Would Barbara Cartland approve? Dukes, maidens, and fallen women in three new historical romances
My education in historical romance began early, plundering the box of Barbara Cartlands my grandmother kept under her bed. In Cartland’s novels, the heroines were inevitably blushing virgins—despite the fact that the sexual revolution was well underway in real life. The hero was sexually experienced, as well as usually being somewhat older and wealthier than his lady. The balance of power in the relationship consequently tilted to the male side, although it was understood that the hero was made vulnerable by his longing for the heroine, thus transferring power back into female hands—a more satisfying conclusion for the (presumably female) reader.
Reading this trio of historical romances from Avon led me to ponder how much—or how little—has changed in forty or so years. All three are set in the 19th century, a period during which the balance of power, both economic and sexual, arguably shifted farther than ever toward the male. Restrictions on property ownership and civil rights for women were reinforced by severe social consequences for any lapse of virtue on the distaff side. In the literature of the period, a fallen woman inevitably suffered exile or death—think of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, or Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. There was a presumption of chastity on the part of any respectable woman, and I don’t think this has changed all that much in mainstream historical fiction. We’re still inclined, as readers, to assume a link between respectability and virtue when it comes to our 19th-century female characters, and are primed to expect a lapse to be followed by a downfall.
How does this sit with today’s romances? The key to a good romance novel is to make the reader identify with the heroine so that she, the reader, will fall in love with the hero as the heroine does. And it’s hard to make the reader of today identify with the virgins of yesteryear, because our culture doesn’t make female chastity a priority. Hence the trend is to give the heroine some kind of sexual experience. The savvy writer of historical romances set in the 19th century will—in addition to working the heroine’s sexual knowledge into the story—guide the reader through an understanding of how that knowledge would affect the heroine in the context of her own society.
In Laura Lee Guhrke’s How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days, Edie, an American heiress, has economic clout, but a rape in her past that society assumes to have been consensual sex brands her a ruined woman. She buys the prestige of her impoverished husband’s ducal title as a shelter from scandal, assured that Stuart will remain in Africa. When Stuart decides he wants a real marriage, complete with heirs, he finds he has to convince his wife that sex can be blissful and joyous, and to achieve this aim he must give her confidence that she is in control over the process. The story thus moves from Stuart’s pursuit of his aims within the 10-day time limit he has set for himself to Edie’s fulfillment and healing, a decidedly un-Victorian view of the marriage relationship.
Gayle Callen’s Redemption of the Duke presents a heroine who has not only had previous sexual experience, but has been forced by poverty to become a titled man’s mistress. Adam, attempting to atone for the actions that resulted in Faith’s destitution, uses his money and social status to maneuver Faith—now trying to earn her living respectably—into accepting his help against her will. After Adam has successfully engineered a marriage by ensuring he and Faith are seen in a passionate embrace, she turns his strategies against him and rejects him, forcing him to see his efforts to be a benefactor as overbearing:
“This is about your guilt, and your need to be in control. You had all the power over me. Do you know how I blamed myself for besmirching your honorable reputation? How I thought my own unseemly lust forced you into this marriage?”
Adam, made aware of Faith’s need for (self) respect, returns power to her by ensuring she confronts and defeats those who have tried to use her past against her—and their marriage can now proceed on a more equal footing.
Caroline Linden’s It Takes a Scandal has a heroine who’s a virgin, but not entirely a blushing one. Abigail, in line for a substantial dowry, is firmly in control of her relationship with Sebastian, who is physically wounded and deprived of the wealth he would need to marry. Yet Abby’s sexual curiosity gives the more experienced Sebastian a chance to redress the imbalance of power—in a hilarious riff on Fifty Shades of Grey and the erotic pamphlets that really circulated in Regency times, Sebastian and Abigail bond over a naughty series called 50 Ways To Sin. Sebastian’s social and economic weakness is disregarded as he initiates a more-than-willing Abigail into foreplay, an activity in which he can control the action. Abigail finally steps over the economic breach by reminding Sebastian, who believes he has nothing to offer her, that he can supply what she really wants—love and passion, elements that, she has noted, are often missing in London society.
In many ways, romances like these are a continuation of the fantasy England conjured up by Barbara Cartland, where handsome dukes and mysterious recluses abound, ready to be captured by young women whose personal charms are their weapons. Yet these are fantasies written for 21st-century women who hold a degree of economic power and sexual freedom their 19th-century ancestors probably wouldn’t even understand, yet alone dream of. These three new Avon novels are fine examples of how today’s writers mold their stories so that the reader can still have an alpha hero and yet see the heroine with whom she identifies receive the power and respect she considers her own due. In that respect historical romance writers should be the envy of their mainstream counterparts, who lay themselves open to charges of presentism if their heroine steps across the sex and power divide.
About the contributor: Jane Steen was born in England and has lived in three countries, but still manages to hang on to the English accent. She currently resides in the Chicago suburbs with her family, but visits the UK as often as possible. Jane is a self-published author of historical fiction, starting with The House of Closed Doors, the first in a series. She’s also a runner, a knitter and designer of lace shawls, and full-time executive assistant to a cognitively disabled daughter.
Posted by Claire Morris