Mary Balogh's introspective new romance, Someone to Wed, is the third book in her series about the aristocratic Westcotts. The family is thrown into turmoil when their late patriarch's marriage is revealed to be illegitimate, making their distant cousin Alexander the new heir. Saddled with a crumbling estate, Alex embarks on a quest to marry into a fortune—even if that means he must court the cold, complicated heiress next door. We talked to Balogh about marriages of convenience, how to write a romance between two very practical people and how she dove into the psychology of her heroine.
Describe your latest book in a sentence.
Alexander Westcott, Earl of Riverdale knows he must marry rich in order to restore his newly inherited estate, yet finds himself shocked when a wealthy woman, who is willing to use her money to buy a husband, proposes marriage to him—and has to ask himself why?
Why do you think a marriage of convenience is such an enduring trope in romance?
I think it is at least partly because the couple has to cope almost from the start with the intimacies of marriage, even if they hold off on the sex, while gradually building a friendship and, of course, falling in love. Everything is happening at once and the story is likely to be full of emotion and passion with a new couple in close contact with each other all the time. And it is always lovely to see a relationship that seems so unpromising at the start blossom into an enduring love story.
The main obstacle in Someone to Wed is Wren's psychological damage from her birthmark, not the birthmark itself. When in the writing process did you make that decision and why?
The birthmark itself as an obstacle would have seemed too trivial. It is true that it was large and noticeable, and would always have made her self-conscious and made some people shy away from her. But at some point, readers would justifiably be mumbling that it was time this woman, this heroine, got over herself. The obstacle had to be much bigger than just that. If as a child she had been made to feel monstrous and worthless because of the birthmark, for example, and if she had been shut away from other people so that she would not disgust them, then she is going to have believably huge problems as an adult. As the heroine of a romance, Wren has gigantic hurdles to jump. That is the sort of challenge I enjoy as a writer.
There's a lot of discussion early on in the novel about how Wren does and does not conform to gender stereotypes of the era, and whether she is "womanly" or not.
Wren is independently wealthy and runs her own business, both of which were very unusual for a Regency lady. I had to set up her backstory to make it seem possible that it might really have happened. She is unusually tall and aloof, and of course she has the facial blemish that has made her a recluse all her life. Each of these facts attack the Regency ideal of femininity. Yet, she is a woman whose inner femininity is ageless. She yearns for marriage and even sex. They are important enough to her that she is willing to use her fortune to buy them. She has a hard time fitting into Regency society, but she makes the effort because she does not want to be a freak all her life and—ultimately—because she falls in love.
I absolutely adored the character of Alexander. He's kind but self-possessed, clear about what he wants without being overtly aggressive. To me, he seemed the perfect blend of the so-called alpha and beta character types for men in romance. What do you think about that distinction? Would you say Alexander is firmly in either of those categories?
Yes, I think that is a fair assessment. He is a take-charge sort of man. He likes to think he knows best and he likes to protect those he loves, sometimes to the point of being over-protective. His motives are always benign, but he can be a pain to the women in his life. It is one source of friction between him and the very independent Wren. However, this is where the beta side of his character kicks in and prevents him (I hope) from being in any way unlikable. He recognizes his tendency to be overbearing and learns to rein it in so that he and Wren can be co-equals in their marriage. He is no softie, though. He is capable of great firmness, even violence, in the defense of his loved ones—another alpha trait.
Both Alexander and Wren view marriage as something that can be marked by respect and affection at best, and don't expect anything more from a possible relationship between the two of them. How did you balance staying true to those characters while also delivering all the emotion and sensuality romance readers want?
Well, there always is the difference between what the two of them expect and are prepared to settle for, and what in their heart of hearts they want. Alexander has a romantic soul. He spent years getting his own estate in order so that at last he could turn his attention to his own happiness as he searched for a woman he could love. Then he inherits a title and a vast, impoverished estate, and has little choice but to give up his dream in order to marry someone with money. Even then, he will not marry just anyone. She has to be someone he can like and respect. But he is a man born to love. It would always have been virtually impossible for him just to like and respect his wife without also falling in love with her.
Similarly, Wren's life experiences have led her to believe that she is unmarriageable, even though through her teen years and early adulthood she had the unconditional love of her uncle and aunt. She is prepared to use her fortune to purchase a husband, but, as with Alexander, not just anyone will do. He must be someone she can respect. Neither of them expects love, but both are open and ready for it when it offers itself—in the form of each other.
The trauma from events in Wren's childhood felt incredibly visceral. Did you do any research specifically for it?
I didn't. I very rarely do for the terrible trauma my characters may have suffered. I have had a blind hero, a deaf mute heroine, a heroine who suffered dreadful childhood trauma (this book), a talented painter who lost both his right arm and an eye to torture and so on. I do it all imaginatively. I climb right inside these characters. I live their lives with them, even their past, and I feel what it is like to live this life. When I imaginatively became the blind hero, for example, I felt a claustrophobic panic attack coming on, and I incorporated several such attacks into his book. I am always relieved when a reader who has suffered the same trauma tells me I got it right.
What has changed the most in the romance genre since you started writing?
Probably the amalgamation of many publishing houses so that there are not too many options left for writers trying to get published. On the other hand, online publishing and indie publishing give all sorts of opportunity for writers to get their work out there. This is also great for long-established writers whose backlists have been long out of print. As a reader, I know how wonderful it is these days to be able to get my hands on all the books of writers I have only recently discovered.
As for any changes in the content of the genre, I am probably the wrong person to ask. I read very little romance. It was a conscious decision I made soon after being published. I don't want to follow trends or be influenced by what other people are doing. I want to follow my own vision of what makes a love story. I am a prolific reader, but I read other genres most of the time. Of course I often cheat, but when I do read romance, it is usually contemporary while I write historical.
What's next for you?
Someone to Wed is book three of what is projected to be an eight-part series about the Westcott family. The fourth book in the Westcott family series, Someone to Care, is written and ready to be published in May 2018. It is Viola Kingsley's story. Book five, Someone to Trust, is Lady Elizabeth Overfield's story. It is currently in the works and has been scheduled for November 2018.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Someone to Wed.
(Author photo by Sharon Pelletier.)