A Precious Jewel is a Signet Regency romance published in 1993. It was republished as a MMPB in 2009, and is also available in digital editions for Amazon and Barnes & Noble. In a note for the 2009 reissue, Balogh writes that:
A Precious Jewel is that book of mine that insisted upon being written even though I knew it was quite impossible to write. Sir Gerald Stapleton was a minor character in The Ideal Wife, the hero’s best friend, who several times bemoaned the loss of Priss, his longtime mistress, after she had left him to marry another man. I had no intention of writing his story, much less of writing Priscilla’s. I was writing traditional Regencies at the time and could hardly have a working prostitute as a heroine and a beta male as a hero! When I tested the idea on a few fellow authors at a writers’ convention, they agreed with me wholeheartedly. But I was haunted by those two characters to such a degree that finally I had to write their story anyway. And I couldn’t put it down once I had started. I completed it in two weeks! Then I put it up on a shelf to gather dust for a while, quite certain that my editor would have a fit of the vapors if she read it. At last I sent it in anyway and waited for it to be rejected. And waited…. When I finally called about it, I was told it was in copyediting. No rejection, no revisions!
I haven’t read The Ideal Wife (1991), so perhaps I was more primed to see Gerald as hero material than readers who were used to him as a sidekick in that novel. I have read other Baloghs, though, including More than a Mistress (2000), which did the mistress thing in an entirely unexpected way, so I knew this author could and would break genre boundaries. And boy did she in A Precious Jewel.
Gerald meets Priss when his usual prostitute is unavailable. He is known for always asking for complete submission, not in a sexy BDSM way, but in a “I want you to lie there are let me do my business thank you very much” way. What he actually says — and absolutely means — is “All I want you to do is lie still.” There is a lot of sex between Priss and Gerald in this novel, and while some of it is quite emotional, none of it is sexy. I was hoping for a big breakthrough when he realizes that the very best sex is the kind where the partner actually has an orgasm too (he usually just mounts her), and although there was one scene along those lines, it didn’t change their sexual dynamic all that much. Of all the unwritten rules in romance, I think this was the biggest one Balogh flouted.
Other unusual features: It wasn’t just that the heroine was a down on her luck heiress working in London’s most fashionable brothel. It was that she was really a prostitute, actually living that life when we meet her. She was no virgin prostitute (see Balogh’s The Secret Pearl) but has had sex with lots of men prior to meeting the hero. And it wasn’t just that the hero was not-a-duke — he’s a mere baronet — but that he was as unheroic as I think I have ever come across in this genre. In fact, in a twist on the prostitute-virgin theme, it is he who has never been kissed (although he is not a virgin). Here is how a secondary character describes him:
He was of average height, slim and well-formed, fashionably dressed. His face was pleasant even if not startlingly handsome. His fair hair curled into no particular style, but it was soft and clean.
Gerald is of average intelligence (“I was never very bright, you know,” he said, explaining how he almost flunked out of school). He is prone to sulking and self-pity, nearly humorless, and, as Priss realizes, “not a man of discriminating tastes.”
He doesn’t even have a young man about town’s fashion sense:
I never know quite what should go with what. I can never quite see why it matters that something should match something else or that something should be all the crack. I didn’t know that that blue dress of yours was unfashionable until you told me so. It’s pretty. That is all I see.”
When Priss is insulted by a couple of young gentlemen of the ton, it is Severn, the hero of The Ideal Wife, not Gerald, who takes them on. Gerald is prone to indecisiveness, sulking, an inability to hold his liquor, and a dread fear of women, especially their sexual power.
Gerald is not a dashing, witty, handsome or powerful hero, but, somehow, despite the fact that he persists in denying his feelings for Priss — while allowing her to slavishly minister to his sexual and emotional needs — until nearly the very end of the novel, Balogh makes him sympathetic. He at least has a level of self-awareness:
SIR GERALD STAPLETON THOUGHT HIMSELF A creature of habit, much as he hated being so. Sometimes he wished he could be quite free, even of his own nature.
In contrast the the self-confidence of so many romance heroes, Gerald is quite insecure:
But who was hiding behind it? He was too uncertain of himself, too unwise in the ways of human nature, too innocent, perhaps, to dare to try to find out.
In a way, its Ger’s averageness that makes him appealing. Instead of the usual feeling I get when I read a romance, a kind of “how could anybody not fall in love with this guy?!” (even, and perhaps more so, when he’s a rake, although I know I wouldn’t recommend a rake to any friend in real life), Gerald made me think things like, “Well, there’s someone for everyone” and “Everyone deserves to be loved.” It’s not the sexiest or most exciting sentiment, but it worked.
Priss is very stereotypically feminine. Very maternal, caring, selfless, a strength that shows not in action but in her ability to withstand disappointment and misfortune, physically tiny, very pretty (but not voluptuous), etc.
Gerald could be unbelievably selfish and was often unable to experience Priss as a fellow human being. What makes her good, to Ger, is exactly her tendency not to assert herself. As Gerald thinks:
Priss was too good to be described in coarse terms. Not good in the way one would expect a whore to be good, perhaps, but good in the way one would expect a wi—. Well, she was good. She satisfied him utterly and always had. Even that very first time she had given him precisely what he had asked for. He could not remember a time when she had failed to please him in bed.
There’s a bit of a back story that tries to explain why Gerald is terrified of attachment to women (and hence, why he fears a real sexual coupling), but Balogh thankfully doesn’t spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing him. I almost felt that bit was unnecessary, actually. People can just be like Gerald, can’t they?
Why did Priss fall in love with Gerald almost immediately? A cynical reader might answer, “because the author put him in her bed,” but I thought Balogh did a good job of communicating the ineffable attractions that draw two people — even average people — together. I think Priss sees his innate decency, and I think she’s the kind of woman who really wants the role of helpmeet to her man, whomever that ends up being. In an odd way, in reading A Precious Jewel, I was reminded a bit of Megan Hart’s fantasy erotic novellas, Pleasure and Purpose, which featured women of the Order of Solace, whose purpose in life is to provide for men. And I felt the same tension as a reader between being annoyed at these female characters for not behaving in a way I can 100% admire, and being even more annoyed with myself for imposing my ideas of what a woman should be like on fictional characters.
There’s a very slow dawning realization on Gerald’s part — maybe too slow for some readers — that Priss actually exists independently of him. In fact, as the reader but not Gerald (who is very easily fooled) knows, Priss has been hiding a good part of “Priscilla,” her complete, whole self, from him. “Priscilla” refers not so much her noble background, but her core sense of self. She has been protecting herself from hurt just as much as Gerald has been doing. As she says, “I know what I am. I also know who I am, and the two are not the same at all.” Through everything, Priss sees herself as protecting a core of dignity no one can take away. When Priss responds thusly to Gerald’s question about her family:
She shook her head slightly. “I am your mistress, Gerald,” she said. “In that capacity I will do all in my power to please you. I have no past and no future. Just this present reality. I am your mistress. Will you come into the bedchamber and let me give you pleasure?”
… I think it has to be read in two ways, one in terms of her nature as a person who derives pleasure from making others happy, and two, as, an assertion of her independence. She won’t tell him. To do that would be to expose Priscilla to hurt. In short, I found it hard to pigeonhole Priss.
There’s another way Balogh is a bit like Megan Hart (or vice versa): I find both of their writing styles very clean and spare. I feel that with Balogh there is not a word out of place. Yet both manage to have a lot going on, I think. There’s a lot a careful reader could say about the relationship of the body to the the mind in A Precious Jewel, about the relationship of words to thoughts, and about the close relationship of desire to anxiety.
I thoroughly enjoyed A Precious Jewel as I read it. To be fair, I should note that many of these critical questions were raised for me later, as I wrote this review. It is definitely worth reading just for how odd it is, and for implicitly asking the question of how much fantasy a reader needs to call a book a romance.
Finally, Priscilla is an avid novel reader. I wonder if Balogh was taking a jab at romance critics who think such readers are flighty fantasists in this passage:
Priscilla had always lived a great deal in her imagination. Perhaps that very fact helped her to distinguish between illusion and reality. She knew that what she was experiencing, what Gerald was experiencing, was not anything of any permanence.