Mary Balogh is a brilliant writer and one of her greatest talents is to create a unique situation for her characters and then let that work itself out in the most logical and not always the easiest way. This is a marriage of convenience story, but it looks with uncompromising honesty at what a great many Regency marriages must have been like. It’s about expectations of marriage, and yes, it’s about how sex plays into that, so it’s not a traditional read, nor is it a comfortable tale, so anyone looking for light-hearted fluff should move on. It is, however, both powerful and fascinating.
Here’s the premise: Lord Astor has recently come into his title and estates, and knows he has an obligation to marry to secure the succession. He also owes an obligation to the widow and daughters of his predecessor, who have been left unprovided for. He can fulfil both requirements at once by marrying one of the daughters. He’s never met them, for the relationship is a distant one, but he’s unbothered by which one it should be. After all, what does it matter? His wife won’t be a big part of his life, will she? Apart from producing a few children, she’ll have her own life and he’ll keep his mistress and his masculine friends and pursuits. So he leaves it up to their mother to decide which one is most appropriate. Since the eldest daughter and beauty of the family, Frances, is likely to marry a neighbour, she puts forward her second daughter, Arabella, to marry the viscount. And after a brief period of misunderstanding, and thinking he’s going to get the beauty, he swallows his disappointment and proposes to Arabella, the small, plump one.
The ladies had a misunderstanding, too, for they thought the viscount was an older man. Arabella, thinking herself plain and uninteresting, is quite happy to marry such a man and have a placid marriage, leaving her sister free to marry the man she’s in love with. But the older man was Lord Astor’s father, now dead, and the son is something of a paragon – handsome, fashionable, with perfect manners, and everything that Arabella would never dare to dream of and doesn’t feel worthy of. She’s reduced to stumbling inarticulacy in his presence. She tells him, however, that she’ll be a dutiful and obedient wife and he’s satisfied. That’s what he wants, after all, someone he can basically ignore while he lives his own life, just as he did before.
So the marriage takes place, and yes, it’s consummated, and no, Balogh doesn’t shy away from the details. It’s not outrageously graphic, but it’s clear that Lord Astor has very fixed ideas about sex. What he enjoys with his mistress is purely for pleasure, and he wouldn’t expect anything as uninhibited as that with his respectable and chaste wife. Instead, she gets sex for procreation, perfunctory and by the sound of it deeply unpleasant. She meekly puts up with it, because she’s an obedient wife and it’s her duty.
The interesting element of this is that Lord Astor is doing his duty, too. He’s not an unkind man, in fact he’s rather gentlemanly and considerate. He willingly takes Arabella to town with her beautiful sister for company, he escorts them everywhere, rigs them out in fashionable clothes and supervises Arabella’s transformation to stylish woman-about-town. And he genuinely thinks he’s being considerate by keeping the procreation efforts to brief sessions in the dark, without any embarrassing foreplay. But all the time, he keeps his mistress and is rather surprised to find himself losing interest in her, and actually enjoying his wife’s company instead. He even finds himself distracted during sessions with his mistress by thoughts of his wife.
And so the stage is set for the transformation that will upset the applecart. Arabella gradually gains confidence in company – not with her husband, but with other, safer, men, who are less distractingly handsome and charming. She becomes a success. And Lord Astor gradually realises that a wife can’t simply be ignored. She’s a real person with real feelings, and he begins to care about those feelings, just a little. The way they both change, little by little over many chapters, is one of the joys of the book, beautifully evoked by Balogh. We see it happen because we’re privy to both characters’ thoughts all the way through. And when the crisis comes and Arabella finds out about the mistress, we know their thoughts on that, too, and follow every step of their journey to understanding each other.
Some reviewers have compared this book to some of Georgette Heyer’s works, in particular A Civil Contract or The Convenient Marriage, and although there are similarities, the book that I’m most reminded of is another Balogh one, Dancing With Clara. In that, the marriage is just as cold-blooded an arrangement, between a dissolute rake and gambler who’s wasted his fortune, and a wealthy heiress who is wheelchair bound. It suits them both – he gets her money, and she gets a virile young man as her husband. But that story had a realistic resolution which was (for me, anyway) deeply unsatisfying. The Obedient Bride has a much more positive ending, perhaps less realistic, but much more in keeping with the expectations of romance readers. This isn’t an easy read, but it is a deeply rewarding one, and I commend it to anyone looking for a clear-eyed deconstruction of a marriage of convenience. Five stars.