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Is the guardian/ward trope an incest fantasy in disguise?

Last summer, I ran a poll about the brother in law trope, one that I like a lot. Many readers were turned off by this trope because, for them, it rang a little too much of incest for them. This got me thinking about incest in romance and what other tropes have that feel to them. Two that I can think off the top of my head are guardian/ward stories and stepsibling romances. Romance has a long history of coded incest stories, the most overt being the menages involving brothers perhaps started by Lora Leigh and her disturbing* Men of August series.

The Men of August series starts out with Marly’s Choice, wherein Marly

She had loved him forever. Since she was fourteen, thrown on him by her mother, his stepsister, in a desperate bid to hide Marly from her stepfather, Jack Jennings.

Cade, the man Marly loves/lusts for, is her stepbrother.   According to Cade,

He had raised her, loved her, but he had always known she wasn't a blood relation.

Note here that it is not the familial relationship that Cade is concerned with but the blood relationship.   This point is made again in a discussion between Cade and his brother, Brock:

"She's a grown woman, Cade. You can't keep her a baby all her life," Brock told him quietly. "And the way she looks, if that boy ain't having sex with her now, he will be soon."

"How can you talk about her like that?" Cade turned on his brother wrathfully. "We raised her, Brock."

Brock was silent for long moments, then Cade heard the deep breath he drew into his lungs.

"Yeah, we raised her, but she's no blood of ours, Cade. If I didn't know how hard you got every time you looked at her, then I'd have already tried to get her into my bed."

Central to the conflict is Cade’s disgust for his own sexuality and his fear that it will taint Marly.

He looked the same as he always had. The same gray eyes, the same overly long black hair and tanned features. But he knew what lurked just beneath the surface. The monster he fought on a daily basis.

Regardless of whether a reader likes the Men of August series, the fact is that these are accepted texts within the romance genre.   Lora Leigh is a perennial bestseller on the New York Times bestseller list.   She has never disclaimed these books nor has the concept of incest kept her away from approving of the Men of August in her bestselling Nauti series.

But Leigh is not the first to write about the guardian/ward trope.   This is a long and historied tradition.   In Forbidden Fire by Charlotte Lamb, Daniel has raised Louise since her mother and his father died when Louise was eight.   After their parents death, Daniel promised to himself to Louise:

From the very first she had been the centre of the household. An only child, Daniel had been amused and touched by her openly expressed; adoration of him. Her frail beauty as a child had made him protective. The three years of marriage between their parents had passed in a whirl of golden happiness.

The storm of tears which shook her had shaken him, too. He had kissed her wet little face, his mouth warm on her wet eyelids, closing the wild blue eyes, ‘Don’t, darling,’ he had whispered. ‘I’ll always be here . . . you belong to me now.’

She had gone to sleep with that promise as her com fort, her face worn to a white glaze by tears, and as the long years of her childhood passed in the sleepy security of Queen’s Dower Daniel’s whispered words had taken on for her the proportions of an oath.

But Daniel resists and not necessarily for the reasons you may think:

‘It’s madness,’ he said huskily. ‘I’m twice your age . . . you’re too innocent to realise . . . We’ve been so close for so long. I’ve taught you to ride and swim and drive a car, I’ve been your whole family for so many years. I can’t take advantage of your affection for me. It would be criminal!’ He ended almost bitterly, then spun on his heel and strode out of the room.

Later thirty-five year old Daniel tells seventeen year old Louise that he has been waiting four years for her to grow up, implying that his guardian love for her transformed into a more adult feeling when Louise was about thirteen. Admittedly, the text doesn’t really indicate that Louise is a seventeen year old like today’s seventeen year old.

In The Rebellious Ward by Joan Wolf, Catriona goes to live with Edmund, the Duke of Burford’s family, at the age of nine.   Edmund is her guardian and plays the paternal role for 6 months out of the year.   They fall in love:

Catriona laughed softly and dizzily. “Oh, Edmund,” she said. “I love you so much.”

“I didn”t know.” His long fingers traced the line of her cheekbone with delicate precision. “I thought you regarded me as a big brother and I have been trying for months quite desperately to keep you from seeing that my own feelings were not brotherly at all.”

“Well, you succeeded only too well.” She flashed a brilliant smile. “I”ve been utterly miserable. I thought you loved Sophia Heatherstone.”

“I was trying to cloud the waters.” He looked down into her upturned face. “I”ve been in love with you since you were ten years old. Isn”t that a disgraceful thing to admit? Only I didn”t realize it until I returned from France in November. You threw yourself into my arms, and it hit me then quite catastrophically that you weren”t a little girl any more. I wanted never to let you go.

From respected and accepted publisher Loose Id came the story of The Punishment of Nicollet, the incest overtones so strong I could not finish the book. In researching the book for the post, I noticed that the publisher has added a warning:

Publisher's Note: While Jack and Nicollet have no blood ties and their relationship is fully consensual, some readers, particularly those with a history of sexual abuse or incest, may find this story disturbing.

As one goodreads reader noted, it didn’t matter that there was no blood ties. What mattered is the way in which the hero viewed himself vis a vis his “niece.” The constant personal angst was excused, in the end, by the lack of blood ties. Like Cade, in Marly’s Choice, the hero believed it was wrong for them to be together. This is an NSFW excerpt so I’ll put it under the spoiler tag:

[spoiler]
Jack's thrusting was getting more urgent but just as she was bracing herself for the thick, salty blast at the back of her throat that she knew must be coming, he suddenly pulled away.

"No." His chest was heaving like a bellows and the look in his eyes made her shiver. "No, God damn it," he repeated, his deep voice little more than a growl.

"Why not? Please, Jack, wasn't I doing it right?" Nicky looked up at him, still on her knees, as he shoved his still hard cock back into his jeans with some difficulty.

"We can't do this, Nicollet, I'm like an uncle to you." He reached down and hauled her roughly to her feet. "I fucking raised you, Nicky." His eyes were tortured but the bulge in his jeans hadn't gone down a bit, she noted.

[/spoiler]

Finally, who can forget Shades of Twilight by Linda Howard. There is so much incest going on in this book, that it might as well be the canon for Literotica. First all, there was the bad incest wherein the villains have sex with each other knowing that they are father/daughter. Then there is the good incest wherein cousins, Roe and Webb, fall in love and live happily ever after. Roe and Webb’s blood relationship is somewhat convoluted. Roe is the granddaughter of Lucinda and Webb is the nephew of Lucinda. I think that makes Webb and Roe first cousins once removed.

This is not meant to be a judgment on individuals or their reading preferences. I am not a fan of the overt daddy/daughter play that took place in the Punishment of Nicollet and the Lora Leigh Men of August series disturbed me because of how it was portrayed.

The issue of incestual relations seems to be separated by the blood bond. So long as the individuals aren’t bonded by blood, it isn’t morally wrong. Yet, family bonds are created by far more than blood although adoption does seem to be verboten at times in romance (all these stories of fertility problems in contemporary romances yet no thought given to adoption). Some readers indicated that the brother-in-law trope bothered them because it seemed incestuous.

My point here is that I wonder if some of these tropes don’t play, even mildly, with the forbidden concept of incest. Certainly all the characters except those in Howard’s book, believe that there is some “wrongness” associated with their coupling and that is often what provides the emotional conflict. Some of the most powerful romances involve the forbidden.

*Disturbing less because they involve brother sharing and more the justification for sharing which I always thought sounded like the justifications of a sexual predator.   “My daddy issues made me do it.”

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

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