I promise this won’t be another rant about whether Jessica Simpson is too fat, or Katie Holmes too thin. It’s our historical heroines that concern me. I worry about them. Are they eating enough to catch the eye of historical heroes, or are they languishing into 21st century waifs?
Yes, I know, in every age there are thin women and not-so-thin women, tall women and short women and every other variation between. If you’re lucky, you live in an age when your particular “look” is in vogue, but even if you’re not, odds are you’ll still find love and happiness. And I’ll also discount the bodacious babes shown on most romance book covers, because they seldom bear much resemblance to the heroines inside.
But the truth is that for most of the historical past that our characters call home (England from the
middle ages until 19th century), the fashionable ideal was considerably more upholstered than in our own
time. A voluptuous figure was a sign of health and prosperity, desirability and fertile youth, and a well-rounded wife was a status symbol for many husbands, proof before the world that he could afford to keep her gloriously well-fed. The famous/infamous courtesan Lola Montez (1821-1861), right, wrote a bestselling advice book that included the perfect proportions for a Victorian beauty: hips that must be wider than shoulders.
The seventeenth-century women painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) such as the Three Graces, left, are notoriously mocked in our own time. For most modern women, being called "Rubensesque" is not exactly a compliment. Yet when this picture was new, in the middle of the Thirty Years War, most of Europe was
suffering from famine and deprivation, and all that creamy, dimpled pulchritude was doubly desirable for being so scarce.
The ample young woman drawn by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), right, in the Regency period would have represented the heights both of beauty (she is wickedly based on Emma, Lady Hamilton) and longing. Most young Englishmen were engaged in fighting at some point in the interminable wars with France, and Rowlandson’s women represented all
that was most alluring about the English girls at home, with their wholesomely ample figures and rosy cheeks the products of good English beef and country air.
In my last blog, I mentioned that the real-life heroine of my July book (The French Mistress), Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth (1649-1734), was fondly called Fubs by her lover, King Charles II of England (1630-1685), on account of her famously chubby cheeks and figure. He even named a royal yacht "Fubsy" in her honor. At least one blog-reader found this offensive, but I’m willing to bet that Louise was pleased, not insulted. I wrote her that way, too: thin as a teenager, growing rounder and rounder as time progresses, especially after the birth of her son, and I also wrote how charmed Charles was by her increasingly curvaceous figure. (Here's Louise a little later in life.) In the 1670s, plump women were prized and admired, and gentlemen sighed as they watched a lady work through a hearty meal
with gusto, an encouraging sign of being a “woman of appetites” in other areas as well.
In fact it’s really only been since the flappers of the 1920s that a boyish figure has been considered fashionable, and that the full cheeks that Regency ladies “improved” with cork were replaced by the hollowed high cheekbones of Vogue models. Now it’s a size zero that represents luxury and wealth: the income to support a gym membership, a personal trainer, liposuction and lifts, and a personal chef preparing a gourmet low-fat diet of costly organic vegetables and wild salmon. In a time of fast-food excess, indulgent deprivation has become the new sign of class-conscious status. Go figure.
But what has this done to the heroines in historical romances? Most readers augment the descriptions in books with what they see in movies. Like it or not, one picture will always be worth a thousand words, and there are plenty of writers who keep pictures of various movies stars before them as models for their characters. But Hollywood (and even the BBC) is more concerned with audience than accuracy. The current queen of historical movies is Keira Knightly, whose now-fashionably-skeletal figure would have horrified Almack’s; as lovely as Ms. Knightly’s face may be, compare her in evening dress to Sir Thomas Lawrence’s 1819 portrait of the lushly beautiful Countess of Blessington, right. When then-unknown Kate Winslett was cast as the lead in Titanic, snarky critics faulted her appropriately Gibson-Girl figure as being grossly overweight.
While there are a few notable exceptions, many historical romance heroines follow twentieth century tastes rather than those of her own time. They’re described as willowy, slender, elegantly thin, sylph-like. They have long, tapering legs that stride along with the hero’s. They don’t need the corsets that propriety forces them to wear. Though they generally have ample bosoms, they also often have waists so small that the hero’s hands can “span” them (which, when you think about it, makes them sound like Barbie, or at least credits the hero as having stupendously large hands.) They never have rounded bellies or dimpled thighs or pillowy bottoms, and they never, ever have hips broader than their shoulders. Sorry, Lola.
I'm not excluding myself, either. I've written my share of historical romance heroines who were tall and slender, even athletic to the point of being called Amazons. Not that there's anything wrong with that, for there have been Amazons in every generation. But I never used the same adjectives I've used to describe Louise de Keroualle, and I didn't imagine any of my romance heroines resembling Rubens' Graces; unconscious self-editing, I suppose, or simply following the writing crowd.
So why is this? Certainly most romance writers do their research, and know how their heroines “should” look to be considered great beauties of their time. Are writers seeing something different in their heads when they describe their heroine as fashionably thin, imagining her thinness as relative? Are editors insisting on thin heroines, or do reader expectations demand the ladies must look a certain way to be worthy of love? There’s always a certain element of fantasy to romances, no matter how well-researched. Are always-thin heroines like never-bald heroes?
What are your thoughts? How many lushly proportioned heroines can you remember in your favorite historical romance? Would you like to see more, or would you rather stick to modern ideals of a beautiful figure, however anachronistic?