“Brown-eyed women and red grenadine; the bottle was dusty but the liquor was clean”

Or, Writing Historical Heroines to Modern Sensibilities

Probably one of the trickiest balances to strike in writing historical romance is to give the hero and heroine a relationship that feels appropriate to the time but that does not offend modern sensibilites of parity and reciprocity in love and marriage.  One very big factor in determining whether a winning combination can be found is who the heroine is.  I’ve read heroines of supposed historicals who come off as appallingly modern in their view of sexuality (including some with multiple partners pre-marriage…can you see my eyebrow going up?) or their mastery of Freudian analysis (can you see my other one mirroring the first?) or their insistence on being independent when the genesis of that idea is not given.  For me, as a reader, it’s worse to have a heroine who has a modern view of love, marriage, the world, men, etc., for no historically plausible reason than to read a story about a woman who lives by a code I consider oppressive.

The three easiest ways to write a heroine out of that corner are to make her headstrong enough to just do what she wants regardless of social “rules” or her parent/guardian’s permission, intelligent enough to think outside the box of her social station and cultural mores, or caught up in circumstances so extraordinary that they take the heroine outside of the usual constraints of her culture.  Such circumstances wouldn’t even have to take place in the novel; they could be part of her backstory, as long as that experience gave her an entirely different outlook on the world from the people around her.

The notion I brought up in my last post, about either circumstances or the heroine needing to be out of the ordinary to make an interesting story, also applies to making it  a story modern women can relate to.  If a heroine is singularly dedicated to music, for example, and her beau values her ability with an instrument or her voice or composition, then it gives him a window into her that we can appreciate.  He loves her not for being beautiful or well-behaved–even those qualities make her an appropriate match–but because she is unique and special in a way that moves and fascinates him.  If a heroine is a wallflower but refuses to settle for anything less than real love, and won’t pretend to be someone or something she is not to get a husband, even if it means spinsterhood, then she has an extraordinary sense of self and an inner strength many people now can only wish for.  She might in many ways be the product of her upbringing, but in others she is resolute enough to stand firm in what she wants rather than bowing to what is convenient, comfortable, or expected of her, and that kind of backbone is still very much in vogue. 

But creating a heroine able to set aside the constraints of a time and culture that might ordinarily be uncomfortable to a modern audience is not the only route to take, even if it is the easiest.  If your heroine can tell some deeper truth about the feminine experience of the world, then her time and place will be immaterial.  They might even be integral to shaping her specific experience in a way that, removed, would render her experience less universal. Take Elinor Dashwood–she is everything a lady is supposed to be, and her story would lose much of its poignancy and all of its drama if she had broken social rules with the same impunity as her sister.  It could even be argued that, had she behaved more like Marianne, she would never have won the regard of Edward Ferrars, and then she has no story at all instead of the wonderful parable of why common sense is better than emotional whimsy (yes, obviously, I am “sense” and not “sensibility”).  Do we now find her frustrating and obtuse because she will not name her feelings to him and cannot recognize his as anything beyond friendship?  Absolutely, and yet her story is irresistible because we can extract the rules of politeness and behavior we ourselves follow, and then her anguish becomes a mirror for our own 21st century version of it.

The flip side of writing a heroine who is exactly what she’s meant to be for her time and place is that she can also be a vehicle for exploring aspects of the female experience mainstream modern culture tends to devalue or disallow.  For example, the notion of sex and sensuality being a giant unknown when a young (or not so young) woman experiences it for the first time. I’m not going to say that some women don’t still have that experience, but for myself, and all of my friends, sex came five years after our knowledge of it; since we were 12 years old, at least, we’d known what went where and most of the various alternatives.  (About the only new place I’ve encountered as an adult was, humorously, the “shin-shi shin-shi” referred to in one of Will Ferrell’s Lover sketches on SNL…the ear canal.  Exactly.)  The only thing different was doing it instead of thinking about it, which, yes, huge difference, but it’s not the same as being taken completely by surprise.  The knowledge of what was “supposed” to happen imposed on sense of wonder and discovery. 

I’m not arguing the merits of either experience, let me be clear; I just want to point out that being not just untouched by entirely ignorant, or nearly so, of sexual matters is one experience appropriate to a historical heroine that a modern woman likely did not have but might wish to go through vicariously.  Another might be dominant/submissive roles (particularly male dom, female sub).  Maybe it’s not something you want to live, and maybe it’s something you find a bit offensive when considered in the modern context, but which you think is maybe a little sexy when it occurs between characters who consider it their cultural norm.

I think what breaks the tension between historical realism and modern sensibilities when it comes to the heroine’s relationship with the hero is respect:  does the heroine respect herself, does she respect the hero, and does he respect her?  If a woman is extraordinary either in her self or her experience, and she respects herself, she tends to demand respect from those around her.  There are more than enough historical examples to make it clear that that was as true 200 and 2000 years ago as it is today, so any worthy hero would extend his respect to her without stretching a reader’s credulity.  And if he treats her with respect because he sees her as a person independent from him, with thoughts and feelings of her own, then does it matter if either of them is breaking any of the accepted gender roles for their time and place?  No, because a story of true love rooted in mutual respect is a universal story–the story we seek in romance, in fact.

But what do you think?  Do you like to see what a modern heroine might do to an old-fashioned gent?  Do you prefer the stories that mirror in all ways the cultural norms for their setting?  Or do you prefer a mingling of the two, as long as the attitudes and behaviors are not anachronistic?

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Filed under Reflections on Romance

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