Christina here. I’ve been thinking about so called “hen lit” recently, as I read some books that could be put in that category. It’s usually defined as stories with older heroines, and Wikipedia also calls it “matron lit”, a term I vehemently dislike! I mean, just because you’ve hit a certain age doesn’t mean you automatically turn into a “matron”, does it? I’m of the mindset of the poem Warning by Jenny Joseph, about breaking the rules when you get old, wearing purple and doing things you shouldn’t just because you can – that is the way I want to age, not conforming to any mould.
What do we consider an older heroine? I’m guessing women from the age of about forty/forty-five and upwards, although to me forty now seems fairly young. (Yes, I’m already that old!) It’s all very subjective, but the actual age doesn’t really matter – it’s the fact that they are not pretty young things any more, waiting for their big love story and Happy-Ever-After with a gorgeous man, two point five children, and a lovely house with a picket fence. Instead they are older and (hopefully) wiser than the average romance heroine, and may already have been there and done that. Also got the T-shirt and discarded it.
In fact, most of these characters have already been married and had a family. Perhaps their children have just left home so they’re empty-nesters, or maybe they have recently been divorced when their husband had a mid-life crisis and traded her in for a much younger model, thus denting her confidence. Both of those things can cause a lot of upheaval and self-reflection, which makes for good stories. They are also a chance to start again, reinvent yourself and figure out what you really want from the rest of your life. Not to mention find a partner who appreciates you just the way you are.
I don’t mind what age the protagonists are in the romances I read, but if they’re older, I do want them to end up with their HEA with a man the reader can trust isn’t going to rush off the minute some nubile 30-something decides they fancy him. The heroine needs to find a deeper, more satisfying love than the one(s) she’s had in the past, drawing on her own life experiences to see that this time it’s real.
Having said that, I still prefer to read about younger heroines who have their whole lives in front of them. There are so many more possibilities in store for them, things an older heroine has already been through, the main one being having children. If she is forty-five or over, the chances of her becoming a mother (again in some cases) are pretty slim. What if she and the new hero really want a family? If so, we already know they’re in for heartbreak because it’s not going to happen, whereas with a younger heroine it could, even if it doesn’t necessarily do so.
One book I read recently had a heroine who’d been in a long relationship with a man who refused to have kids with her, even though it was her dearest wish. She finally ditched him, only to find out he’d made his new girlfriend pregnant within months of meeting her. The heroine is by that stage aged 42 and could potentially have a baby. (I know someone who had kids at age 41 and 43 without any problems). Yet although the author gives this heroine a second chance at love with a wonderful man, she doesn’t let her get pregnant. That made me so sad and I somehow felt cheated! I would have preferred to leave the couple at the end with the hope that she might have a baby, rather than finding out in a sequel that it didn’t happen for them.
There was the consolation of a “bonus” child, ie the hero already had a daughter with a previous wife and the heroine becomes the girl’s mother to all intents and purposes. They have a very close relationship and love each other. For some readers, that might be enough, but it wasn’t for me. I know the definition of “family” can be very loose, and sometimes we choose who we want to consider as family members. These chosen ones can often be more wonderful than actual blood relatives, and adopted children are of course loved just as much as those you’ve given birth to because they are wanted and longed for. That’s lovely. Yet I prefer stories where there is still hope for the heroine to have what her heart desires, her own baby.
There is, of course, the opposite end of the scale where the heroines are very young. Sometimes too young. However, this is usually in historical romances, where we have to remember that people were considered adults at a much earlier age because life in general was shorter. Some readers object to heroines who are eighteen (or even younger occasionally even though it’s not a YA book), but to me what matters is their maturity level. For example, if they’ve had a tough upbringing, they might be as ready for love and marriage as someone much older.
Georgette Heyer often has older heroines – although her definition of old is what was considered so during Regency times. A woman who hadn’t found a husband after three or four seasons in London could be “on the shelf” even though she might only be 23 or 24. That seems a bit silly to us, but to them it would have been a serious matter. Either way, I love Heyer’s older heroines because they are usually very sharp and intelligent, with a wonderful sense of humour, and they are very pragmatic and resourceful. They don’t expect romance, and when they get it, it is therefore doubly satisfying for both them and the reader. Contrast that with some of the “schoolroom misses” who are having their first season, and I know which one I prefer.
As I said, it’s all subjective, and we each have our favourites.
What is your view on older heroines – love them or loathe them? Do you perhaps want to see MORE older heroines in books? And what are the pros and cons?