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?
I definitely like my heroines to step beyond the very limiting boundaries earlier societies placed on them. What I don’t like is when the historical context is misrepresented so that it seems like what she’s doing is perfectly ordinary, like the author has merely slapped historical costumes and settings onto a story that’s really set today.
This is something I’ve thought long and hard about as I craft my characters and decide what sort of personalities, adventures, and actions they will take. In Susannah’s case, she’s dead-set against marriage and willing to do just about anything to stay that way. She also swears like a sailor (still trying to figure out where THAT comes from, but needless to say, it shocks the heck out of Nate. It’s also not completely unheard of…I read something about a lady who ran in the Prince Regent’s circles who also had a potty mouth). I’m not interested in writing characters that take their life as it comes, but rather those that have backbone and are willing to buck convention to carve out a life for themselves.
One of my future stories, featuring Jeanne (one of the triplets), will definitely break societal rules. Jeanne is a “fixer,” whether it be hurt animals or broken people. Unlike genteel women of her day, she’s going to have a lot of knowledge and practical experience in the healing arts. While everyone else thinks she’s a bit of a ditz or a social butterfly, she’s actually a very smart, assertive woman (when she chooses to be so). Playing the society darling is her way to hide that she’s really a very unconventional woman.
I’m reading (well, listening to) “The Fever Tree” right now by Jennifer McVeigh and it’s an interesting story about a late 19th century girl left with two choices after her father dies penniless: go to South Africa and marry a man she doesn’t love or stay in England and become a nurse to her aunt’s children. Talk about not having choices. I’m not very far into the book yet, but I’m anxious to see whether the author maintains the societal conventions of the time or breaks them. I suspect a little of both.
“Playing the society darling is her way to hide that she’s really a very unconventional woman.”
I think this is a good way to address Jeanne’s point that you can’t just slap a 19th-century costume on a 21st-century woman. The characters have to acknowledge the social structures and possible consequences. And then, hopefully, our ladies are smart and savvy enough to get around those structures and consequences. I also have a character or two in each book who is obsessed with pleasing society who regularly ‘reminds’ the leading lady about the risks she’s taking. But most times, the ladies in question get away with their behavior. Sometimes they don’t and ‘plot devices ensue’, but in the end they don’t end up penniless and on the streets or in prison, which is what could have happened in real life.
The upside of writing historical romances is that there are legitimate reasons for keeping the hero and heroine apart, which is much less so in contemporary fiction. But then in historicals you’ve got that…history monkey on your back. I don’t read most historicals because that monkey looms so large for me, and I think it looms large for writers, too. I’ve read way too many historical romances where the social issues loom large. I find these kinds of romances pretty boring for the most part. If I want social history, I’ll ready social history. We’re reading romance for the romance. And the trick there, for me as a reader, is to find stories where the emotional arcs are not governed by social justice issues.
Wow, this is a complex question, and I’m going to ramble a little bit before I go and read everyone else’s comments.
I think the first important point is that there were women who were in charge of their destinies, but Their Stories Weren’t Always Told. I mean, look at the Wife of Bath in Chaucer. She’d buried three husbands, and ran her own business (businesses?), and went on pilgrimage herself. She was a mistress of her destiny. And, the other travellers didn’t seem to think she was a freak. How long was it until we saw another woman in literature who had such a strong role? (I’m talking about literature that survived to the 21st century, of course; other stories may have been told and lost for other reasons.)
I think we can go crazy trying to figure out just how much character a reader can swallow. It really depends on the reader. Some readers will suspend disbelief easily, as long as the writing is great. Others just don’t know the period and will believe anything. On the other hand, some people know the period well, and are thrown out of the story by anachronism. And there’s a large group of people who *think* they know the period well, and are thrown out of the story by perceived anachronism.
I think you just have to tell the story that the character is trying to show you. I’m trying to avoid problems by researching the period and using a lot of contemporary sources that show something more like real life, rather than a scholarly distillation of my era. But even then, I know that what I read has gone through media filters, and then further gets filtered by my own perception and knowledge.
(Grumpily: this is one of the reasons why I like a good fantasy or space opera. Yeah, sure, you have to build the world yourself, but you can include 1860s-like crinolines with Gatling-ish guns — or laser cannons. It just has to be cool within the context of the world.)
Cool comments. Just one more thing from me: the fun part of writing within historical confines is that those confines force you to become creative. You can’t just have your gals or guys do what you’d do. There’s a bit of a fence to come up against — compare to writing sonnets. You can’t use just any old word, you have to choose something that fits the rhythm and rhyme scheme. So, first choices are often discarded. (As are second, third and tenth choices (-:.) But when one finds the right thing to slot into place, it’s often amazing.