Narrated by Rosalyn Landor
Originally published in 1994, Mary Balogh’s Longing is a standalone novel set in the author’s Welsh homeland among the mining community of Cwmbran. The romance between the local landowner, an English marquess, and the illegitimate daughter of a nobleman and a working-class woman is set against the backdrop of the last days of the Chartist Movement, and the Newport Rising, so the novel as a whole has a strong – and fascinating – historical and political background.
Although she now lives in a small cottage with her grandparents and uncle and works in the local coal mine, Sian Jones had a lady’s upbringing owing to the fact that she is the result of a liaison between a baronet (owner of the Penybont mine and ironworks) and the daughter of a miner. Her father paid for her education at a good English school, and when she finished there, he offered her the chance to make a respectable marriage to Josiah Barnes, the manager of the Cwmbran estate and mining business. But Sian didn’t want to marry Barnes, her desire to find somewhere she could truly belong leading her instead to make her life among her mother’s people. She later fell in love with and married a young miner who was killed not long afterward, leaving her pregnant with their son who was subsequently stillborn – probably because of the onerous job Sian took in the mine following her husband’s death.
Alexander Hyatt, the Marquess of Craille is a widower with a precocious six-year old daughter. He has passed most of his life quietly on his English estates, and unexpectedly inherited Cwmbran lock, stock and barrel – the village, the surrounding land and the mine and ironworks – upon the death of his uncle. He knows nothing about industry, but he is conscientious and determined to fulfil his responsibilities to the best of his ability, and so decides it’s time for him to inspect his Welsh concerns, settling at Glanrhyd Castle with the intention of staying for a only few months. But the longer he stays, the more he finds to concern him – the situation of his workers, who are paid less than a pittance for back-breaking work, the lack of proper sanitation, the high infant mortality rate; the more he feels the pull of the land and its people; and the more deeply he falls in love with the lovely widow he has employed as his daughter’s governess.
I was utterly captivated by the story, which, although it moves fairly slowly, is so rich in terms of characterisation and detail that it never drags. Sian is an admirable heroine; she is strong, yet vulnerable, a woman who refuses to let others make decisions for her or kowtow to those who would try to bully her. She stands up for her principles, even though they lead her into life-threatening situations, but underlying her determination is a deep-seated insecurity that comes as the result of her having always been ‘between worlds’, her education taking her out of the working class, her birth meaning that she will always be looked down upon by those of the upper. Her need to belong is central to her character and sometimes causes her to make decisions which seem ill-advised but which are nonetheless perfectly understandable given that aspect of her personality.
Alexander is a wonderful hero, not just in the romantic sense, but in the way he comes to care for the people who depend on him and in his genuine desire to improve their lot in life. He’s an idealist with a strong sense of justice and commitment to change, which obviously causes problems when he comes up against the other mine owners in the area, who want to maintain both the status quo and their profits. There are times he thinks he should just give up and go home to England, but he doesn’t – he keeps going in the face of opposition because he knows it’s the right thing to do and above all, because he CAN.
“We can only do our small part, starting with who we are and what we are. Don’t blame me because I am in a position of power. It is what I do with that power that counts, surely.”
The romance between the couple takes time to get going, but is worth the wait, because it is beautifully written and developed. Cross-class romances in historicals are always difficult to pull off successfully because of the rigidity of the social conventions of the time, and I appreciated that Ms Balogh doesn’t attempt to sweep these difficulties under the carpet. There is an incredibly well-drawn cast of secondary characters and the author does a spectacular job with her evocative descriptions of the lush valleys and rolling hills of the countryside, and of the wealth of tradition that is so essential to the hearts and minds of her characters. If I have a criticism it’s that the prose – which is, for the most part, lovely – very occasionally acquires the faintest purple tint, but that is in no way a major issue.
Rosalyn Landor seems to have become the go-to narrator when it comes to Mary Balogh, and I can think of few other performers around who could have done justice to this book, both technically and artistically. Welsh accents can be difficult to do (unless you’re Welsh!) and in this story almost every character has one; but Ms Landor accurately captures the rhythms of speech and intonations typical of the Welsh lilt, applying them consistently and convincingly across the large cast without even breaking a sweat! It seems unnecessary to say that she differentiates effectively between all the characters, because she always does – her name on the cover of an audiobook is a cast-iron guarantee of an excellent all-round performance and an assurance that the listener is never going to be confused as to the age, gender or status of any given character, because they are all so well delineated. And her acting choices are always completely on the mark; there are a number of highly emotional moments in this story, and Ms Landor delivers every single time, perfectly conveying the thoughts and feelings of the characters with a high degree of subtlety and nuance, and incredible skill.
Longing is another fantastic addition to the growing number of Mary Balogh audiobooks, and I am greedy enough to want all the rest of her back catalogue – even those old Signet romances, many of which are wonderful stories – to become available right this minute! in due course.
Book Content: A-
Steam Factor: Glad I had my earbuds in, but at the tame end
Violence Rating: Minimal
Genre: Historical Romance
Publisher: Recorded Books