This past week, on one of the author loops I read, someone posted about her preference to read historical romances in which heroines either don’t step outside the bounds of the time period’s social structures, or suffer (social) consequences if they do. While I don’t want my 19th-century heroines to read like 21st-century women, I can’t get on board with keeping our heroines from stepping over the lines or cutting off their toes if they do.
During our McDaniel classes, we discussed the need for characters, especially protagonists, to be in some ways larger or better or more interesting in stories than most of us are in real life. A story about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives under ordinary circumstances just isn’t likely to be a very riveting read. One or more of those ‘ordinaries’ need to become extraordinary to make our fictional worlds worth exploring. And I want my historical heroines, whether I’m reading about them or writing about them, to be extraordinary.
There’s another reason I, and I’m sure some other historical romance readers, want heroines of days past to be strong of will, mind, and action. The truth is, even if we’re reading about past time periods, we are looking for aspects that are meaningful and familiar to our 21st-century lives. And sometimes we’re looking for the roots of our strengths and the hard-fought battles women have won over the past few centuries.
That’s not to say we should eschew history. It’s vitally important to recognize just how abysmal women’s rights were just scant centuries or even decades ago, and to acknowledge that, tragically, sexism, abuse, and downright oppression of women exists to this day. These stories need to be told in both fiction and non-fiction. We must observe and define the injustices in order to to address and hopefully one day eradicate them. Sometimes these stories are told in the context of historical romance fiction, and when that’s the case and it’s done well, I applaud those efforts. But just as we don’t want every heroine to be plucky or virginal, we also don’t want every one of them to be submissive and resigned to the fate her father or husband or male guardian has planned for her.
I’ve recently returned to writing historical romance for the first time in many years and have become acutely aware of just how far I go as a writer to create female protagonists who step outside the bounds of society’s very narrowly-defined norms. In the series I’m writing, each of the leading ladies has her own reason for being ‘different’, whether it’s a special intellect or artistic talent or unusual upbringing. And it’s no mistake that all of them are over the age of 21. In the Regency and Regency-related eras such as the Victorian age, in which my stories are set, both men and women had more say in legal matters such as marriage once they reached that age.
This past week, both Chuck Wendig and Jenny Crusie discussed the agency of female characters on their respective blogs, here and here. Reading their posts made me realize that’s what I’m doing – finding a way to give my Victorian-era leading ladies agency. I truly believe that some – if not many – women of that era wanted to rule their own destiny. Precious few were able to able to achieve that goal. In many cases, survival itself depended on their absolute conformity to social strictures. By giving my characters agency and the kind of voice most women of that era could only dream of, I’m trying in some small way to honor the spirit of the women who have gone before us.
How strong and independent do you like your historical romance heroines to be? How far over the line can they go and still keep you engaged and rooting for them?