Mary Balogh's The Secret Pearl was first published in 1991 and Balogh writes that "It is often named by long-time readers as one of their favorites among my books." You can read an excerpt here and there are glowing reviews available from The Romance Reader and All About Romance.
The central metaphor of Mary Balogh's The Secret Pearl is obvious from the title: it clearly concerns a secret pearl. Adam, the hero, says that in his "pre-Waterloo days [...] I thought the world my oyster with a priceless pearl within. I suppose we all believe that when we are very young" (122). Fleur, the heroine, then thinks about what he has said:
Once he had been young and handsome and carefree. Once he had thought the world to be his oyster, life a priceless pearl. In his pre-Waterloo days, as he had described them. And yet he had spoken sadly, as if those dreams had proved to be empty, worthless ones. (123)The repetition serves to emphasise the metaphor. The symbolism of the pearl shifts, however, as Adam begins to see glimpses of the happiness he might have with Fleur:
She was coming to dominate his thoughts by day and haunt his dreams by night. He was coming to live for the moments when he could see her, listen to her music, listen to her voice, see her eyes on his. She was beginning to give light and meaning to his days.Again the metaphor is emphasised through repetition. Adam describes Fleur as his "pearl beyond price" (323) and he dreams of a time when he could
In her he was beginning to glimpse the precious pearl that he had once expected of life. (234)
love her by night. [...] And he would fill her with his seed. He would watch her grow with his children. And he would watch those children being born and watch her giving birth to them. [...] He would be happy again and happy forever. He would open the oyster shell and find the pearl within. (327)Fleur's name suggests that she is a flower but she in fact has multiple identities.1 I'd like to suggest that this multiplicity of names and roles also characterises her relationship to the pearl/oyster metaphor. Clearly she is, at times, Adam's "pearl beyond price", but when she is being filled with seed, and growing "with his children", she perhaps more closely resembles the oyster. As an oyster she brings forth objects of great beauty and worth, whether these be love, happiness or offspring.
I'm going to further explore the pearl/oyster metaphor by comparing Fleur's experience with that of the oysters used in the cultured pearl industry. Admittedly this industry did not come into existence until well after the Regency period in which the novel is set, and it could be argued that I'm pushing the metaphor far further than it was intended to be taken, but I think the comparison with cultured pearls is both interesting and, in many ways, appropriate. This is not solely because I'd like to play on the word "culture", though Fleur is clearly a cultured woman in the sense that she appreciates the arts (she possesses musical talent, can dance and paint well, and has an appreciation for literature and the theatre) but because the cultured pearl is in part man-made, just as Fleur's troubles are.2
The process of creating a cultured pearl begins when a man-made implant is inserted into the oyster's gonad:
Cultured pearls are formed in a pearl oyster, thanks to human interference. In any pearl formation, two things are required, the outer epithelium of the mantle lobe and core substance or nucleus. It was found that cut pieces of the mantle epithelium would provide the pearl secreting cells and that processed shell beads would be accepted by the oyster as the foreign body. Through careful surgery, the mantle piece graft tissue and the shell bead nucleus are implanted together, side by side, into the gonad of the oyster. (James)That clinical procedure which affects one of the oyster's sexual organs sounds unappealing and painful for the oyster, even if the worker, like Adam, might claim that "The treatment I gave you [...] was not rough" (9). It is, in fact, rather like Fleur's first experience of sex:
He leaned across her and took her by the upper arms, moving her so that she lay across the bed instead of along it. He grasped her hips and drew her forward until her knees bent over the side of the bed and her feet rested on the floor.And so the irritant, the foreign body, is inserted into Fleur. Oysters take some time to recover from the procedure and "A common cause of death is serious infection of the wounds inflicted at the time of the implantation operation" (James) . Fleur "bled intermittently throughout the day. She was so sore that sometimes she squirmed against the sharp pain of her torn virginity" (10).3 That Fleur's loss of virginity is also emotionally traumatic is quite clear: "she had discovered that survival after all was not necessarily a triumphant thing, but could take one into frightening depths of despair" (10) but "Never, even during this day of blackest despair, had she considered suicide as an escape from her predicament" (12).
He slid his palms between her thighs and spread her legs wide. He pushed them wider with his knees [...]. And he spread his fingers across the tops of her legs and opened her with his thumbs. [...] He positioned himself and mounted her with one sharp deep thrust. (5)
To give them time and a safe environment in which their wounds can heal, "Freshly operated oysters should be reared undisturbed for a few days" (James), often in the laboratory, before being placed in the waters of the oyster farm. It is "five days after she had become a whore" (17) that Fleur is offered a post as a governess, and by then 'The bleeding had stopped and the soreness had healed" (17). It is a further "six days later" (21) that she is ready to be transplanted to Adam's country estate, Willoughby Hall, where the process of transforming her trauma into something rare and precious will begin.
It is from this point onwards that the process of creating the pearl is identical in both natural and cultured pearls. Although the industrial procedure deliberately introduces a bead into the oyster, naturally occurring pearls also result from the oyster's "response to an irritant inside its shell" and in both cases the oyster "secretes the calcium carbonate substance called nacre to cover the irritant" (Wikipedia). The layers of nacre build up, creating the pearl and thus the oyster, like Fleur, makes something valuable out of a process that has caused it distress.
Finally the pearl will be removed. If this is done carefully, the oyster will survive: "In case the oysters need to be re-used for a second time, the pearls are carefully removed by opening the pearl-sac through the gonad taking care not to damage nor stress the oyster" (James). The extraction of the "pearl", Fleur's love for Adam , is both a relief and a source of renewed pain to her, since the pearl must be kept secret and Fleur herself, the oyster, is left alone in her native environment to recover from her loss. She must remain a lowly oyster (a schoolmistress), albeit one who has produced a secret pearl (her love for Adam, an object created by the overlaying of layers of respect and desire over the initial, implanted and traumatising man-made bead) until, though the open acknowledgement of their relationship she can be fully identified as a cultured pearl, a duchess.
She takes the place of the previous duchess, Sybil, who never learned to behave like an oyster and is instead destroyed by her troubles.4 Like Fleur, Sybil lost the chance to marry the man she loved, but unlike Fleur she never accepted this or became a stronger person:
she could have helped herself. [...] But Sybil's character was not a strong one. Had she been given happiness, doubtless she would have remained sweet all her life. But she was a taker, not a giver, and once everything she held dear had been taken from her, there had been nothing left in her life except bitterness and hatred and a desperate reaching out for sensual gratification (374)Fleur's predicament and her response to it are therefore contrasted with those of Sybil. This romance would appear to be one with a moral, and that moral is that even if the world isn't your oyster, you should behave like one and make precious pearls out of life's harsh realities.
- Balogh, Mary. The Secret Pearl. New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.
- James, P.S.B.R.. Pearl Oyster Farming and Pearl Culture. Cochin, India: Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, 1991.
2 When interviewed for the post of governess Fleur reveals that
I was proficient in all my lessons. I speak French and Italian tolerably well, I play the pianoforte and have some skill with watercolours. I have always been particularly interested in literature and history and the classics. I have some skill with a needle. (18)In addition to these abilities she can dance well, as is demonstrated various times in the course of the novel, when she returns to her home village to work as a teacher she plans to teach the children to sing, and she has "a poise about her, a sense of dignity" (391). She is, then, an "accomplished woman' even by Mr Darcy's stringent definition:
observed Elizabeth, "you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished woman."
"Yes, I do comprehend a great deal in it."
"Oh! certainly," cried his faithful assistant, "no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved."
"All this she must possess," added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading."
"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any."
"Are you so severe upon your own sex as to doubt the possibility of all this?"
"I never saw such a woman. I never saw such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe united." (Austen, Pride and Prejudice Chapter 8)
3 The extent of Fleur's bleeding and pain as a consequence of her loss of virginity is clearly a deliberate choice on Balogh's part. As has been noted, Adam was not particularly rough in his handling of Fleur, and many women experience little or no pain during their first experience of sexual intercourse. According to one article by Betina Arndt in The Sydney Morning Herald
no-one really knows how common it is for women with intact hymen to bleed on first intercourse. Sara Paterson-Brown, an enterprising British gynaecologist at Queen Charlotte's Hospital in London, surveyed 41 colleagues about their first intercourse experiences and found 14 bled, 26 did not and one did not remember.Arndt notes that tampon usage may play a part in this and apparently it's also reflected in the descriptions in romance novels:
Sandra Pertot is a Newcastle clinical psychologist who has specialised in sex therapy for three decades. She's struck by the fact that these days the hymen rarely rates a mention by her clients. [...] Pertot believes tampon use is contributing to this change, not just through stretching of the hymen but by changing girls' attitudes to first intercourse. [...] This probably means fewer women are experiencing pain or trauma the first time around. Pertot mentions a recent shift in the plot of Mills and Boon romance novels. "When we were growing up the novels always described the first time as 'pleasure mixed with pain'. Today the pain is gone. It's always wonderful right from the start with him taking her to heights of ecstasy she never knew before."Anyway, after that not very brief, but hopefully interesting digression, I'll get back to Fleur. It seems to me that her experience is particularly bloody and painful and the fact that it's so traumatic is not simply a reflection of reality but at least partly symbolic of her emotional trauma at becoming "a member of a profession the very thought of which had always horrified and disgusted her. She was a whore. A prostitute. A streetwalker" (11).
4 I can't help but wonder if Sybil's name is significant. Sibyls, in ancient times, were pagan prophetesses. T. S. Elliot's The Waste Land includes an introductory epigraph:
“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere . . .”, [which] translates “For once I saw with my own eyes the Cumean Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked the Sibyl, 'what do you want?' she answered 'I want to die'.” (The Literary Encyclopedia)Another suicidal Sibyl is to be found in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray:
Living in a theatrical world of make-believe and melodrama, Sibyl cannot accept the reality of Dorian's rejection. When she decides to give up acting for his love, she is shocked at Dorian's callous, "without art you are nothing" (100), followed by his desertion. Steeped in theatrics, Sibyl commits suicide. (Gates)