Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Making the Past Harder for Women? Mary Balogh's LONGING

Reviewers and discerning readers often criticize heroines in historical romances for acting and thinking in ways far more appropriate to twenty-first-century women than to women of the near or distant past. Coming across a Regency-era miss who spouts gender critiques that echo Ms. Magazine far more than anything Mary Wollstonecraft or her radical contemporaries wrote is a particular pet peeve of mine, and in my Goodreads reviewing, I've often joined the "this character is a historical anachronism" bandwagon.

Maybe that's why I was so surprised when I came across the following passage in the "Historical Note" of Mary Balogh's Longing, a romance novel set in early Victorian Wales, with an English Marquess for a hero and a Welsh miner as heroine:

     I have taken two deliberate liberties with history.
     Some women did attend the Chartist meetings and take out membership in the Chartist Association. For the sake of my plot I have made it seem as if women were forbidden to have anything to do with the movement. (403)

From the Caledonian Mercury, 1842
The second liberty—having the real-life mayor of Newport, who was injured in the failed Chartist demonstration in 1839, appear "hale and hearty," so he might interact with the novel's hero—is a small, inconsequential change, one hardly likely to cause much surprise. But this first liberty—changing history to make it appear that gender roles and rules were more, rather than less, stringent in the past than they actually were—now that is a change worth thinking more about.

Longing opens with the widowed Marquess of Craille, Alexander Hyatt, walking the grounds of the Welsh estate he has recently inherited. During said walk, he stumbles upon a secret meeting of the men who work in the mine and ironworks he's also inherited, a meeting during which national and local political organizers urge the men of Cwmbran to sign the great Charter that was to be presented to Parliament, a list of six basic rights working class reformers demanded the government grant them: the right for every British male to vote; the holding of annual Parliaments; the secret ballot; no property qualification for members of Parliament; the paying of members of Parliament; and that each member of Parliament would represent the same number of voters. The majority of the men are eager to sign, and to join the Chartist Association, too.

Alexander is sympathetic to the Chartist's cause, even if he disagrees with the movement's tactics (strikes, mass meetings, and public protests all too often lead to violence, he feels). But the overseer who has been managing the mines and the works for years tells Alex that the workers are happy, and that Craille, a landowner, not a businessman, doesn't understand how modern industry works. Humble in the way of many a Balogh hero, and wary of his own ignorance, Alex agrees to hold off on making any management changes, even though he is "troubled at his own inability to act from personal conscience as he usually did" (67).

A Chartist Member card, with both a man
and a woman on it
Alex is also troubled by his attraction to the woman he stumbled across also spying on the Chartist meeting, a woman whom he later discovers is a worker in his own mine. Like Alex, Siân Jones has also lost a spouse. And like Alex (and unlike the majority of the other Welsh townspeople), she has had a genteel upbringing, as the illegitimate daughter of a Welsh girl and the owner of another local mine. Because of her mother's shame, Siân has always felt like an outsider in the town, even after marrying a Cwmbran boy. Acknowledging her attraction to the town's lord, even to herself, would hardly improve her chances for greater acceptance from the wary townspeople.

Throughout the novel, Siân is presented as a curious, headstrong, courageous, and principled woman. But while she, like her fellow townspeople, deplores the pitiful wages and the poor working conditions of the miners, Siân herself isn't very interested in the Charter, or the large-scale protest her local suitor, Owen, is working to bring about in neighboring Newport. Even if she were, though, the novel presents the male Chartists as opposed to the involvement of women in their political movement, a ban that Balogh acknowledges is historically false. Why?

Because while on the level of plot, the novel is about class conflict, on the thematic level, it is far more interested in gender conflict. While Owen openly agitates for full male suffrage, he is far less progressive than many of the men in the actual Chartist movement when it comes to the rights of women. Though he loves Siân, and is eager to marry her, he believes wholeheartedly in the right of a husband to "control my own woman" (170). He chastises Siân for being too friendly to their natural opponent, the Marquess, and for encouraging their fellow townspeople to believe Siân is colluding with Craille. And he warns her that after their marriage, "You won't find me so easy to rule" as her first husband did (170). Needless to say, the strong-willed Siân finds Owen's opinions about the role of men and women in marriage more than a little worrisome.

1994's cover
In contrast, the aristocrat Alex has far different views. When Siân asks her employer how he would discipline a wife, he is surprised:

     "A wife?" He frowned. "I was talking about children. Unfortunately we need to discipline children because we have a responsibility to train them and they are never angels. I was not talking about a wife. A wife is a man's equal.
     "But what if she does not tow the line?" she asked.
     "What line?" he said. "Whose line? What if he does not toe it? Marriage is not an easy business. We have both experienced it. We both know that. It is something that has to be worked hard at every single day. If one partner refuses to make the effort, then they have a problem and an unhappy marriage. But violence would not solve anything." (176)

Constructing Alex as forward-thinking and Owen as hidebound when it comes to women's roles and rights would have been far more difficult if women were actively involved in the Chartist movement in Cwmbran. Balogh takes great pains to make Owen a nuanced, even a sympathetic figure, but in the end, it is Alex, not Owen, who proves worthy of Siân's love, because aristocratic Alex has more progressive ideas about gender roles than does working class Owen.

Thus, Siân's major plot conflicts come not from her growing feelings for aristocratic Alex, but from her unwillingness to bow down to the demands of the Chartists that she cease working for the enemy. During the course of the novel, Siân proves her own heroism several times over, making her a heroine well-worth a feminist's admiration. But because of Balogh's reimagining of history, Siân's heroism ends up pitting her against, rather than beside, her fellow workers. So, in many ways, Siân's gender triumph goes hand in hand with her town's class defeat, when the workers' planned march on Newport goes dreadfully awry—a piece of history Balogh does not change.

The 2015 cover
Longing, first published in 1994, was Balogh's "first all-Welsh" book, a book set in the Wales where Balogh was born and spent her childhood (i). I can't help wondering if the gender norms of her post-WWII growing-up years had as much, if not more, to do with Balogh's decision to change the role women were allowed to play in the Chartist movement as did the needs of her plot. And if she realized this when she penned her next Welsh book, 1996's Truly, which turns class, not just gender, on its head.

* (according to Goodreads; Balogh's "Dear Readers" note in the new edition lists 1995 as the original pub date)

Photo credits:
"Meeting of Female Chartists": British Library
Chartist membership card: Tameside Metropolitan Borough


  1. As much as anything else, it's always interesting to see where writers of historical fiction take their liberties and where they hold true. But it's fascinating to me that she chose to make society more oppressive than it was. It makes me wonder how many books I've read where the author made a similar choice, and I assumed it was part and parcel of the history rather than the fiction.

    1. Yes. When authors choose to make the past HARDER, I wonder if they aren't playing in to the progressive view of history, the idea that society is always getting better and better. Makes us feel happy about living in the times we do, rather than questioning whether there were times in the past when women had it better in some ways...

  2. Years ago, I decided that women’s participation in the French Revolution gave rise to the modern women’s movement. Women were active participants and many gravitated toward the most radical elements around Marat who called themselves the ‘enrage’—hence my screen name. The women organized and led a march to Versailles to force Louis back to Paris to be held accountable for the starvation of children among other things. This was an important event of the revolution. Olympe de Gouges’ ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen’ was an influence for Mary Wollstoncraft and many others around the world. The People’s charter of the Chartists borrowed heavily from the United Irishmen. I have yet to read Bliss Bennet’s ‘A Rebel Without a Rogue’, but I promise I will. Through Fergus O’Connor and his ‘Northern Star’ newspaper they even had a familial connection to the 1798 uprising.

    Women were participants in the Chartist movement. You referenced documentation and I can add that the daughter of Karl Marx, Jenny played a role in defense of those Chartists arrested just as she would later for the Fenians. The movement’s demands for suffrage definitely inspired women to mount a struggle for their rights. Here in the US the women’s struggle for suffrage was entwined with the Abolitionist movement. In fact the women’s movement split at the time of the 15th amendment. Anthony felt it should not be supported because only black men and not black women and white women were included. It is the kind of question struggles often face. I think I would have disagreed with Anthony and felt good about winning a partial victory and then insisting all had to unite to struggle with women.

    I probably would not have done what Ballogh did, but I do not think it is a major flaw. It is very plausible to me that a local Chartist organizer could have been a male chauvinist who banned women from meetings. It is also plausible that the owner of an estate could be enlightened about women’s oppression. I went through women being denied leadership roles in SDS at Columbia during the strike in 1968. The sisters got together for speak bitterness consciousness raising sessions and demanded a greater role from the men. The next thing you know we were in the streets demanding abortion, equal rights and equal pay. My point is that struggle is rarely perfect or linear and that struggle inspires struggle. We take a step forward and later have to fight all over again for the same thing. Who would have thought in 2015 there would be such an attack against women’s reproductive rights? French women didn’t get the vote until 1945. Go figure!

    I think I can forgive Mary Ballogh. I like that she wrote a story about the home of my ancestors that wasn’t strictly about the aristocracy but included Welsh coal miners. However, I cannot forgive Dickens for ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ I admire his opening, but love to trash the sentimental words he put into the mouth of Sydney Carton. More than anything, I resent that he created such a horrific character as Madame Lafarge to represent the women participants of the French Revolution.

    1. Thanks, enrage-femme, for your historically-informed commentary!

      I don't think for me it's a matter of blaming or forgiving Balogh. I really like this novel from an emotional standpoint. And she does great work not demonizing either side in the conflict. I'm more just interested in how gender and class issues are often set in opposition to one another in romance, as opposed to what happened in reality (as your examples above so clearly point out).

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