As the illegitimate daughter of an English nobleman and a Welsh commoner, Sian Jones has always felt like she was caught between two completely different worlds. She never felt fully at home in her father's aristocratic world, but her Welsh mother was shunned by her people for her affair. Sian turned down an offer to marry well in favor of a union with a Welsh coal miner. When he died in an accident, Sian was left to work in the mine herself and do everything she could to earn and keep the respect of her people. Lately, she has been courted by Owen Parry, an ironworker from her village and one of the leaders of a Chartist group which is looking to enact major political and social reform, and it is assumed that they will eventually marry. When the owner of the village decides to pay a visit, everything changes for Sian.
Alexander Hyatt, Marqess of Craille, inherited the land and industry of Cwmbran from an uncle who had no closer heirs. He comes to Wales for a change of pace and to check on his business interests there, only to be shocked at what he finds. An organized labor movement is trying to get better wages and working condition for his employees, and Alex finds himself in sympathy with them but opposed by other owners in the area. When he chances upon one of the worker's covert meetings on the hillside, he also runs into Sian who was spying too. There is an immediate attraction between them, and Alex finds himself longing to see her more. When he discovers that she is educated, he offers her a job as his daughter's governess, but both of them know he wants more than that. Even though she finds herself falling for Alex, Sian stubbornly clings to the idea of marrying Owen to retain her respect. She watched her mother pine for her father and knows that she could never live the life of a mistress and be happy, but with their differing social status, anything else between them would be impossible. However, there are those among the Chartist Movement who resort to compelling by force the people who disagree with them, and when nasty rumors begin to spread about Sian being an informant for the Marquess, her life slowly but surely begins to change in ways she never could have imagined.
I usually enjoy stories that break from the norm of historical romance, and Longing is just such a book, exhibiting a number of unique qualities. The typical Victorian romance would probably be set in England amidst the backdrop of ton balls and house parties, but Longing is set in a small industrial village in Wales. Although the hero owns a large, ornate castle, very little of the action takes place there, and except for a couple of brief afternoon teas, none of the usual social trappings occur. The majority of scenes take place in the humble confines of the town of Cwmbran (Coom-bran), and better yet, the beautiful hills surrounding it. The heroine has a stunning voice and competes in a music festival, which surrounded by the loveliness of the hills, kind of reminded me of The Sound of Music. I really felt like Mary Balogh captured the allure of the land and the culture of the proud people of Wales. Longing also has a strong historical element, detailing the Chartist Movement, the first and largest organized labor movement of its kind, which was meant to bring about political and social reform particularly for the workers in mining and industry. I can see how these topics might not be very exciting to some readers, but since I've always had an interest in politics and social issues, it was rather intriguing to me. The author even included a couple of the real-life organizers of the movement as characters. I really liked how the author took a middle-of-the-road stance, showing the good and bad on both sides of the issue. Of course, there were mine owners who didn't want to give the workers basic rights and better pay for fear of loosing profits, but there were also those among the Welsh, known as Scotch Cattle, who attempted to strong-arm anyone who refused to follow their cause by terrorizing them. Overall, Longing was a very different sort of historical romance and in many ways that was a good thing.
I must say that the book was very aptly titled, because nearly everyone in the story, particularly the hero and heroine, experiences a deep longing or Hireath in the Gaelic language. Mary Balogh has a slightly different writing style than what I'm used to, almost what I might call a more literary style. There are certain elements in her prose, such as some repetition, which in other hands would probably annoy me, but Ms. Balogh's writing has a very lyrical quality to it which draws out the feelings of yearning so that the reader can palpably sense them. Admittedly though, this also gave the story a rather languid pace, when at times, I would have preferred for things to move a bit faster. I'm a big fan of love-overcomes-all stories, but this one just took a little too long to get there for me. The hero and heroine pine for each other and for the things they believe they cannot have right up until the last few pages. When taken in the proper historical context, I can't exactly fault them for waiting so long, and in the meantime their interactions were very tender and sweet. One of my favorite scenes was after the music festival when they were crossing back over the mountain and took a moment to revel in the simple, quiet pleasure of each other's company. Ms. Balogh may have a more subdued method for conveying emotion, but I found it to still be pretty powerful nonetheless.
Sian was the illegitimate daughter of an English aristocrat who had been raised in relative luxury compared to how she lives at the beginning of the story. She is cramped into one small house with her grandparents and widowed uncle, and after the death of her husband, has also braved the hardships of working in the coal mines. Sian is a woman who is caught between two worlds, not feeling like she completely belongs in either one, but striving hard to be accepted by her mother's people. Then Alex, the owner of the mine and ironworks, comes to town and shakes up her well-ordered world by offering her a position as governess to his young, vivacious daughter, which she eventually accepts because a part of her misses that easier life. Sian was a pretty stubborn lady which at times served her well by giving her incredible strength to endure extreme difficulties and stand up to those who would bully her. At other times, her obstinacy was somewhat annoying, particularly when she kept insisting to herself that she could never be a part of Alex's world and therefore belonged with another man. Overall though, I understood Sian's actions most of the time and had to admit having respect for her even when she was making choices that I probably wouldn't have.
Alexander inherited the village of Cwmbran and all it's industry from an uncle who had no heirs. Previously, Alex had lived a quiet life on a rural estate in England, and when he comes to Wales for a change of pace, he doesn't really know anything about running a mine and ironworks but is determined to learn. He is an idealist who truly believes in mercy and justice, and is very open-minded to the plight of his workers. He wants to help them better their lives, but on a much smaller, more local scale than most of the Welsh people are hoping for, so he is constantly running up against stubborn opposition to his ideas, both from them and from other mine owners in neighboring valleys. Alex also takes his responsibility to his workers very seriously with the obligation weighing quite heavily on his shoulders. I really admired his commitment to social justice and change and his determination to keep going even though he sometimes felt like it would be easier and everyone would be happier if he just went back to England. Alex was a very sensitive, gentle man especially with Sian and his daughter, Verity. He was much more of a beta hero, in my opinion, although he did have a bit of an alpha protective streak, but was very controlled in meting out punishment. He was also a fabulous hands-on father. The only thing that bothered me slightly about Alex was that he offered more than once to make Sian his mistress, but I thought the author did a good job of showing that he was merely a product of the era and social station into which he was born. It was abundantly clear that he loved Sian to distraction, and I do believe that if it wasn't for the social strictures of the time, he would have had her down the aisle in a heartbeat. Overall, Alex was a very appealing hero, and I'm not sure I could have resisted the way Sian did even when he was only offering for her to be his mistress.
The main thing in this story that wasn't really my cup of tea was the unexpected love triangle between Alex, Sian and Owen, a Welsh ironworker who had been courting Sian for a while before Alex came to town. I'm simply not fond of love triangles in general, but this was something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I felt that the scenes with Sian and Owen at the beginning took away time that she could have been spending with Alex, and I also felt that Sian was perhaps giving up a little too easily by accepting second best. On the other hand though, I grudgingly concede that it did add a lot to the conflict and the sense of "longing." This whole part of the story was very complex with Owen not being quite what he seems in the beginning, but also never quite being the villain either in spite of him doing some pretty bad things with which I strongly disagreed. This being the case, my feelings surrounding the love triangle element were pretty complex as well. In some ways, Sian's back and forth between Alex and Owen frustrated me even though I knew her feelings for each of them was very different, yet at the same time, I understood it in a way as well.
In spite of a few elements which I normally don't care for, Longing was a fairly pleasant read. It was something of a Cinderella tale, but with much more realism than the average fairy tale type story. Because of it's uniqueness, it managed to feed a different part of my brain than some other romances, while still being equally enjoyable. Longing was my first read by Mary Balogh, and even though I've seen some mediocre ratings for it, this book turned out to be a good choice for me. I've heard many favorable things about Ms. Balogh as an author, so I look forward to checking out more of her books soon.
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