The Famous Heroine. It’s not a true conflict here, but it lends a nice shading to Edgar’s character in giving him additional dimension.

I found the struggle for supremacy in the bedroom between Edgar and Helena interesting, and I really liked the way it was resolved.

However, I have to add that there was a sex negative vibe in some places which took away some of my enjoyment. This centered around Helena’s lie to Edgar that she had used a lot of men for sex and never slept with the same guy more than once. I would have loved for this lie to be true, and for Edgar to not care, but while he loved Helena anyway, her made-up sexual experience did bother him a bit.

I expect that from 1990s books, and his reaction was human enough that I could go with it, but what I didn’t like was that his rationale that Helena’s “promiscuity” was a sign of self-loathing. I’ll grant he had reasons to think that, but the implication that the same qualities that are good for the goose are a form of self-flagellation in his female counterpart didn’t work so for me.

Sunita: I see your points, but his attitude seems pretty understandable for the period, especially for someone raised in the middle class. There’s a spectrum between demanding a virgin wife (even when you’re not going to be a virgin husband) and unproblematically accepting your future wife’s active sexual past, and I thought Edgar fell within that spectrum. And given Helena’s actual sexual history, the self-loathing explanation is pretty compelling to me.

Janine: Yes, I agree he fell within the spectrum. My issue here wasn’t so much with Edgar, but more with the author. I felt there was an implication that a double standard should apply.

A much bigger problem for me, though, was that Balogh had to jump through some high-hanging hoops to pull off the happy endings for her couples, and these resolutions landed on the page with bobbles.

Let’s start with Fanny Grainger and Jack Sperling. Edgar and his father make a business decision in order to bring this couple together. The problem I had there was that this decision seemed like a big risk to take with their business. It was not set up well enough to convince me that it would pay off financially and thus did not fit with the idea that Edgar and his father were astute businessmen.

Then there’s what happens when Edgar goes digging for a solution to Helena’s cynicism. This requires Edgar to visit someone from Helena’s past, and while he is there, a married couple has a very private conversation in his presence. I could not believe they would hold that discussion in front of Edgar, a stranger whom they had just met. It felt like a contrivance to allow readers to know what was said.

The people Edgar visits then make a decision that I didn’t find fully believable either – another step toward resolution that was not set up well. And then some issues of class, reputation and social mores are conveniently shoved under the carpet by a number of secondary characters in order to allow for Helena to make peace with her past.

Sunita: I agree that these aspects were not very convincing, but I swallowed them as part of the Christmas-fable aspect of the story. The counter-intuitive treatment of the people from Helena’s past was the most unbelievable, and I can see why readers have trouble with that one.

Janine: Are you referring to the way they treated Helena, or the way they were treated by others?

Sunita: The way they were treated by others. Balogh had thoroughly convinced me that they could expect to be socially ostracized by the time A Precious Jewel ended, so to see them unhesitatingly accepted by people who didn’t know them stretched my suspension of disbelief too far, even for a Christmas story.

Janine: Agreed. For me their decision to face potential ostracism in the first place was almost as difficult to credit, especially given what had gone down in Helena’s past.

None of these problems directly impact on Edgar and Helena’s romantic relationship. That remains lovely throughout. I loved seeing Edgar warm to Helena and begin to help her thaw the heart she’d thought was permanently frozen.

But the cumulative effect of all these unlikely holiday wonders is to take a plot that beings grounded in Helena’s cynicism and lift it off that ground in what feels like a fragile soap bubble that could—or should—easily burst. We begin with some realism and end with a flight of fantasy, and unfortunately, the two don’t mesh that well.

Sunita: I don’t disagree, but I enjoyed Edgar and Helena’s relationship so much, as well as their individual characterizations, that I forgave that. I also really liked Edgar’s relationships with his sister and father; they were warm and believable.

Janine: I liked Edgar’s relationships with his father and sister too, but I did feel in places that his sister Cora was portrayed as more of an airhead than she’d been in The Famous Heroine. I was a little regretful of that since I concluded she was one of my favorite Balogh heroines when I read that book.

Sunita: I also think that given Helena’s backstory and the setup of Edgar’s search for an appropriate wife, these threads had to be resolved, and perhaps the Christmas setting led to it being more sugary than it had to be. As you said at the beginning, this is a Christmas story that draws on Scrooge, and that ends on a note of fairy-tale optimism as well.

Janine: Yes, given Helena’s backstory the conflict in her past had to be put to rest. That was the only path to a happy ending for her. I think Balogh undertook a Herculean task here, though. There really wasn’t a way to make that resolution fully believable, but I agree with you that Edgar and Helena’s relationships and individual characterizations were wonderful enough to make me willing to overlook that at least in part.

I find I often feel that way about Balogh’s trads. Even when she doesn’t pull the story off, the characters and their dynamics feel so fresh and interesting. My grade for A Christmas Bride is a C+.

Sunita: My grade for A Christmas Bride is a B.

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