The lovely Janet loaned me three books, all rare & worth insuring. I started with Mary Balogh's, Dancing with Clara.
I gather it's the middle book in a series of Signet Regencies from the mid-90s. In Courting Julia, the titular heroine is offered, in effect, as a prize in a contest among cousins. Daniel wins her hand -- he's very heroic -- and Freddy is the loser & villain of the piece. Freddy is then stuck with mounting debts and few prospects so he goes to Bath to find a rich bride. He finds Clara, who is in a wheelchair and not particularly attractive. (In book three, Tempting Harriet, Clara's companion is pursued by Freddy's rather louche friend, Archie, who already offered Harriet a carte blanche in Dancing with Clara but was turned down.)
Both Clara and Freddy struck me as sad characters. Their lives have been shaped by misfortune and bad choices, but they themselves seemed very sad. That's probably a rational response to what they have to endure, but I couldn't help but contrast Clara with Mrs. Smith in Jane Austen's Persuasion. Mrs. Smith is Anne Elliot's school friend who had married poorly, been widowed, and was confined to a wheelchair. But she is lively and fun and sees the world in a very jolly light indeed.
Clara is considerably more pragmatic about her situation. She recognizes Freddy as a fortune hunter but she also figures that she won't do much better than a fortune hunter if she wishes to marry, so when he proposes, she accepts. She doesn't believe his protestations of love; she sees them as part of a charade necessary to get her to marry him. The deed is done, and they get a week together alone as a honeymoon.
Up until this point, the story was pleasant enough. Freddy recognizes that he has to do right by Clara, and he's fulfilling his husbandly role nicely. Clara adores being married and is enjoying Freddy more than she thought she would. But once the honeymoon ends, things start to fall apart. And that's when the entire book became very sad to read. If Clara and Freddy were lonely before they married, they quickly learn they can be far lonelier after the wedding. That loneliness spirals downward to uncomfortable depths, until finally in the last few pages, it All Works Out.
At this point I need to acknowledge that I was reading Dancing with Clara just after getting news that a member of my extended family had died in a tragic fashion. Not anyone I knew well, but people I love very much had to deal with this shocking loss. I have been grieving for them.
Did my awareness of my cousins' pain color the way I read Dancing with Clara? It doesn't feel like it. I feel as though I'd have found Dancing with Clara emotionally out of balance regardless of the circumstances. But how can I be sure? I can't read it again as if for the first time, so I may never know.
Same thing with this sort of book. I don't mind the sadness provided it's properly offset by the romance. Through Clara's & Freddy's week-long honeymoon, I was happy. But from that point onwards, there are just too many tears, too much depression, too much hopelessness. Maybe it's all organic and character driven; maybe these two could not have snapped out of their malaise any quicker. If that were true, then I'd have liked another chapter or three tacked on the end to show us more of their chocolaty happiness.
Oh, and more dancing would have been nice.
I'll send Dancing with Clara back to Janet with my compliments. I'm not sorry I read it, and I can see how it can be a favorite for her and many other readers. Hey, I'll admit I might have loved it more under other circumstances. But I've ordered Tempting Harriet; I'm hoping that I'll get Freddy & Clara's yummy happiness in that book.