In comments posted on my recent blog “The Good Parts”, Francois asked, "Is there a book where the heroine is more experienced than the hero? Please please please. Just one so that I know they exist."
Oh, sure, I thought, there must be ONE such couple in all the zillions of historical romances out there. Yet though I thought about this a good long time, I couldn’t come up with a single book with a virginal hero and experienced heroine.
Fortunately RevMelinda’s memory is longer and better than mine, and she came up with two: Jo Beverley’s Forbidden and Mary Balogh’s No Man’s Mistress. Mary Jo also came up with another: Seducing Mr. Heywood, by Jo Manning (Jo Manning is also the author of a splendid non-fiction biography — My Lady Scandalous: The Amazing Life and Outrageous Times of Grace Dalrymple Eliot, Royal Courtesan), and I’m sure that you far-reaching, far-reaading Wenchlings will be able to come up with a few more.
Still, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit this week, having just finished reading the copy edits for my two July books (no, that’s not supposed to happen in publishing, but still, stars do collide, and when both copy-edits were due on the same date, take-out for dinner was the result in this house.)
The first book, a Miranda Jarrett historical romance called Seduction of an English Beauty (next in the series that began with The Adventurous Bride) features a young English lady traveling in Italy with her governess, who falls in love with a dashing Roman. There are certain things that set this story apart from the current run of historical romances –– for one, it’s set in eighteenth century Rome; for another, one of the hero’s friends is a castrato, surely a first for Harlequin –– but it also has more traditional aspects. The hero is charming and rakish, with many women in his past. The heroine is a beautiful, with a taint of scandal to her name, but a virgin nonetheless. At the heart, it’s a love story: the couple overcome obstacles, fall in love, go to bed, and marry.
The second book I’ve been editing this week was Royal Harlot, a historical novel written by the other evil twin, Susan Holloway Scott. No true love here: Barbara Villiers (1641-1709) made her own way in the world, and had a high old time of it, too. She was in love with the man who took her virginity (at fifteen, yikes), had her heart moderately broken by him, and then it was off to the races. She married a good honest fellow, and broke his heart, too, so badly that he had to retreat to the Continent. She became as close to a female libertine as can be found; love and sex were not necessarily connected in her mind. Yes, she was Charles II’s mistress for a decade and the mother of six (!) of his illegitimate children, but neither of them were faithful to the other, or particularly bothered by the infidelity, either. Barbara’s other lovers ranged from actors to earls, street acrobats to young officers, from much older men to much younger, and for the most part, she thoroughly enjoyed herself.
Oh, there are heroines masquerading as Fallen Women, working undercover in a brothel to discover an Important Secret, or pretending to be Ruined for some useful plot development. There are the occasional widows, too, or ladies who’d fallen in love once or twice, but been jilted at the altar. But most of the time, as the hero eventually discovers, the heroine is in fact a virgin (even among the widows.)
Is virginity the ultimate “gift” to the man the heroine loves –– proof that he’s the only one for her, ever? Is it a sign of her loyalty even before she’s met him? Is it the rare reward for his perseverance (for the course of romance-love seldom goes smoothly, or else these books would be twenty pages instead of four hundred)?
Or is it because in a contemporary world where very few brides are virgins and half of all marriages end in divorce, modern readers find irresistable the dream of innocence saved for the one man who will be the true love for life a wonderful ideal? Or is it irresistable because it’s so long ago as in a fictionalized historical past?
Just don’t expect the same in return from the hero. The current crop of heroes tend to be gentlemen with lively pasts and mistresses galore. It’s expected of them, as, in fact, it often was of gentlemen in the past. There were women you dallied with for sport and to prove your manhood, and there were ladies you married. And if you wanted to be sure your heir was yours (in theory, anyway), you made sure your bride was a virgin.
But why is the double standard alive and well in historical romances? What is it about the fantasy of finding true love and great sex the very first time with an experienced male? The historical precedent is part of it, but real-life gentlemen in the past did in fact occasionally fall in love with and marry their much-experienced mistresses.
And why, too, are historical romance heroes so loath to be younger and less experienced? (I do recall an anthology, In Praise of Younger Men, that included a novella by Jo.) Why are the older, wiser heroines so few and far between –– especially since so many of the readers (and the authors) are aging like all good baby boomers are doomed to do? Certainly this is a big fantasy for men –- the young greenhorn tutored by the worldly older woman –– but why don’t we get the story from Maggie May’s perspective more often?
I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I bet you all do, or at least some good, strong opinions. Do you like the convention of the younger virginal heroine and older experienced hero? Or would you like to see more variety?
(And congratulations, Francois: You’ve earned yourself a book for your question today!)