Strong Romance Heroines in Historicals
By Hope Tarr
I’m going to start off this post with a confession.
I’m hopeless at needlework.
Needlepoint, embroidery, knitting, or indeed anything requiring more sewing skill than replacing a simple button are beyond my ken—ditto for anything crafty such as scrapbooking, collaging, or wreath making. Scalloped edged scissors scare me. I’d likely go naked if I had to make a dress.
And yet I am inexorably drawn to write historical romances, love stories set in bygone eras in which gender roles were strictly circumscribed, where a woman’s worth was largely defined by her domesticity and not much else.
There have always been strong women, of course. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth—just a few of the many prominent female leaders of history and to a woman they had spines of steel. Sure, they likely picked up a needle or a loom from time to time. Poor El had to do something to pass the time during her imprisonment by husband Henry. A former slave, Sojourner’s sewing was born of necessity. But did they define themselves by the neatness of their stitches? I’m guessing not so much.
Why then have our fictional heroines in historical romance novels had such a hard time catching up?
By and large, romance novel heroines have been ladies of leisure, or at least ladies of leisure on the lam. Just as we couldn’t get enough of watching “Dallas” and “Dynasty” in the 80’s or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” today, wealth is exciting. While being wealthy is the dream, the American Dream, watching it comes in as a strong second best. Nothing expresses wealth quite as aptly as a beautifully dressed, beautifully manicured, beautifully coiffed woman doing absolutely nothing.
And yet in recent years strong female characters have begun to appear in more and more historical romance novels, not only as side-slapping supporting sidekicks but as actual heroines. On some level, there must be a collective recognition that “strong” and “capable” don’t have to mean buck toothed and broad hipped, that having interests and passions enriches all our relationships including our romantic ones, that self-determination directed toward the positive is sexy in women as well as men.
As a writer, that means I get to celebrate big time by writing the flawed yet fierce females I aspire to be. In VANQUISHED, the first of my Victorian-set “Men of Roxbury House” trilogy and my giveaway book for this blog, my heroine Caledonia—Callie—Rivers is a suffragette leader and the chief spokesperson for the current women’s suffrage bill about to be brought before Parliament. It was an important time. The British Women’s Suffrage Movement provided the template for efforts in the U.S. British women finally received limited voting rights in 1918 (female householders and spouses of householders over 30), but it wasn’t until 1928 that Parliament granted women the vote on the same basis as men. Callie is modeled after these real life women warriors, women who took grave risks and made enormous personal sacrifices to advance the cause in which they so fervently believed.
In my Victorian-set Pygmalion tale, TEMPTING, my humble dairymaid heroine, Christine Tremayne, may start off the story as a victim but she quickly raises herself to the status of a conquering heroine. In nearly the same breath, she confesses her love for the hero and her determination to be her own woman. The latter includes rejecting his proposal of marriage until he can accept—and love—her for who she truly is, not the creation he’s attempted to mold.
Christine shook her head, sad but resolved. “These past months, I’ve let you make a pet of me, mold me into your notion of what a proper lady should be. I’ve worked so hard to please you I’ve lost sight of who I really am, Christine Tremayne, the dairyman’s daughter, and proud to be so.”
Simon drew her toward him, the ring case falling onto the carpet at their feet. “You’re so much more than that. You can be anything you set your mind to.”
Even faced with the prospect of losing her, he wasn’t willing to accept her for who she was. Resolved, she got up to go. “I am who I am, and until you can value me for it there can be no thought of future for us.”
Strong women don’t mince their words.
Also From TEMPTING…
Left alone, Simon and Christine faced each other. “Will you sit, sar?” Christine asked, her gaze fixed on some spot beyond him, her slender hands folded in front of her.
“No thank you. I mean, not just yet. But please, if you’d care to…”
He started to draw out a chair for her, but she shook her head, sending a toffee-colored strand slipping free of its pins. The silky thread brushed the side of her face, touching just below her chin, and Simon had the almost irrepressible urge to coil the tendril about his finger.
But touching her, the new her, would be an enormous mistake. He wrapped his right hand about his left wrist and blundered on, “Miss Ashcroft informs me you’ve become quite the pianist.”
“I play…a little,” she conceded, and Simon was torn between tenderness and relief at the familiar little lost look her lovely face suddenly wore.
“A little?” he repeated, hard-pressed not to smile. “Play something for me now and we shall see just what a little constitutes.”
She shook her head, and another soft strand slid free. “Oh no, I mustn’t. I’m not nearly good enough.”
“Allow me to be the judge of that.” Before she could refuse again, he took light hold of her elbow and steered her over to the piano.
He dropped his hand from her arm with reluctance and stepped back to make room for her at the keyboard. Gathering in her skirts, she couldn’t help brushing against him. She smelled nice, delicious even, though he didn’t think she wore perfume, just the milled soap she’d used to bath.
“What is it you fancy?” she asked, not looking at him.
You, he wanted to say but of course that would never do.
Instead, he said, “Play whatever it is you play for the other gentlemen who call. Mr. St. John, does he have a particular favorite?”
Was it his wishful thinking or did she shudder? “I wouldn’t know, sar,” she answered at length. “I’ve only played for him once.” She reached for the thick volume of musical scores and began to page through, her fragile-looking fingers with their bitten down nails lifting each vellum leaf with reverent care.
Gaze riveted on the lovely line of her long neck, he leaned closer and poked a finger toward the open book. “Play whatever score it is you turn to next,” he said when she still couldn’t seem to decide.
The gods must be laughing at him indeed, for his selection proved to be the plaintive folk song, Lady Maisry. Listening to Christine’s sweet, quavering voice singing of the heroine’s illicit liaison with an English nobleman, Simon felt his resolve firm. He’d see her in a convent before he’d hand her over to some spoiled aristocrat who couldn’t begin to value her.
The idea, the solution came to him in a blinding rush, so brash, so impetuous, so far removed from his normal mode of thinking that contemplating it made him dizzy. He needed to return to the country to court his constituency. Christine, whether she realized it or not, needed to get away from London—and that lascivious lout, St. John—as soon as possible. Why not take her with him? The few London servants he’d bring along already knew her as his cousin and, once in the country, no one beyond his immediate household need even know she was there.
His gaze rested on Christine’s slender hands, the fingernails chewed to the quick, the cuticles and surrounding flesh as raw as freshly butchered beef. Imagining those small, endearingly battered digits stroking St. John, Simon felt his temperature flare—and his decision sharpen.
When she came to the part where the English lord bent to kiss his ladylove’s lifeless “red ruby lips,” Simon could endure it no longer.
“That will serve,” he snapped, swiping a hand across his damp brow.
She shot to her feet and stepped free of the bench, her body quivering like a bowstring. “I said you wouldn’t like it, that I wasn’t ready to play.” Beneath its fine dusting of powder, her face flushed, and he could make out the scar on her cheek.
The sight softened him. “Not above pride, I see, but it was the piece I didn’t care for, not your playing. And your voice is very sweet, too sweet to be wasted.” I won’t let anyone waste you!
Hands fisted on her hips, Christine shook her head. “I don’t understand you.” Her brown eyes, bright with welling tears, scoured his face.
Determined to land the blow as kindly as he could, he continued, “It is evident your tenure here has done you considerable good, and for that I applaud both your diligence and Miss Ashcroft’s capabilities. Be that as it may, I am no longer convinced that London is the best environment for shaping your mind—or your morals.”
$0.99 eBook | $17.47 Audiobook
Move over Eliza Doolittle…
“Pretty Woman” meets “My Fair Lady” in Hope Tarr’s Tempting
Simon Belleville knows he should take the pretty prostitute directly to Newgate Gaol. As an aspiring Member of Parliament, he cannot afford a scandal. But one glimpse of Christine’s lovely, tear splashed face has him faltering. Staring into her pleading amber eyes, he cannot subdue the sense that she is not at all what she seems. Though her expectations are limited by birth and circumstance, still she demonstrates a keen mind and a love of books and learning. Hoping to help her as once he was helped, he takes her home with him as his “cousin” and assumes the role of her guardian—and tutor. With a measure of patience and considerable good fortune, he will find her a position as a ladies’ maid, perhaps even a governess.
But Christine is not so easily dispatched. Charming, witty, and wise beyond her years, she proves to be a woman unlike any other, a woman capable of seeing through Simon’s polished facade to the shameful secrets searing his soul. As the heat in their private lessons progresses from a fledgling spark to full flame, Simon allows he has never before been so intrigued—or so tempted.
About the Author
A nominee for a Dorothy Parker Award of Excellence and two RT BOOK Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Awards, Hope Tarr is the author of fifteen historical and contemporary romance novels including TEMPTING, now available as an e-book for 99 cents and as an audio book on Audible, iTunes and Amazon from Dark Desires. She is also a co-founder and current principal of Lady Jane’s Salon (www.LadyJaneSalonNYC.com), New York City’s first—and only—monthly reading series for romance fiction. Visit Hope online at www.HopeTarr.com and find her on Twitter (@HopeTarr) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/hopec.tarr).
Leave a comment below answering this question for your chance to win one signed print copy of VANQUISHED: Strong women in historical romance—have they arrived or are they way late to the party?
Meet Simon & Christine (from TEMPTING) in VANQUISHED, the first in Hope Tarr’s Men of Roxbury House trilogy…
A devil’s bargain.
“The photograph must be damning, indisputably so. I mean to see Caledonia Rivers not only ruined but vanquished. Vanquished, St. Claire, I’ll settle for nothing less.”
Known as The Maid of Mayfair for her unassailable virtue, unwavering resolve, and quiet dignity, suffragette leader, Caledonia — Callie — Rivers is the perfect counter for detractors’ portrayal of the women a rabble rousers, lunatics, even whores. But a high-ranking enemy within the government will stop at nothing to ensure that the Parliamentary bill to grant the vote to females dies in the Commons — including ruining the reputation of the Movement’s chief spokeswoman.
After a streak of disastrous luck at the gaming tables threatens to land him at the bottom of the Thames, photographer Hadrian St. Claire reluctantly agrees to seduce the beautiful suffragist leader and then use his camera to capture her fall from grace. Posing as the photographer commissioned to make her portrait for the upcoming march on Parliament, Hadrian infiltrates Callie’s inner circle. But lovely, soft-spoken Callie hardly fits his mental image of a dowdy, man-hating spinster. And as the passion between them flares from spark to full-on flame, Hadrian is the one in danger of being vanquished.
Thank you to Hope Tarr for generously sponsoring this giveaway! Open to both US and International Residents; giveaway is open until 11:59 PM EST Wednesday, May 2, 2012.