Historical Romance Deal Breaker #8: Promiscuous Heroines

Literally decades of reading historical romances have led me to develop strong opinions of what defines a truly satisfying story, so the other day I set about making a list of characteristics that turn a potential five-star read into a one- or two-star. Admittedly, there are some skillful authors who manage to successfully incorporate one or more of these scenarios in their books; however, I have run across quite a few more who in my opinion haven’t quite managed it.

These are what I call “deal breakers”—characteristics that make a book a wall-banger instead of a pleasurable diversion. Not surprisingly, many involve character, particularly, the character of the hero and heroine. They have to be likable. They have to be three-dimensional, i.e., well-drawn-out characters with flaws, not fairy princesses. And they have to be able to fall in love, convincingly, the head-over-heels kind of love.

Overview of Susana’s Historical Romance Deal Breakers

  1. Reluctant Heroes
  2. Adultery
  3. Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
  4. Cliffhanger Endings
  5. Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
  6. Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
  7. Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
  8. Promiscuous Heroines
  9. Contrived Endings
  10. Waifs and Silly Heroines
  11. Long Separations
  12. Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
  13. Breaking the Rules: Why Some Authors Get Away With It

Historical Romance Deal Breaker #8: Promiscuous Heroines

Unmarried women in historicals—especially Regencies—should be virginal, or at least the next thing to it. It’s not fair, but women who slept around were considered sluts in the early 19th century, by the upper and lower classes alike, and gently-bred young ladies were chaperoned so closely that they had little or no opportunity for sexual experimentation.

But you wouldn’t know it by the number of stories I’ve seen lately where young ladies walk out on the terrace and allow their escorts all sorts of liberties that would terrorize any gently-reared Regency innocent. Okay, perhaps a kiss is acceptable, so long as the gentleman has honorable intentions.

One book I read took place at a house party where young ladies and eligible gentlemen were crawling into each other’s bedrooms; there were adulterous liaisons, some involving ladies and male servants. No respectable Regency parent would allow his daughter to attend such a ramshackle houseparty in the first place, let alone leave her unchaperoned long enough to be despoiled by some licentious rake.

Don’t get me wrong: proper young ladies are allowed to have the normal desires and passions of youth; they simply are not allowed to indulge them until after the wedding (or close enough to it). What I mean is, to a Regency young lady, her reputation is of primary importance. Any gentleman who is interested in her must understand that she is not simply another barq of frailty who can be molested and then discarded as he sows his wild oats.

That’s one big difference between historical and contemporary romance. In a historical, the romance must be the focus. Sexual tension: yes. Sexual experimentation: not so much.

Widowed heroines should be virtuous. In other words, they do not take advantage of the freedom allowed by their widowed status to indulge in discreet affairs. At least not with anyone but the hero, and only then when their relationship has deepened into love. “Willing widows,” who have had multiple affairs before the hero comes along, tend to leave me cold.  Reeks of contemporary. Who’s to say the hero isn’t just using her like all the rest? Not romantic.

Now, I’ve seen heroines who were forced into prostitution find love and redemption with an understanding hero. A talented author can do it. The trickier part, however, is dealing with the attitudes of society with such a pairing. While Charles Fox did indeed marry his mistress, she was never accepted in society, and I’m sure many a high-stickler gave her the cut-direct when they crossed paths. Such a situation has the potential of casting doubt on the credibility of the HEA. To pretend that unpleasant scandals of the past can be completely wiped away as though they never existed is just not realistic.

In the more sensual historical romances (and erotica), as opposed to the traditional Regencies, authors can take more license with these social mores. And, as I’ve said in previous posts, there are a few authors who are skillful enough to break the rules and still leave the reader sighing contentedly. But more often than not, when I run across heroines who are allowed to sleep around without parents or chaperones noticing, I just want to throw the book against the wall.

Because if I wanted to read a contemporary romance, I wouldn’t buy a historical one. Jeesh.

What do you think? Am I expecting too much of my passionate heroines?

*Disclaimer: This series of “deal breakers” is meant to refer to books labeled historical romances, and not to erotica, which is a completely separate sub-genre and has an entirely different purpose.

7 thoughts on “Historical Romance Deal Breaker #8: Promiscuous Heroines

  1. Similarities and differences in dislikes–or why don’t more authors avoid the things we hate?

    Just read your post on Goodreads about your blog. Was attracted to it because I, too, have a mental list of “Can’t anyone write a romance without….” I have a “general” dislike list for all romance. Like excessive longing! Lordy, paragraph after paragraph, page after page of thoughts and feelings about how much the h or H desires the other, is riveted by the other’s body parts, or can’t stop thinking about how becoming involved with the other is bad or hopeless. “Enough already! Get on with it!” I’ve gotten to the point I simply can’t tolerate these.

    Historical romance is my favorite genre and I also have a list of things I hate related specifically to historicals. Your number 2 is number 1 on my list. Like you, my list of hated anachronistic writing includes 21st century h’s. Women doing things they would never have done then–heck, things women would never have done in 1955, forget Regency England. Like virgins who pull the hero onto the floor and start trying to tear off his clothes. ANd get into fellatio the first or second time they have sex.

    But I also dislike H’s who are TOO 21st century, feminist H’s in Regency England. I like to see a man with a little bit of sexism, particularly at the beginning. If I want to read about contemporary characters I would read contemporary romance. Regency men were all sexist.

    Finally, I abhor contemporary language and concepts. Most Regencies are replete with people talking about traumatic stress, saying things like “that was then, this is now,” or using words that weren’t used until the late 20th century. And what about all of these H’s who are 6″4″ or taller? Give me a break! In 1812?

    I haven’t read many historicals that are cliff hangers but sure I would hate them. I actually don’t mind a reluctant hero except for the fact that it is SO overdone, although I don’t like him to wait until the very end to feel differently. And I prefer the plot line of Laurens’ novels in which we have reluctant heroines instead. God knows, getting married then could be a very big risk for a woman. I dislike the historicals which have heroines who are sexually aggressive. If it’s my fantasy, I want him worshiping my body more than I’m worshiping his. This sexual aggressiveness is also anachronistic, at least for gently bred ladies. Again, this would not have happened in 1955, forget hundreds of years ago,

    I don’t like heroines, however, who never before felt real desire for a man until they meet the H. Well, maybe if they’re fourteen. But are there really nineteen-year-olds who have never been strongly attracted by a man? I guess the reasoning might be that the woman has never been allowed to be close enough to a man to desire him but, hey, you can desire a man you don’t even know.

    I can think of very few situations in which I would consider adultery an appropriate behavior but I can think of a few. I can forgive a hero who is still seeing a mistress in the early stages of THE love relationship if he has not yet accepted the fact that he is falling in love with the heroine. In fact, this is where I would differ from many romance authors and readers I think. To me someone can have sex without love. Now once a person is really swept away by love, one would never have any interest in DOING anything about it. But, early on? It’s different. In fact, I actually like the Krisen Ashley (contemporary) romances in which there is always a hot second man chasing after the heroine and she can still feel a frisson of attraction to him, can even enjoy a kiss from him, although she is too much in love to want it to go any further. A much more complex, and to my mind, realistic character although I realize other women may feel differently.

    Drop dead gorgeous heroes and heroines do get boring. I read a novel once, I think it was a Laurens, in which both H and h were gorgeous and they meshed really well because they both understood what it was like to have all one’s admirers have a fantasy about who they are rather than getting to know them. That was good. You’re right. I wouldn’t want a boyfriend who was a perfect 10. And, don’t you love the “series” in which there are 10 gorgeous men? How many perfect 10’s are there out there after all? I guess if they are close relatives it is a little less strange, eg. the Cynsters. Of course, I can forgive Laurens most things. 😉

    No, not fat heroines though curvy ones can appeal. Women should be at least a six on a 1-10 scale. I mean, who WANTS to have a fantasy in which they are only a 4?

    Which relates to another complaint I have. Why are most h’s, particularly in historicals, short? I am tall, I cannot imagine being short. So, it cuts into my buying into the story if it emphasizes things related to being short. I don’t know why all of these tall men fall for women who don’t even come up to their chins. And I can’t imagine that a 5 foot tall woman can enjoy having sex with a 6’5″ man with a huge penis. Not a fantasy of mine! I also get tired of all of these heroines–particularly historicals but also others–in which the heroines have red hair. And all these heroines who are feisty, impulsive, outspoken and abjure all conventions. Such heroines can be good but heaven help us there are other interesting women. THis lady is getting VERY boring as she now stars in hundreds and hundreds of novels.

    Well, I’ve gone on too long already. I’ve been working on writing a historical novel myself in which I would avoid the things I dislike. Have drafts of several but not happy with any of them yet. I’ve not read any of your books yet but will give them a look since you seem to want to avoid things I dislike.

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    • Good points, all. A few I haven’t dealt with yet. I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets fed up with some of this stuff!

      I don’t have anything published yet; my first Regency short story was just accepted for publication on Friday, so it will be out in a month or two, I imagine. Friend me on Facebook (susana.ellis.5) and we can keep up with each other’s work.

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      • I recently read a blog where a historical author claimed that because engagements were as binding as marriage in Regency times, engaged couples could and did engage discreetly in sexual behavior before marriage and it was condoned because they were soon to be wed. Really?

        While I am certain that such things did occur–human nature being human nature–I cannot believe it was condoned in society. For example, what if the future bridegroom keeled over dead before the wedding and the bride turned out to be with child? Did society condone that? Ha!

        And engagements could be broken, although there were certainly consequences for doing so. Seems to me in some cases, the consequences of doing so must surely be less than suffering a lifetime being married to the wrong person!

        A heroine may make a mistake–being human, after all–but if she’s having sex behind every bush and/or doing it with more than one guy, sorry, that’s a wallbanger for me.

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  2. I’ve stumbled upon your blog through onr of your goodreads comment. Well dsecribed~! 🙂
    I don’t like “Promiscuous heroines”, especially when they’re courtesan who (in the end) married their aristocrat lovers (and people are okay with that!), so I tend to avoid such stories.
    One of the courtesan stories that actually works for me is Mary Balogh’s “Precious Jewel”. They did get married, but they lived in seclusion with only close friends calling on them.

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    • I LOVED “A Precios Jewel”. But you’re right: there were consequences for their HEA, and the books that ignore those turn me off too. I actually have an unfinished ms about a prostitute, and that’s something I’ve had to deal with too.

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  3. I agree 120%. This is one of my biggest pet peeve. I guess part of the problem for me is that I keep starting to read what I think is going to be a historical romance and it turns into erotica.

    It bothers the heck out of me. I’m a historian and it just makes me pound my head into the table.

    I also have to say I’m not a fan of the explicit that seems to be par for the course in a lot of ‘romance’ fiction, historical and otherwise.

    I wish books had ratings systems with warnings – like movies. I remember being about 14, having read everything in the kids section, everything in the young adults section that interested me, picking something from the fantasy romance section. The problem was that it contained explicit graphic sex that not-so-charmingly had quite dubious consent.

    How can you know which books are going to have rape or BDSM or indeed explicit erotica – they’re all turn-offs for me and I’d like to be able to avoid them.

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    • Check the heat rating. Most books these days have them. There are still sweet (kisses-only) romances out there. If you like Regencies, check out the Cotillion line at Ellora’s Cave. I know—Ellora’s Cave sounds like the place you definitely want to avoid. But believe it or not, they do sell sweet stuff too, including mine!

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