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
- Reluctant Heroes
- Anachronistic Behavior and Historical Inaccuracies
- Cliffhanger Endings
- Unattractive or Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroines
- Heroes With Mistresses or Who Sleep With Servants
- Drop-Dead Gorgeous Heroes
- Promiscuous Heroines
- Contrived Endings
- Waifs and Silly Heroines
- Long Separations
- Excessively Cruel Heroes and Heroines
- 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.