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There is not a more common hero archetype in historical romance than the “rake”. In my early days of reading, I always viewed the “rake” as a sign of virility of the hero. In romance novels, the women titter about the rake’s scandalous reputation while parading their young in front of him. The adage “rakes make the best husbands” is passed as truth. In this post, I am making the case that the rake isn’t a very heroic trait.
What does a rake really signify? There’s the saying “every man wanted to be him and every woman wanted to be with him.” To be a rake meant that you really made no effort to turn anyone down. A rake is a man with few scruples. He sleeps with widows, married women and often engages in dalliances with young unmarried women and certainly has sex with courtesans and maybe even whores of a lower class. A rake is really a man with little honor. By sleeping with married women, he engages in cheating. By seducing the young unmarried women, he places his desires in front of their reputation, the most important thing a young girl had. By dallying with servants, he takes advantage of someone who really can’t say no. How many books have we read about the beautiful governess who is hassled by her employer. The fact that a man is a rake doesn’t mean he is good in bed, it mainly means he’s indiscriminate. Yet, for some reason, being a rake is something virtually celebrated amongst romance books.
One of my least favorite Suzanne Enoch books (and she’s an author I like quite a bit) is Sin and Sensibility, published in 2005. The book opens with the hero getting a blowjob at a ball. He’s drinking whiskey while getting serviced, as if it isn’t anything more commonplace that sitting in the waiting room waiting for one’s oil to be changed. As he is drinking his whiskey and observing the crowd, he presses his hand to the back of the neck of the married woman fellating him. The coldness in this scene had a visceral impact on me. I literally, from the first page, began to hate the hero. Later, after he walks around the ballroom, he notes:
As he left, he glimpsed several young ladies following him with their eyes. It was something he was used to, and offering the chits a slight smile, he memorized the faces for future reference. One never knew when one might become bored with faro.
The heroine’s brothers are good friends with the hero. Why? I’m not sure. Why would you allow this person into the bosom of your family? At least Deverill, the hero in Sin and Sensibility, displays his rake-like nature for the readers. Oftentimes, the rake never acts on his rakish past during the pages of the book. He’s just given the “rake” trait as others talk about him. In other words, the readers are told that he is a rake but we aren’t shown he is a rake. Because a rake’s actions aren’t very heroic.
I can’t remember when I started turning against the rake, began to see this usage as something dishonorable rather than attractive, a trait from which the hero must be redeemed. In One Forbidden Evening, Cybelline seeks out Ferris because he has the reputation for being a rake. She wants anonymous sex with someone who won’t ask questions, who didn’t care to know her identity, who wouldn’t have any real moral qualms about the setup of having sex with a woman at a masquerade when she doesn’t even want to take her mask off. Ferris wants to be offended by this but he knows he’s at fault for building up the rake reputation because it provided a decent camouflage.
Carolyn Jewel has two books wherein the hero’s “rake” behavior actually works against him. In Lord Ruin, the hero is found in bed with the heroine and even if the brother would like to prevent the marriage, the hero’s reputation is so scandalous that if the heroine doesn’t marry him, the hero will be ruined. In Scandal, the hero’s penchant for whoring and cheating prevents him from having the one woman he really wants. The entire book is given over to him changing his ways, trying to become more responsible, convincing the heroine that he is worth the chance.
Many readers dislike Sebastian in To Have and To Hold by Patricia Gaffney because he acts despicable. He basically rapes Rachel. He says that she can either sleep with him or go to the gallows. He hands her over as a sexual gift to one of his dissolute acquaintances. He is, in short, a villain. The story is of his redemption; his climb from the very depths of execrable character to become a person worthy of Rachel’s love. Sebastian is a true rake, someone so dissolute that buying a woman from the gallows to serve his sexual needs is nothing.
I think the “rake” is one of the examples of shorthand in the romance genre where authors use it to make the hero exciting, dangerous, and virile. It’s something an author tells us but what does the author show us about a rake hero? How is being a “rake” a good thing? and if it isn’t a good thing, then shouldn’t the fact the the hero is a rake something he should overcome/come to terms with?
Do you like the rake hero? What does it mean to you? Do you think my interpretation of the rake is wrong? or too extreme?