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GUEST POST: An Essay on Working Heroines

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Like many romance fans, I recently read the newest book by Loretta Chase, Silk Is For Seduction.  Like many fans, I too loved it.  It is a great example of the qualities I look for in a romance: interesting characters, engaging storyline and witty, sometimes startlingly funny, dialogue.  It also seemed refreshingly different.  Now, I’ve been reading romances since the mid-nineties.  So I’ve read through the many tropes of the historical heroine – the TSTL innocent, the hoyden, the martyr, the virgin widow – well, you get the idea.  I have favorite books for all of these types but I think my favorite heroine is the heroine who has a passion for something other than the hero.

I want to read about a heroine who cares about something outside of herself.  This can be a job, a hobby, a cause, or a talent but I want to read about that drive to accomplish or create something.  I want to read about a heroine, like Marcelline Noirot, who makes things happen.   She is a planner and a schemer and you know whatever life throws at her she will control her destiny.  Her passion for dressmaking and designing defines her and the author uses Marcelline’s drive for success to develop her character and relationships.

In contemporary romances you would think this is easy to do.  Just give the heroine a career or job that she cares about and the author instantly adds depth to the character.  However, the trick is to use the heroine’s occupation in a meaningful way.  Author Sarah Mayberry excels at creating fully developed heroines who work and whose careers, or the loss of them, define them.  In her series romance, Amorous Liaisons, the heroine is an injured ballet dancer who has lost her career due to an injury.  The heroine in All Over You is a scriptwriter and is passionate about vintage clothing.  In Her Secret Fling the main character is a washed-up swimmer, who is adjusting to her new career as a reporter.   I loved Practice Makes Perfect by Julie James because the heroine is a successful attorney who doesn’t have to give up her career to find love.

In historical romances, of course, this is harder to pull off because of the constraints on women at various times in history.  Still, I have read historicals featuring heroines passionate about Egyptian antiquities, such as in Connie Brockway’s As You Desire, or the shipping business, such as in Liz Carlyle’s Never Lie to a Lady.   Daphne in Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible is eager to break the code of hieroglyphics and Juliana Merton in Miranda Neville’s The Wild Marquis, owns a bookshop.  When done well, the heroine’s hobby or occupation can be used to propel the story, create tension or flesh out the characters.

Lately I’ve been looking for historical romances that stand out from the crowd, that are out of the ordinary, whether through an exotic setting, a different type of character or an interesting subplot.  What a delight to read a historical with a working heroine.  Silk Is For Seduction satisfied my desire for something different this week.  But I’d love to read more historical romances with heroines who are passionate, even before they meet their hero.

Karla

 

Guest Reviewer

40 Comments

  1. Junne
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 05:44:17

    I agree with you. To me it is problematic if the H is the heroine’s only center of interest. What if he dies, or leaves? Then she’s condemned to the Bella Swan New Moon syndrome .

    I feel the same way with shapeshifter books, most of the time they have that “mate” thing going on
    which is kinda hot, because it ensures fidelity and love everafter, but also scary because they cannot live without each other. I mean, love is great, but so is work, family, friends etc.

  2. SH
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 06:47:32

    Hmmm maybe it’s just the kind of books I read, but I see this complaint all the time – so it must be true! – but I don’t often come across it. I read a lot of romantic suspense, and the heroines in those books usually have a career worth talking about.

    There’s Cindy Gerard, whose heroines do everything from international embassy work to broadcast journalism to social work to entertainment.
    There’s Kaylea Cross, whose heroines do everything from surgery to computer work for the CIA to social work.
    Others have well-rounded female characters too – Christy Recce, Shannon K Butcher, Suzanne Brockmann, Kylie Brant – well, I’ve not had problems with the heroines from my favourites.
    In straight contemporaries, there’re authors like Julie James – as you’ve mentioned. I tend to stay away from the ‘woman moves to small town to open cupcake-knitting-quilting shop’ books – but even in those I guess you could say the heroines have interests outside of the hero.

    I’m not a big Young Adult fiction reader, but I have noticed that younger women often request recommendations for books with obsessive relationships – they’re not interested in a hero or heroine who cares about anything outside of that kiddie twoo luv. It seems to be the ultimate for many younger readers.
    But even there you have books like Perfect Chemistry, where hero and heroine love each other dearly, but also have well-rounded lives beyond what they have together.

    Historical romance – I actually couldn’t care less about careers there, because I don’t enjoy how inaccurate and modern those books are becoming these days. However I don’t really enjoy much HR outside of Lisa Kleypas and the occasional Gaelen Foley book, so I can’t really comment on it.

  3. Annabel
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 07:12:01

    As soon as I started reading your post, I thought of Merlin in Laura Kinsale’s Midsummer Moon. Merlin is a scientist and inventor who’s trying to build one of the first airplanes. She makes connections others can’t and the funniest thing is the way current social mores and the social cues of her hero (a duke!) fly over her head because she’s just that invested in her work.

    What a genius character, and it makes the interplay between the h/h absolutely compelling and fascinating.

    She’s also not the tough-as-nails type working woman, a trope I dislike.

  4. Ros
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 08:05:07

    The heroine in Chase’s The Last Hellion is a journalist and is pretty passionate about her job.

    To me, this trope fits with the one of the undiminished heroine. I love it when the hero not only loves the heroine but expresses that love by helping her to be more herself and achieve more of her dreams than she ever believed possible. Rupert Carsington is a brilliant example of that, with the way that he not only admires Daphne’s intelligence but actively supports her in her intellectual endeavours.

  5. Darlene Marshall
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 08:09:22

    You might enjoy my historical, Sea Change. (Don’t just take my word for it, it’s a DA Recommended Read)

    The heroine, Charley Alcott, wants to be a doctor and practices medicine disguised as a man. She wants this before, during, and after meeting the hero. It’s what defines her and gives her life meaning, far more than her relationship with the hero does.

  6. Alexis
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 08:58:48

    Recently I read “Ten Ways to be Adored When Landing a Lord” by Sarah MacLean, and one if the things I really enjoyed about it was the heroine’s interest in something other than the hot guy who showed up on her doorstep. Isabel’s passions for Greek statues and providing a safe haven for women in need made her a more fully rounded character, and also gave her something to bond with Nick over. I like when heroines feel like real people, with passions and other driving motivations – other than “get married,” that is.

  7. Jane
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 09:13:13

    In contemporary romances you would think this is easy to do. Just give the heroine a career or job that she cares about and the author instantly adds depth to the character. However, the trick is to use the heroine’s occupation in a meaningful way.

    This is something I wish more authors in contemporaries would do. I think it would go a long way in establishing women as a stronger and independent characters. It does seem that you often read stories where the heroine has a career, but the entire focus during the book is on her emotional wellbeing and then the romance where the man is busy being a worker bee. Maybe this is particularly true in stories where the hero is “rescuing” the heroine in romances.

  8. Melissa
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 09:14:03

    I do enjoy historicals in which the hero and heroine have interests outside of each other. Having said that, historicals that present the heroine as an anachronistic, spunky career girl fall flat for me. Sure, show the heroine struggling to pursue something deemed outside the normal realm for women at the time. Just don’t give everyone in the Regency an outlook lifted from a Katharine Hepburn/ Spencer Tracy movie from the 1940’s!
    ETA: Nothing wrong with showing the heroine pursuing goals within the realm of women of the time, either… I mean, if you weren’t fabulously wealthy way back when, home and family were really WORK!

  9. Janet W
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 09:52:06

    What Melissa said, “I do enjoy historicals in which the hero and heroine have interests outside of each other. Having said that, historicals that present the heroine as an anachronistic, spunky career girl fall flat for me.”

    One of the reasons I have avoided reading the new Chase is because of the seamstress~clothing enterprise/duke storyline. It’s not that it can’t be done and done really well — like Julia Justiss’s A Scandalous Proposal. But the pitfalls of love across the class lines (when most aristocrats were landowners, concerned and involved with their estates) is often so minimized in historicals.

    If a heroine’s passion, like Anne’s in Jo Beverley’s Hazard, is consuming and part of her bones, then for me, she’s a compelling heroine. Why Beverley’s Beth, with her fervour for the rights of women, is a heroine that interests me more, over the Rogue series, than Eleanor, who is more of a homebody.

    My two cents.

  10. GrowlyCub
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 09:59:02

    We certainly had more ‘different’ in the early days (70s to mid-90s, settings especially), but I for one have a major issue with historical romances that have working heroines while still playing in the English aristocracy pool. For me, it’s either or. The Chase didn’t even make it on the buy list due to the fact that I like my historicals to at least have a smidgen of plausible/possible attached. A whole series of high ton aristos marrying their sisters/cousins/mothers’ dressmakers? Yeah, not so much.

  11. Sherry Thomas
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 10:31:12

    I am fortunate to be writing in a period (Belle Epoque) when more women than ever before pursued their own interests.

    I’ve written a businesswoman, a cook, a surgeon. And in my upcoming book, the heroine dreams of becoming–drumroll, please–a dinosaur hunter. And in the book after that, the heroine is basically the marketing and advertising director of the company she’d inherited.

    And yes, historicals, all.

  12. GrowlyCub
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 10:32:46

    @Sherry Thomas:

    Love the dinosaur hunter, is it written yet? Sold? Scheduled? :)

  13. MarieC
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 11:27:37

    @Junne: ‘Bella Swan New Moon syndrome’…I love it!

    I agree; I love when characters have strong personalities and interests (outside of each other, of course), as long as it doesn’t become overbearing or obsessive to the point of stupidity.

  14. MB
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 11:49:40

    I too like heroines that work and continue to do so in spite of the HEA.

    If you can find a copy, “Lady Elizabeth’s Comet” by Sheila Simonson is a great example of this type of heroine.

    Although not always romances per se, Dorothy Dunnett’s Dolly and the… series has heroines with interesting careers. Favorites of mine are Dolly and the Bird of Paradise and Murder in the Casbah. (Titles may vary depending on where they were published.)

    Both Jo Goodman’s ‘Never Love a Lawman’ and LaVyrle Spencer’s ‘Forgiving’ have heroines who keep their careers.

    I can think of more, but those came to mind immediately.

  15. Kim
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 12:47:27

    @GrowlyCub: Beguiling the Beauty by Sherry Thomas comes out next May. It’s the first book in a new trilogy.

  16. Melissa
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 13:20:36

    @Sherry Thomas:
    Can’t wait!

  17. Melissa
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 13:25:39

    @GrowlyCub: It’s not a romance, but you might enjoy Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Remarkable Creatures. Or maybe a biography of Mary Anning, one of the women fictionalized in Remarkable Creatures, a truly interesting woman who was a fossil collector/dealer in the early 19th century

  18. DM
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 15:15:40

    Great post!!!

    I love passionate heroines who have interests outside the hero–and there is definitely room for them in historicals–but the Romanceland version of the English Regency–the easiest setting to sell to publishers at the moment–isn’t really a great period for them. As Sherry points out, other periods have more scope for plausible iconoclasts, but apart from the Victorian age, publishers think these don’t sell.

    “Lately I’ve been looking for historical romances that stand out from the crowd, that are out of the ordinary, whether through an exotic setting, a different type of character or an interesting subplot.”

    Me too! And so is everyone else I talk to who reads romance–but the variety–at least as far as historicals go–seems to be getting narrower–not broader. I’ve often wondered if my romance-reading friends and the Dearauthor community are outliers–our taste is at the fringe of the mainstream–or early adopters–ahead of the general public reading curve.

  19. MD
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 15:20:58

    I second the recommendation for “Lady Elizabeth’s Comet” – it does a really good job with a heroine who is passionate about her occupation, but makes it work realistically within the class/society issues. I read the Chase, and I was very disappointed that the hero was a duke. This made the whole second half of the book unrealistic for me to the extent that spoiled the enjoyment (she can continue to saw even when married to a duke? really?). In that sense, the book made the career continuation unbelievable, and because her job was so much part of her personality, this made me more doubtful about her being happy when she becomes the member of the ton.

  20. Lily
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 16:10:51

    Laura Lee Guhrke’s Guilty Pleasures is a nice example of this idea of a working heroine (cataloging and restoring archeological finds). Loved it.

  21. JMM
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 16:14:53

    The “heroine with a cause” trope can be overdone, though. How many times have we seen heroines who live only to serve others? Many come off as complete victims. “Oh, no! I could NEVER take money for my Mad Surgeon Skillz; despite my $100,000 student loan debt!”

  22. Isobel Carr
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 16:37:33

    I loved Laura Lee Guhrke’s Guilty Pleasures, but I don’t think you could say that her job was her passion. It was the hero’s passion, and therefore of great interest to her, even before he’d realized she existed as anything more than an assistant.

  23. DM
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 16:59:45

    “The “heroine with a cause” trope can be overdone, though. How many times have we seen heroines who live only to serve others? Many come off as complete victims. “Oh, no! I could NEVER take money for my Mad Surgeon Skillz; despite my $100,000 student loan debt!””

    Ugh. Yeah. I hate those myself–but I honestly believe the kitten and orphan saving heroines come from a totally different place than the heroine with outside interests. Sometimes they wear the same clothes, so to speak–the brilliant explorer/surgeon/whatever–but there’s the version where the heroine’s passion is totally gendered–look how nurturing! caring! selfless! she is. And the version where she’s a whole person–not just a character performing a gender role. Sherry’s doctor heroine in NQAH really works for me, because she isn’t a doctor because of her nurturing nature. Hell, she’s not terribly nurturing. She’s a doctor because she is passionate about medicine. She feels authentic to me, because as any woman who works in a male-dominated profession knows, and as Terry Pratchett aptly puts it (paraphrasing here), you can be any gender you want in law/medicine/etc as long as it’s male.

  24. Jane
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 17:16:03

    @DM Agree. I don’t feel the heroine with a cause is the same as one that has outside interests about which she is passionate. In fact, I find the heroine with the cause to be martyr-ish in nature. Perhaps I am looking for more of a selfish heroine?

  25. DM
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 17:31:36

    @Jane

    I’m okay with a little selfishness! Women are programmed and expected to think of others first, so when a romance heroine says: I want something for myself, something that is mine alone–I think she becomes a lot more human and relatable–and the romance becomes much more real and satisfying for me. Again with Bryony–she wanted to be loved, but not at the cost of demeaning herself–and fine, that’s selfish on some level. But yay for selfish! Because the marriage she would have had if she’d been selfless and martyr-y and stayed with him and buried how much he had hurt her, wouldn’t have been any marriage at all.

  26. JL
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 17:43:16

    @Jane:

    I would suggest that you are looking for a relatable and realistic heroine more so than a selfish one.

    From the perspective of my own brand of feminism, I would argue that these cardboard cut-out heroines are who are meant to embody these traits of martyrism is just as negative for women as it are the Bella Swans. That women’s value and virtue can be reducible to something so singular extreme is unhealthy and unrealistic. I had to fight for my career in my relationship and yet I get up everyday and grumble that I have to go to work and daydream about quitting constantly, even though it’s my ‘dream job’. Millions of women do the same thing.That does not make us any less virtuous or deserving.

  27. JL
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 17:49:00

    wow, my apologies for not proof-reading my earlier comment before posting. There are a shameful amount of typos that I will blame on this nasty flu I’m fighting…

  28. GrowlyCub
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 17:49:25

    I call them ‘do-gooders’ and I run away from books who contain them (of either gender) as fast as I can. Along the lines of ‘if it sounds to be too good to be true…’

  29. GrowlyCub
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 18:39:30

    Man, I do know grammar, some days more than others, obviously… ‘books that contain’ /shakes head at self

  30. Barb
    Oct 25, 2011 @ 18:40:51

    I’ve enjoyed Rose Lerner’s two historicals because the characters actually work in trade.

    As for contemporaries, I get irritated when the h/h are supposed to be great at their careers, but seem to have all the time in the world to, um, frolic in the meadow.

    (Don’t get me started on the “My family is rich, but I’m great because I gave it all away. Nevermind that I’m pouting about not being able to buy more Prada.” No, I never read another book by that author.)

  31. KKJ
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 00:33:58

    I’m big on historicals, so realistic working women are few and far between, making it that much more fun when I come across a good one.

    I’m convinced that passionate heroines need heroes who are equally passionate about their education, profession or family responsibilities – or at least something other than The Penis. I love the “battle of wits” plots with the h/h equally matched in smarts and smart-assitude.

    In addition to Daphne and Rupert in “Mr. Impossible” and Isabelle and Nicholas in “Ten Ways to Be Adored” mentioned above, my other faves are…

    - Minerva (gothic novelist) and Giles (barrister) in Sabrina Jeffries “How to Woo a Reluctant Lady” – she’s a unrepentant smart-ass and completely committed to her writing. I love love LOVE the scene where Minerva begins to fall in love with Giles when she gets a chance to see his brilliance in action in court and realizes he’s not another aimless rake.

    - Meredith (innkeeper) in Tessa Dare’s “Twice Tempted by a Rogue” – she’s a widow who inherited her elderly husband’s inn, and she works her ass off to keep it running and dreams of expanding it into a major coaching stop. Unfortunately, the hero starts out as a moody, self-absorbed poophead, but she smacks him upside the head often enough to turn him into a tolerable human being.

    - Elizabeth (painter) and Hal (financier) in Julia Justiss’s “A Most Unconventional Match” – while not she’s not actually employed, the heroine is a gifted artist. The hero (oversized, stammering and painfully shy, yet completely adorable) woos her by encouraging her dreams of becoming a professional portraitist and exhibiting landscapes at the Royal Academy.

    - Louise (estate manager) and Charles (civil engineer) in Jenna Dawlish’s “Love Engineered” – I had to buy this short story for the title alone! The Victorian heroine is obsessed with science and engineering, and annoys the hell out of her family by only socializing with nerds who build bridges.

    - Brewery owners Annabelle in “A Hellion in Her Bed” (Sabrina Jeffries) and Margaret in “More Than Willing” (Laura Landon).

    Most of the time, contemporaries irk me because the heroines’ so-called “jobs” are just a weak plot device to get them in the vicinity of a hot lawyer, doctor, venture capitalist or rock star. Yawn.

    Of the contemporaries I’ve read so far, I’ve only found one working heroine who really impressed me – “Call Me” by Lena Matthews (first of a trilogy) has Kayla, a telecommuting computer programmer who invents a new sex toy. It sounds ridiculous, but the character is so funny and so believable. The big plot conflict is her determination to get her invention patented and into production, while struggling with prototype testing (!), financing, marketing plans and the patronizing attitude of her otherwise dreamy BFF-to-lover boyfriend.

  32. KKJ
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 01:20:03

    Almost forgot – I second the recommendation for Tracy Chevalier’s “Remarkable Creatures.” That was a one-sitting, kids-eat-PBJ-for-supper book trance.

    Which also reminds me to mention my love for Victorian Lady Detectives, especially Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series – I’ve read them all at least five times.

    I love Lady Julia because of her wacko family (including a lesbian sister, a younger brother who moonlights as a brothel physician and a death-and-mourning obsessed aunt nicknamed “The Ghoul”) and because she teaches herself chemistry to learn how to blow things up with homemade explosives.

    But I’m a fanatic about this series because Julia’s husband/partner Nicholas Brisbane is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever read. Their relationship is endlessly complicated – in the most positive literary sense, because it’s a great source of both drama and romance, and it’s still evolving and growing six books into the series.

    I also like Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily Ashton series – similar basic set-up with a young widow investigating the murder of a husband she barely knew. Along the way, she becomes a self-taught expert in all things Greek. The hero in this series is a bit more generic and the drama seems a bit manufactured, but I’m really looking forward to the latest release because the plot sounds fantastic.

  33. Evangeline Holland
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 06:12:33

    Like Sherry, I write historicals set in the Edwardian era, so I have a much, much larger scope in which my heroes and heroines can play. However, there is a catch-22 to giving heroines–and heroes–professions, particularly in historical romance. Too often (and I work hard not to fall into this trap) professions are used as short-hand characterization. Make a heroine a “ball-busting bitch” by making her a CEO. Make the hero a wealthy playboy being giving him a career in sports. And so on and so forth. I’d rather my CEO heroine seen as a “ball-busting bitch” by others to deepen her characterization as an intelligent woman unfairly caught in gender stereotypes. Or my football playing hero someone who can’t say no to groupies because he has boundary issues. Etc! Characterization and Plot should use a profession, not a profession using it.

  34. Rachel Randall
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 07:51:50

    Great post — I’ve just bought Silk is for Seduction on your rec because, yes, I’m looking for something different this week, damn it.

    I love Connie Brockway’s The Bridal Season because the heroine Letty Potts has so much going on (is con artist wedding planner a profession?), and The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, with the fab estate manager Lady Alys, is also a keeper.

    Actually, would love to read more about estate manager hero/heroines…anyone got any recommendations?

    ETA” Aha, just saw one such rec above…excellent!

  35. Isobel Carr
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 11:20:39

    @Rachel Randall: Her Man of Affairs by Elizabeth Mansfield. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

  36. Rachel Randall
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 12:47:50

    @Isobel Carr: Brilliant, thanks, Isobel :)

  37. Sherry Thomas
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 16:32:09

    @GrowlyCub: Just want to clarify that she wants to be a dinosaur hunter, but isn’t a full-fledged one yet. (Wouldn’t want you to expect you’d meet her w/ a pick in hand.) :-)

  38. Susan/DC
    Oct 26, 2011 @ 21:24:57

    What annoys me about a working heroine is when she is presented to us as a world class neurosurgeon/lawyer/rocket scientist in Chapter 1 and then once she meets the hero her career is not mentioned again. It takes drive and passion (not to mention smarts) to get to the top of any profession, and I expect to see some of that commitment even after her introduction to (to quote KKJ) “The Penis”, otherwise why include it in the first place. A heroine doesn’t need to have a job, but if she’s got one, then it should play a role in her life other than to insure she’s in the right place at the right time to meet Mr. Right.

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