The Cultural Gutter

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Canadian Content

Chris Szego
Posted March 19, 2009

weemary.JPGMost major genre fiction publishers are located in either New York or London.  Romance is a bit of an exception:   Harlequin Books, the world’s largest publisher of romance, is headquartered in Toronto.  Nor is the Canadian flag absent on the authorial side. There are Canadian romance writers from coast to coast, many of whom have huge international followings. One of my favourites is Mary Balogh.   Her story, like that of so many other Canadians, starts elsewhere.

Mary was born and raised in post-war Wales, with all the rationing and restrictive attitudes that implies. Despite the atmosphere of the time — “many people were still saying that education was wasted on
girls” — Mary’s family wanted her to have both dreams and choices. She trained as a high-school English teacher, then set off, degree in hand, to explore the world. Her first teaching contract
landed her Kipling, Saskatchewan. Shortly thereafter, she went on a blind date with a young farmer named Robert Balogh, whom she married within the year. These days, with their children grown and gone, and
the farm leased out to family members, Mary and her husband spend summers in Kipling and winters in Regina.

Balogh’s was not a rapid rise to the heights of success she now enjoys. Despite having always written for her own entertainment, Mary was first and foremost a teacher. It was, she said, more practical. She discovered Georgette Heyer while on maternity leave, and knew from then on that what she wanted to write was Regencies. But she didn’t start in earnest until her youngest child was six.

She sent her first manuscript to the only Canadian publishing address she could find in her favourite books. That turned out to be the Canadian distribution centre of Signet books. The warehouse. But in
one of those twists that would seem ridiculous in fiction, someone there read her manuscript, and loved it. That person sent it on the head office in New York, and the editor who received it offered Mary a
two book contract.

That first book, >Masked Deception, first appeared in 1985. More followed in rapid succession. But the hard-learned practicality of the post-war generation kept Mary teaching, until she finally retired, after twenty years. By that point she had at least a dozen books to her name. And it was time, she felt, to get serious about her writing.

Today Mary has some 75 titles to her credit. Many of her earliest are out of print, though her status as a statospheric NYT bestseller has publishers clamouring to reissue her older titles. Almost as eagerly as her fans are clamouring for her new work. Luckily, there’s lots of that, too. This year alone Mary see four new titles hit the shelves. They’ll be released sucessive months: the first three paperbacks in March, April, and May in paperback, with a hardcover release in June. That, for the non-booksellers in the audience, is a sign that your publisher loves you.

Again, almost as much as her fans do. Though I’m finding it a little difficult to describe exactly why. When trying to describe Balogh’s writing, the words that keep coming to mind are spare, and measured. Quiet, and dignified. It’s probably facile of me to link Mary’s careful language to the rationing of her youth, but I can’t help it. It’s as if she learned to be as restrained with words and emotions as she did with supplies.

One of the things that sets Balogh apart is that she truly understands, and communicates, the magnitude of the power the British aristocracy held. I’ve talked about class before, and find that
Balogh’s work offers consistent reiteration:  it was absolute.

first-comes-marriage 250.jpgBalogh’s new series illustrates her grasp of the realities of social distinction. The four books are about the Huxtable family, a well-bred (and poor) country family, the youngest of whom unexpectedly becomes the Earl of Merton. Everything about their lives changes instantly and forever.

First Comes Marriage is centred on the second sister, Vanessa, and tells the story of the
astonishing inheritance and the immediate aftermath. The next two paperbacks will follow the other two sisters, and the hardcover the heir himself. The step up in format makes makes sense: although his sisters have vast adjustments to make, it is Stephen, the new Earl, who has the most to deal with. A teenager raised in a small village, he is suddenly responsible for the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of tenant
farmers, and a seat in the House of Lords. He will have to be a role as well as a person, and learn how to hold onto both.

I have no doubt he will, and beautifully. Because another thing that Balogh does with simple grace is illuminate that changes themselves don’t have to be huge to have life-altering effects. A few words not spoken; a rash action not taken; one small moment of understanding given instead of withheld, and the world can be a different place.  It’s a very Canadian outlook.


Chris Szego is Canadian.  Mmm.  Canadian.


2 Responses to “Canadian Content”

  1. weed
    March 20th, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    Hi Chris,
    Balough’s professional biography is really interesting. I am also intrigued by your observation that she is popular as a romance author precisely because of the reserve with which she writes. That’s something that would seem to be a liability, but her popularity proves otherwise. Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

  2. Carol Borden
    April 4th, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    hey chris–
    you’ve really made me aware of what machines romance authors are–producing a crazy number of books in all kinds of genres while so many other authors are moving along if they have a book out every 3 years or so. it’s insane.

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